Dressage horses competing in the 2008 World Cup had their head tucked in for longer than those who competed in the 1992 Olympic dressage classes, research has shown.
The findings add fuel to the debate over whether dressage has done enough over the years to address welfare concerns around hyperflexion.
A growing number of studies have raised welfare questions over potential muscular and breathing issues arising from riding horses with their heads tucked in behind the vertical – the position which gives rise to the greatest controversy.
A team of researchers set out to determine whether the head angulation of elite dressage horses had changed in the last 25 years, and whether head angulation correlated with the competition score awarded.
The study team used videos recorded during the Grand Prix test at the 1992 Olympic Games and the 2008 World Cup Final to measure head angle in the horses. They focused on the collected canter, collected trot, passage, and piaffe.
Head angles were found to be behind the vertical in the collected canter and collected trot in 1992 and 2008.
However, the likelihood of the head being behind the vertical during passage or piaffe was significantly greater in 2008 than in 1992.
Higher scores correlated significantly with head positions that were further behind the vertical during the piaffe in 2008. Head angles were behind the vertical in all paces in 2008, whereas in 1992 this was only the case for the collected trot and collected canter.
“These findings support the hypothesis that, in recent years, FEI dressage judges have not penalised horses for a head position behind the vertical,” Willem Back and his colleagues wrote in The Veterinary Journal.
“The findings also support the need for further studies of the effects of head and neck position on the health of horses.”
Back was joined in the study by Morgan Lashley, Sandra Nauwelaerts, J.C.M. Vernooij, and Hilary Clayton.
Since 2008, the FEI has toughened its position on hyperflexion, also known as rollkur. Any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is considered unacceptable.
The FEI also defined the technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR) as flexion achieved without undue force, making it acceptable.
Comparison of the head and neck position of elite dressage horses during top-level competitions in 1992 versus 2008
Morgan J.J.O. Lashley, Sandra Nauwelaerts, J.C.M. Vernooij, W. Backe, Hilary M. Clayton.
The abstract can be read here.