Today I Rode in ROLLKUR

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Yes.  Me, super classical, anti-BTV, anti-Rollkur advocate.  I did it, literally for a total of about 30 seconds.  I wanted to see firsthand what riders feel to make them think it is so great.  Lightning will probably strike me down and I pray my horse forgives me.  But I learned something.

OK, let me back up a bit.  I’ve been having some great rides lately.  Soft and relaxed, my gelding is really starting to bring his back up to my seat.   Biomechanically speaking the spine lifts only a small amount but this is the colloquial way of stating it that most people understand.  It’s really about the flow of energy and our perception of motion over the whole topline.  But I won’t go into all that now. 

So we warmed up a bit at the walk, encouraging energy and straightness as we usually do.  A bit of lateral work to get his hind reaching under.  Then to the trot.  The transition to the trot, when we do it well, feels like a powerful yet gentle wave hitting me from behind.  Imagine standing in the ocean with the water at the level of your hips.  The wave of energy hits you and as the trot progresses, each stride pushes softly against your back and hips.  You use your core to stay upright and float over each stride.  It’s light and comfortable.  You don’t have to kick the horse forward.  There is no feeling of your seat bones crushing your flesh into the saddle, there is only energy absorbed and emanating from your hips.  It truly comes back to front and you feel the bow of the horse’s spine upwards from the lumbar to the withers.

My rein connection is light but effective.  My horse is allowed to move his head, look around, open his mouth, or do pretty much whatever as long as the hind stays engaged and he stays in balance.  I adjust the connection as we go to keep a steady communication going.  I use my corridor of aids to keep him straight.  If he gets distracted and starts to hollow, my seat reminds him to stay engaged.  If he falls to the forehand and the connection gets heavy, I half halt to correct the balance.  This is how he learns self-carriage. 

Anyway, back on the subject at hand.  A couple of times during our ride he got a little on the forehand and his neck curled a bit toward his chest, nose behind the vertical.  A horse will do this all on their own due to a loss of longitudinal balance.  But instead of correcting him through my seat and engaging his hind to bring it more under and his fore up, I closed my fingers, stiffened my arms and just held him there to see what would happen. 

The effect was immediate.  Instead of that nice upwards bow of the spine, I felt the withers and thoracic portion of the spine stay up, but the lumbar portion that was previously lifting the back of the saddle fell completely away.  I could feel his hindquarters fall out behind me.  My immediate reaction was to kick as we lost the flow of energy, but the impulsion was gone.  The smooth ripple of waves was gone.  In order to restore the engagement, while still holding the reins tight, I had to really get after him and push him to move forward.  Even still it was not as smooth or comfortable.  We went the length of one long side and I let go.  On the next long side, I again held him tight to convince myself that what I felt was not a fluke.  Again, the withers indeed felt like they came up, and the hind fell out backwards.  The engagement was gone.

That was enough to convince me.  I immediately went back to my normal connection, and asked for the correct engagement.  Frustratingly, it took about 10-15 minutes to undo that 30 seconds.  He kept putting his poll low and curling, falling forward.  I simply kept him straight and continued to ask for engagement with my seat and legs, making my seat light to encourage him to relax his back. 

Eventually we got the flow of energy going again.  There was, however, another unexpected side effect.  My previously calm, relaxed horse was now a hot mess.  Spooking at everything from a car driving by the ring to a tiny sparrow that flitted across the ground in front of us.  Thirty seconds was all it took to upset his physical and mental state.  Imagine a horse ridden in hyperflexion all the time.  We cooled down quietly to a good place and ended the session.

My little experiment was very enlightening.  It proved the biomechanical theory which counters the Rollkur argument. That theory says when you pull the horses head to the chest, you force the nuchal ligament to stretch.  This ligament is attached to the spinous processes of the withers, and putting pressure here causes those processes which are normally slanted towards the horse’s tail end, to stand more upright.  This is enough to give a false feeling of lift in the shoulders and thoracic area of the back, when in fact the trunk drops between the shoulders and the back hollows. 

I understand more now of why riders think this Rollkur or low-deep-round technique works.  It instantly gives you a feeling of the shoulders lifting.  However, it is not the relaxed bowing up of the entire spine that comes from the swinging flow of energy and impulsion.  It is a mechanical manipulation of the bony structure of the thoracic spine.  It disrupts the flow of energy rather than enhance it.  Thus you see over and over again the pulling of the head down and in, coupled with banging of the legs and spurs each stride to maintain the forward momentum.

It also tells me there is a huge gap not only of knowledge, but also of feel in today’s riders and trainers.  I’ve heard clinicians say that you have to keep the head down in order to engage the horse’s abdominal muscles and hind.  That’s just not really physically possible for the horse.  And, clearly, if they believe this, they have never felt the hind truly engaged and the back lift up with freedom and elasticity.  That’s very sad because it is the most exhilarating feeling, and once you feel it you don’t want to do anything to disrupt it.  So I can only conclude they have never felt it and they are being fooled into thinking they have when they are in reality missing so much. 

It’s no wonder so many people these days don’t “get” dressage.  They are missing the best part.  Don’t ride in Rollkur.  Just. Don’t. Do. It. 

©Effective Equestrian, LLC and Carole Curley

[Picture from Adobe Stock Images – not me or my horse]

Carole Curley