Dutch and Danish researchers have just presented a study at the 10th Equitation Science conference in Edinburgh that will be of critical interest to all dressage riders.
Here is the full media release that landed in my email in box this morning, with my comments in italics:
Equitation Science: ‘The Road Ahead’ Ten minutes of Low-Deep-and-Round may result in acute stress responses Dutch and Danish researchers presenting at the 10th Equitation Science conference currently underway in Edinburgh, Scotland, have found that compared to other head and neck positions, horses ridden in hyperflexion, or “low deep and round” are likely to be exposed to higher levels of physiological stress.
Me: Notice that they tested 10 minutes. Many, many dressage horses are held in that position for longer than 10 minutes…
Also note that this head and neck position – hyperflexion or “low deep and round” is rollkur by another name. They changed the name to take the sting out of the outrage experienced by horse lovers everywhere at the time of the blue tongued horse video clip.
Previous studies explored the effects of the hyperflexed head and neck position on the stress and behavioural responses of horses on the lunge or a treadmill.
This study measured a variety of behavioural and physiological responses of horses ridden in hyperflexion and two other common head and neck positions. 15 Danish dressage horses training at medium to Grand Prix level and routinely ridden in the hyperflexed head and neck position were used. Me: notice that these horses were already used to being ridden in this frame so it was not a sudden stress that they were measuring.
In addition to hyperflexion, low deep and round, the standard “on the bit” or competition frame and loose frame in which there was less tension in the reins were also investigated.
Each rider performed a pre-determined riding test of 10 minutes duration in walk, trot and canter in each of the three head and neck positions, randomised over the three days of testing. Heart rate, heart rate variability, salivary cortisol concentration, behaviour and the tension in reins were recorded during the 10-minute test period. Salivary cortisol concentrations were measured 60 minutes before and 0; 5; 15 and 30 minutes after the test.
“This study is the first to test whether there is an acute stress response to the hyperflexed head and neck position in horses ridden in a typical training environment” said Dr Machteld van Dierendonck from Utrecht University. “We found that the increase in salivary cortisol concentrations from baseline were significantly 2 higher after 10 minutes of riding in the hyperflexed position than the increases observed in the competition head position or with the loose frame.
“ Cortisol is known as the ‘stress’ hormone and increased cortisol concentrations are routinely used to quantify stress responses in animal welfare studies. Me: And stress is cumulative, each stress adding on to the one before – and although I won’t use this article to inform you of the way the brain and body processes stress, enough stress will start to cause physical body breakdown.
Also, even more importantly, constant stress – even low levels of stress – will eventually result in the cortisol switch in the body staying on – causing on going tension that can no longer switch itself off. This inability to switch off cortisol is something I see often in my healing work.
Cortisol is a hormone and when you upset one hormone often enough, then you upset the whole endocrine system balance. Cortisol is part of the endocrine system which also governs digestion (colic, stress founder and other digestive upsets), brain chemicals (feelings of happiness, except in this case the opposite of happiness), there are even hormones that are involved in the beating of the heart.
“We didn’t find any significant differences in heart rate, and heart rate variability between the treatments, but we did find that certain behaviours were higher during hyperflexed riding than the other head positions. Rein tension during the hyperflexed and competition head position was significantly greater than during the loose frame position.”
“Compared to previous studies which have used side reins to maintain the hyperflexed position, the low, deep and round position in this study was less hyperflexed.” she said. “We wanted to test the horses’ response to this method in a typical training environment. Within the parameters of this training situation, we found that the use of the hyperflexed head position, even in horses routinely ridden this way could result in a physiological stress response as measured by salivary cortisol concentrations.”
“Interestingly, riders indicated a loss of balance and steering control in the loose frame”. Me: That was my highlighting here! Balance and a beautiful soft, rhythmic stride – all the elements of SELF carriage comes when a horse is in their comfort zone. The OPPOSITE of a comfort zone is when a horse is secreting cortisol from stress. When you add the comfort zone work to the stuff I teach the rider about a magnetic connection in the saddle – you have magic for dressage riders! You get all this – a horse in self carriage and a magnetic connection in the saddle from my 8 month on line course From Your Horse’s Heart – you get a soft, happy, dancing horse ready to go on with…
Head and neck positions has been the subject of controversy with the FEI conducting two reviews in recent years.
This study was a joint work with Danish and Dutch universities. Janne Winter Christensen from Aarhus University in Denmark, along with Mirjam van Dalum, Mandy Beekmans from Utrecht University were joint researchers on this study.
The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship. www.equitationscience.com For more information contact: ISES President Prof Paul McGreevy email@example.com (+61 423 464 505)
Me: Well folks – there’s the science for it. Hyperflexion, “long deep and round” or rollkur – whatever name you call it – it mentally, emotionally and physically damages the horses. Well we already knew that, but now there is the science to definitively prove it.
Watch this space folks – there is an incredibly exciting development coming up on this website where someone we know, has come up with a brilliant idea for making a difference for horses in the area of equine competition!
Later edit – that was the GoldStar Scholarship won by Hannah Rivard