FEI's Rollkur decision a 'missed opportunity' for reform

March 3, 2010

Dr Robert Cook

An equine veterinarian says the FEI has missed an opportunity for reform in its recent decision over hyperflexion.

A group of FEI officials said last month that any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable, and aggressive riding must be sanctioned. It also said the technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR), which achieves flexion without undue force, is acceptable.

But Dr Robert Cook, who has studied the behavioural and physiological effects of the traditional bitted bridle, says the FEI is dodging the issue "by changing the name of the shame."

"'Low, Deep and Round' is simply a synonym for 'Rollkur,' hyperflexion and over bending," Dr Cook said. "'Rollkur' by any other name smells just as rotten. A semantic sleight of hand will not stop this regrettable practice."

Dr Cook is a graduate of Britain's Royal Veterinarian College, and former head of equine surgery at Tuft's University veterinary school in Massachusetts. He is now Professor of Surgery Emeritus at Tuft's.

He said guidelines already exist over the degree of poll flexion in the FEI rule book, "and it is one easily monitored by stewards in the warm-up ring.

"The rule book requires a horse to be 'on the bit.' Part of the FEI's own definition of this phrase reads: ' ... the head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical ...' So I agree that, in this respect at least, there is no need to change the rule book. All that the FEI has to do is to abide by it.

"'Low, deep and round' transgresses the rule book. It also transgresses the injunction that a horse be "calm, supple, loose, and flexible ..." and "must not be subjected to any training methods which are abusive or cause fear."

Dr Cook has also questioned how the FEI would define "undue" or "aggressive". "Such words merely provide loopholes through which any lawyer could drive a double-decker bus. Furthermore, it is noted that in commending 'low, deep and round' [the FEI is] quietly substituting the word 'flexion' for 'hyperflexion.' Yet LDR involves hyperflexion and this is not a physiological position for a horse's head to be in during forward motion. Even at the walk, no horse at liberty would choose to place its head in such a position."

"The statement, '... the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider' is an abrogation of the FEI's responsibility. Are they washing their hands of any requirement on their part to promote equine welfare? If so, they renounce the primary justification for their very existence.

"The question should have been determined on the basis of the scientific evidence, not by consensus. By all means let's have a debate, preferably an open debate. And after the debate, let the decision be based on the evidence of equine anatomy and physiology. Scientific truths are not determined by majority vote."

What do you think about the decision?