Dressage horses ridden with greater neck flexion show more resistance, German researchers have found.
In addition, they found that riders tended to demand greater flexion from their horses during the warm-up phase than in the competition arena.
German researchers Kathrin Kienapfel, Yvonne Link and Uta König v. Borstel, writing in the open-access journal, PLoS ONE, noted that much controversy existed among riders regarding what could be considered an “appropriate” head-neck position, especially so in dressage.
The trio launched a study to assess the prevalence of different head-neck positions and the behavioural reactions of horses during warm-up and in competitions, as well as the relation between the head-neck position and marks achieved in competition.
A total of 171 horses were selected during dressage competitions according to their head-neck-position, with each slotted into one of three categories based on the degree of flexion.
Their behaviour was recorded during three minutes each of riding in the warm-up area and in competition. The footage was then analysed.
In the second part of the study, scans were carried out on an additional 355 horses every 15 minutes to determine the proportion of each head-neck-position in the warm-up area.
Kienapfel and her colleagues found that 69 percent of the 355 horses were ridden with their nasal planes behind the vertical in the warm-up area, 19 percent were ridden at or behind the vertical and only 12 percent were ridden with their nasal plane in front of the vertical.
Horses carrying their nasal plane behind the vertical exhibited significantly more conflict behaviours than horses with their nose held in front of the vertical, they said.
They found that horses were commonly presented with a less flexed head-neck position during competition compared to warm-up.
A head-neck position behind the vertical was penalised with lower marks in the lower competition levels, but not in the higher levels. Also, horses in higher classes showed more conflict behaviour than those in the lower classes, they found.
They noted that about 90 percent of all dressage horses were ridden in the warm-up area with the nasal plane behind vertical – that is, in a style which does not conform with the rules of the FEI (FEI-Rules, Chapter 1, Article 401, 5).
This posture, they said, seemed to cause significantly more conflict behaviour than head-neck positions in front of the vertical.
The trio noted that riding styles, and in particular horses’ postures during riding, were subject to welfare debates.
“In the past years there has been much discussion regarding the so-called ‘classical’ and the ‘modern’ riding style,” they said.
“With regard to the head-neck-position, the ‘modern’ riding technique is also referred to as rollkur, hyperflexion or LDR (Low, Deep and Round).
“It has been practiced at least as early as the 17th century. The ‘classical’ riding style was summarized and codified in the German military regulations from 1912.
“These regulations include the rule that the horses’ nasal plane should be slightly in front of the vertical.
“Today, both riding techniques are used. However, especially the ‘modern’ technique is a controversial issue and there is an urgent need for an objective assessment of its implications.”
They cited previous research showing horses ridden in rollkur or LDR showed more signs of discomfort, such as tail-swishing, abnormal oral behaviour and ears fixed back, than horses ridden in ‘normal’ poll flexion with the nasal plane mostly in front of the vertical – a posture also termed as ‘competition frame’.
“Horses not only express higher levels of discomfort when ridden in rollkur-posture, they also avoided rollkur, if given the opportunity. One study suggested that a reason for increased discomfort during rollkur may be the restricted vision. The latter has also been held responsible for more pronounced fear reactions due to higher levels of arousal or anxiety in horses ridden in rollkur-positions compared with normal poll flexion.”
Discussing their findings, the trio said that, regardless of the competition level, horses exhibited more conflict behaviours the more the head was kept behind the vertical.
“Other studies obtained similar results, supporting the assumption that a strongly flexed head-neck position is perceived by horses as uncomfortable.
“Contrary to claims by some practitioners and/or scientists, the lack of an interaction between head-neck position and level indicates that a strongly flexed head-neck position has similar effects on the horse, regardless of whether it is achieved by a more or a less proficient rider.”
Commenting on the greater conflict behaviour when horses were ridden with flexion behind the vertical, they said: “Since this effect was observed regardless of the competition level, it is suggested that the flexed posture itself rather than the rider’s skills or the training level of the horse is the main factor inducing conflict behaviour.”
Kienapfel is in the Department of Animal Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity, at Ruhr Universität Bochum. Link is based at the Institute of Animal Breeding and Husbandry, Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel. Uta König v. Borstel is from the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.
Kienapfel K, Link Y, König v. Borstel U (2014) Prevalence of Different Head-Neck Positions in Horses Shown at Dressage Competitions and Their Relation to Conflict Behaviour and Performance Marks. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103140. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103140
The full study can be read here.