08 March 2017

My apology to Western Equitation and the evils of Rollkur

Lifted from "The Mugwump Chronicles" a Word Press blog.

Before I begin this rant, let me relate something I learned from one of my massage clients.

A woman owned a very lovely Arabian stallion. She’d bred and raised him. He was a complete gentleman. She could hand breed him or let him out with his mares. She could lead him past a mare in raging heat without him turning a head or a hair.
He was gentle as a lamb, beautifully bred, well conformed, and perfectly trained.
He could not win in the show ring. 


Well…then..as now…judges didn’t want to see a gentle, quiet, gentleman of an Arabian stallion. They wanted to see a hyped up psycho on a lead, racing into the show ring on hind legs, eyes bulging, nostrils wide, screaming his head off, dragging his handler by the lead rope. They wanted to see flash and insanity, not a well-trained, quiet horse. A horse galloping, spinning, kicking, bucking was far more entertaining than a quiet stallion you could reliably put a toddler on. 

The tales of an Arabian stallion (or any gender) being artificially jazzed up  before ever entering the show ring…with drugs, whippings, insertion of foreign objects into its anus…are not apocryphal, or even anecdotal. They are true. It’s all to win a piece of fabric. 

The owner was excused from a show ring on more than one occasion because her stallion wasn’t insane. She was accused on more than one occasion of ‘sedating’ him. WHY sedate a quiet horse? She retired him from showing because she was disgusted with the expectations of a registry more impressed with insanity than horse training. 

To continue:

There are times when I have to admit I am wrong.

Now is one of them.

In the past, I’ve been a fairly harsh critic of “western equitation”. Most especially, I’ve disliked, vociferously, the WE’s fashion for the horse to go ‘low and slow’. Their horse’s gaits are so very slow, slow enough that a lame human like myself can easily keep up on foot beside a ‘’’jogging’’ (trotting) Quarter Horse.
What I disliked most, though, was the fashion for ‘peanut rolling”. 

Well, at least he's on a loose rein

This was the form they approved of, one where the horse’s nose is a mere handful of inches above the ground. I could always tell, just by ear, when a Western Equitation class was being held in an arena, just from the coughing of the horse.

I still don’t like it, because it appears to me as if the low hanging heads were forced into that position.
Now I wonder if I was wrong because of typical bias, or wrong because while I’ve heard that the way they’re ‘trained’ is by tying their head high the night before a show, I’ve never actually witnessed it.  Somehow, though, I believe that it’s forced carriage. While a horse at liberty does carry his head relatively low, it’s not THAT low. 

In the past few years, I’ve heard that WE judges have changed their positions and now want to see a higher, more traditional head carriage, and a more natural speed of trot and canter. This is good news, and more power to them.
My bias has showed in my failure to attack the opposite position, that of rollkur , an affectation that is now common in upper level dressage. (This was not intentional. I don’t have the opportunity to see upper level, international dressage.)  
Is this a happy horse? NOT. His rider is a VERY famous and professional rider. This is "rollkur'.

 “Rollkur’ also known as ‘deep’, took the dressage world by storm. No one protested, because deep pocketed donors liked it, and famous riders and trainers did it. Suddenly, the horse that was ‘deep’ was winning despite not being correct.  In rollkur (I won’t go into the biomechanics of it too deeply), the horse’s head is sharply overbent, in some cases, the horse’s chin is literally touching it's chest. (as in the photo above).
WHY this occurred is beyond me. Was is it to give the impression of collection? Obedience? (to me, it looks like abject submission.) Acceptance of the bit? Or, was it more one of “that is so cool looking”? 

I think it is the latter. Dressage people, it appears, are no more resistant to a fad than any spangled, teal colored  spandex ‘western’ body suit than any Western Equitation costume designer. Flash wins ribbons. 
Butt ugly, but that's what wins ribbons. Don't think the clothing manufacturers wouldn't love to convince the FEI to accept shit like this in the gravy train of  dressage.

Like my friend’s Arabian stallion, substance, gentle, proper training and presentation gets the gate.

What is even more offensive is that several people who should know better, went all aboard on rollkur. It’s one thing to say, I want my horse to look like this because I’ll do anything-even hurt the horse- to get the prize.  It’s another, offensive thing altogether to say, if you don’t agree with me then you are obviously a moron. It is utterly criminal for the judges to flop over in acceptance of rollkur, in complete denial of the very rules they are hired to adhere to. 

Dressage ideology used to be based on the concept that things like collection must be achieved correctly and NOT by the use of force. Perhaps in the days since I learned about the basics of dressage, that has been dismissed. Perhaps the line about a horse’s head being ‘vertical’, neither ahead or behind the bit, fell off the page as the regulation was being printed. It certainly is being ignored by FEI judges.

Rollkur is, in reality, ‘overbent’ to a ridiculous degree. The rollkur horse is so far behind the vertical (aka behind the bit) there IS no ‘vertical’. It’s ‘diagonal’. It is achieved, in many cases, by bits that are decidedly NOT a ‘simple snaffle’ or a curb. 
No, they look at this monstrosity:
I see three sets of reins, and this 'double bridle' doesn't look very gentle.

Being ‘overbent’ or ‘behind the bit’ allows for higher movement in front, yet another concept of dressage being subsumed by flash. Now you see upper level horses (like Moorland Totilas) doing “high school’ movements in the same vein as Spanish riding.  I remember watching the World Equestrian Game’s horses in freestyle dressage…and Totilas won, I believe, by his high stepping.  

 This was NOT what I learned of classical dressage in the 70’s. In those days, balance, harmony and symmetry was the desired picture, not the  high stepping (in front and shuffling in back ) of a circus horse. But…when big money/big names take on a fad, even the FEI is not immune to the pressures.

As seems to be the case in competitive horse showing, dressage people are no different from the WE folks in going to extremes. Here’s a photo of a horse being ‘trained’ into carrying its head in “rollkur’.

This is not 'training'. It is  TORTURE.

 How different is this from a Western Equitation horse I saw being ‘trained’ by having her head tied by the bit to the cinch of the western saddle on her back? Was this ‘suppling”? Is this picture showing a horse ‘in training’? No. (note, too, how gaunt he is).

This isn’t ‘training’. It’s TORTURE. There’s not a bit of difference in the mindset here: force a horse into a physical position. Not one whit. Different flavor of horsemanship, but still-forcing a horse to hold its head in a way unnatural and uncomfortable, all for the sake of fashion, is CRUEL. It is abuse. It is certainly not Horsemanship. 

Now I begin to see that the WE folks, perhaps, weren't alone in training their horses to go in a specific head carriage for fad reasons, although I can’t think of a good reason for it, any more than I can justify rollkur.  In a nutshell, I believe in allowing a horse to carry his head like he wants. 

So. To the Western Equitation folks, I apologize. I was wrong. I was being a snob. If your horse rolls peanuts WITHOUT BEING FORCED, more power to him…and you.
So now we come to Raven.

Sue and I have been riding Raven on a very loose rein for about a year.
Raven has a long back, so it is difficult for him to shift his weight to his hindquarters. He’s heavy on the forehand. In addition, he had a heavy, ‘upside down’ neck, coming from that heavy on the forehand work. 

Sue came to the realization that Raven wasn’t happy with the typical collection, or being on the bit. 

So she let him have his head, literally. We’re still making him ‘work’ but not “in a frame”. By allowing him to trot, canter and mostly walk on a relatively long, relaxed rein, we are seeing something interesting: his neck has slimmed and has, over time, become arched. His back is coming up underneath us, and he is carrying himself. The underside of his neck is no longer bulging out. Allowing him to ride with his head down allows his back to come up, his weight shift back and his forehand to lighten. 

Here is how it works:
This is the mechanics of equine movement.

Most importantly, he has stopped ‘arguing’. This is not to say they were fighting, but Raven would not ‘listen’ to Sue. 

When she gave him more rein, his resistance stopped. He began to dance with her. His head came down and his eye brightened. 
To add: this is how a natural lowered head looks, and how Raven is traveling now.

Now I’m not saying he’s peanut rolling. Far from it, literally. He’s carrying it where he wants to carry it. The difference in his attitude and happiness is amazing. He always has been a good work horse, always ready to be ridden and worked. But now he is happier, in ways I cannot elucidate. Is it ‘pretty’? That depends on your definition of pretty. I think seeing a horse carrying himself, with a calm tail and a happy face, is far more attractive than a wired up horse in chains.

 I took a lesson on him a while ago, and the trainer kept urging me to take up more rein. I found myself holding onto the bit with hands of iron, and I don’t like that. I didn’t feel him ‘seeking contact”. I felt myself with a rock hard grip on his mouth. He took it without complaint, but I..I felt guilty afterwards.

I came to the conclusion that, if furthering my education in riding dressage means using the reins as a weapon, well, then, I’m not going to. If dressage has become nothing more than an overly expensive fashion show, I am out of here. 

I will still ride to the ancient precepts of dressage: harmony with the horse. WILLING obedience on the horse’s part, me doing MY job of carrying myself and working WITH him, not against him. Most especially, I won’t FORCE him to do something that might Look Good but isn’t in his best interest.

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