Rollkur: Facts, Fiction, and Horse Health Implications

Rollkur: Facts, Fiction, and Horse Health Implications

New research confirms that hyperflexion causes a slight airway obstruction; however, van Weeren reminded all non-natural neck positions cause airway obstructions, but don't result in a lower oxygenation level in horses' blood.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

There is a copious amount of controversy surrounding rollkur, also known as hyperflexion of the equine neck, but science is providing us with some facts that one equitation scientist said reveal that this position could be wrongly criticized. That said, the researcher stressed that there’s no compelling evidence that the technique should be implemented into training arsenals until additional research on the subject is completed.

Researchers have never fully tested in a scientific setting the discomfort, stress, injury rates, respiratory difficulties, and back problems frequently attributed to hyperflexion, and thus, these factors can only be considered assumptions at this point, said Paul René van Weeren, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, professor in the department of equine sciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

But recent research using new technology, including special treadmills for studying detailed biomechanics in motion, now suggests this controversial position is probably no more harmful than the standard vertical head position required in dressage competitions, he said.

"Thus far, there is no compelling scientific evidence based on which using the hyperflexed position can be condemned," said van Weeren during his plenary lecture at the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands.

In fact, hyperflexion actually showed improved range of motion in the horses' backs, which could be beneficial to the horses' musculoskeletal systems and performance, he added. "From a biomechanical point of view, inclusion of this (hyperflexion) position in training amplifies the range of exercises, and it could be that it indeed aids in the measurable gymnastic action of the horse, although we haven't proven that," he said.

The new research confirms that hyperflexion does cause slight airway obstruction; however, van Weeren reminded that all non-natural neck positions cause airway obstruction. Hyperflexion, he noted, does not appear to cause a more severe obstruction than any other unnatural head position. Also, the non-natural neck positions do not result in any difference in the oxygenation level of the horses' blood, he added.

"Yes, we influence air resistance in hyperflexion, but we do it all the time when we're riding a horse," he said. "But there aren't any negative effects of that."

Through these new technologies in the new field of equitation science, research can finally put some science behind the traditional points of view that have, until now, been based merely on observation, van Weeren said.

While these early rollkur scientific study results shed interesting light on its effects on horses, van Weeren said it's still far too early to make general conclusions about its safety. "Of course, (saying it can't be condemned based on science) is absolutely not the same as saying it should be used," he said. "There is also no compelling evidence that it should be used."

In particular, he said, while the position itself might not be dangerous, the training method used to obtain the position certainly could be: "(Hyperflexion) may be useful in the hands of a professional. It may be very harmful in the hands of a nonprofessional."

Until further research can be completed, van Weeren said he fully supports the Fédération Equestre Internationale's (FEI) position on hyperflexion. "For the time being, the approach taken by the FEI after the 2010 Round Table Conference on the issue, in which not the position itself but he way in which it is achieved is judged, seems most viable," he said.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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