The use of extreme or hyperflexed head and neck postures have no place in the training of horses, the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) says in a new position statement on the issue.
The debate around hyperflexion, or rollkur, has been ongoing for years, particularly in dressage, but the position statement notes that such head and neck positions can also be seen in other disciplines.
The 14-page statement concluded: “When balancing the gymnastic effects with the evident costs of impairing equine welfare, there remains little reason why the use of extreme/hyperflexed head and neck postures in equine training should be considered an acceptable practice.”
The position statement was introduced to delegates at this year’s ISES conference in Vancouver, Canada, by the University of Sydney’s Professor Paul McGreevy, a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine with a special interest in animal welfare and equitation science.
The society said riders, trainers and sports officials must be aware of the gradual effect of flexion on horse welfare and ensure that head and neck postures did not compromise physiological or psychological function.
“Maintaining an open airway and ensuring the horse is self-maintaining the posture (rather than it being enforced by the rider/trainer and/or tack or equipment) are essential,” it said.
“Extreme or hyperflexed head and neck postures are not acceptable.”
The position statement said riders, trainers and sports officials must be aware that psychological compromise – due to perceived vulnerability as a result of vision impairment and/or stress as a result of enforcing head and neck posture – occurred well before physiological compromise.
The society recommended that FEI dressage rules emphasising the maintenance of a craniofacial profile at or in front of the vertical at all times be prioritised.
However, it noted: “Although dropping the poll and coming behind the vertical should attract penalty if seen in dressage competitions, the criteria that the judges use to interpret the FEI rules for the desired head and neck position appears to have changed and, rather than being considered a fault, head positions behind the vertical are being rewarded, especially at the elite level.”
Turning to research, the statement said: “Based on the substantial number of scientific studies on the impact of hyperflexed head and neck postures on horse welfare, the knowledge gained from these studies and the physiological and psychological compromise they cause, ISES does not call for additional research on hyperflexion.”
However, further research may be warranted on the physiological and psychological effects of lesser degrees of flexion and extension, it said.
The position statement said the long, mobile necks of horses evolved to allow efficient feeding and drinking.
In many horse sports, the head and neck posture resulting from the relative positioning of the neck vertebrae and the poll were given high priority, and was typically manipulated via rein tension.
“It is common to see the horse’s neck either extremely flexed or extended in a wide range of disciplines including (but not limited to) cross-country, dressage, driving, reining and showjumping.
“In many cases, these positions cannot be self-maintained by the horse either at all or for any length of time. There is substantial evidence that head and neck postures such as these have a negative impact on horse welfare,” the society said.
Head and neck posture in the ridden and driven horse was typically integrated in the training of the horse’s mobility responses.
Because negative reinforcement depended on the release of pressure, the ability of the horse to maintain a particular head and neck posture that was appropriate for the stage of training without continuous or high rein tension, was fundamental to maintaining welfare, the society said.
Rein-tension research suggested that, in equitation, horse head and neck posture was often deliberately enforced by the rider instead of being self-maintained by the horse.
The society said it was important to note that the impact of head and neck postures on the horse differed depending upon where the change in angulation between anatomic structures occurs.
“Extreme flexion in any of the head and neck planes can result in soft tissue damage and skeletal pathology.
“It is obvious that judgment of horse welfare in relation to head and neck posture in a given situation is not trivial.
“There is substantial evidence that significant welfare issues result when there are extreme alterations of the angle of the atlantooccipital [the poll] joint and uneven separation of the cervical vertebrae.”
The society found that the consequences of alterations to head and neck posture have been suggested in studies to include upper airway impairment, pathological changes in the structures of the neck, impaired vision, physical and psychological stress due to physiological compromise, and stress due to rider intervention, especially if the posture is enforced.
Historically, there had been a lack of comprehensive and universally descriptive definitions, the statement noted. Names assigned to the position included overbending; going deep; riding deep; very deep; long, deep and round (LDR); low, deep and round (LDR); a narrow frame; ‘biting the chest’; rollkür; hyperflexion; extreme flexion; and deliberate extreme flexion.
The ISES said it had found 55 published studies dealing with horses’ head and neck posture, 42 of which evaluated the impact on welfare. It found that 88 percent of them had concluded that hyperflexed head and neck postures negatively affected equine welfare.
The full position statement can be accessed here.