Sunday, June 7, 2009

Essay on LDR: Do we really need to be that showy?

Okay, so with me and my inexperienced hands, I was not too fond of getting a Pelham bit like Greta's former owner used on her. Greta has a nice sensitive mouth, and I was afraid I might turn a bit like a Pelham into a torture device with my hands right now. Of course, Greta had been used as a polo "pony" so a Pelham was more like an extra set of brakes than anything. Still, not exactly what I am used to right now.

So, I got her an eggbutt bit. We're still working on getting back on the bit, but one of our good friends who was trained by a German instructor from the Vienna Riding School will begin working with me and Greta tomorrow (Monday) so I won't be all alone on this!

But still, I got to thinking last night, in dressage, do we really need a bit? Shouldn't the contact with the horse be more about how I sit in the saddle and use my seat and legs than about how much pressure I can put on her tongue? Seat and leg usage are one of the foundation principles of dressage, not how hard you can tug at the bit, right?

So that gets me started on "rollkur" or "hyperflexation" or "low/deep/round" whatever you wish to call it. My personal opinion: it looks really showy on the outside, and it really just gives the rider more than enough control. A dramatically arched neck and foamy mouth (which I think having a horse splay it's saliva all over itself is far from attractive, it's disgusting) is a lot more noticeable and than a horse who's just bending at the poll, even though that is a much more reasonable limit on how a horse's neck should bend.

But what's the science behind this rollkur? Is it just crazy animal activists going after it because it causes some minor discomfort to the horse, but in fact it's not that bad... or is it really that bad? My opinion: it's really that bad.

But I did some research. In Dressage Today they had a great article on bitless bridles a while back that did a nice breakdown of why the rollkur method is accepted in the higher levels of dressage and also how a bitless bridle could benefit a horse just as much, really so long as it was the right horse. Also, a link to an interview by Horse magazine with Sjef Janssen, who is a very notable figure in European dressage: in essence, he's the genius who developed the rollkur concept. He does have some good points on how the rollkur helped one of the first horses he trained, because the horse responded to it better. Yes, that particular horse did, because he was supposedly difficult and needed more control (however a horse with a "sensitive mouth" shouldn't need that drastic of measures and doesn't sound like a problem horse, I would think more of a horse with a hard mouth and a nasty attitude). I don't feel this could work for every single horse. A horse with as soft of a mouth as Greta, for example, does not need such a method, not like I would have the heart to do it whether she needed it or not. Her poor mouth would become as hard as getting a doctorate degree.

But still, I can't give as much credit to a man who began riding at age twenty-eight and, from what I interpreted form the reading, in-a-ways taught himself despite the fact he had the resource of Spanish Riding School graduate instructors. But no, their practices were meant for more "bulkier horses" (like the very flexible Spanish breeds and Moor breeds that originally did the earliest forms of dressage. Very bulky horses. Very.) Sjef claims that modern dressage horses are "more like athletes, and should be treated like athletes". So basically he means to say that we as riders and/or trainers should treat our horses the way some coaches treat their athletes and push them to very limit to where they have sufficient problems later on in life, or, like another common fad right, jack 'em up with steroids (let's cheat!) Anky van Grunsven, though I love, love, love her freestyles routines, practices the same methods. She was also taught by Janssen and is even married to him. Cute couple. Salinero, from what I understand, was a difficult horse. So of course the rollkur method would work wonderfully. But it still gives absolute, if not too much, control to the rider.

That is another part that bothers me: the absolute control. Does a rider really need that much control though the bit? What happenened to getting the horse to want to listen to you, and to listen to you through the seat and legs?

So now, regardless of whether or not the horse is difficult to handle, I also found the physical effects of rollkur to be appalling. Of course the horse is listening, you're blocking his airway and putting extreme pressure on the top two vertebrae of the neck and in a position that is extremely unnatural!

And then I did even more research and it sounds to me like this Sjef Janssen was one of the main figures who ushered in this "new dressage era". He claimed he was met with "prejudice" from the Danish team. Well, I would too if you had a man storming in with less than half a lifetime of riding trying to shove upon the world a new method of riding. The method that was used and perfected for several hundred years was just crap apparently. It only works for "bulkier horses".

I'm not blaming any one person, I would much rather blame all who have chosen this method because they gave up on trying to find a more traditional way to get their horses to listen. A quick sampling of rollkur in the warm-up arena is fine to me if the horse needs some major stretching or needs to listen big time, but not for long periods of time and certainly not as a major training technique.

And the FEI is very wary to ban it. Why? There is sufficient evidence that is horrible for horses in the long run. Why not allow bitless bridles in competition, is it just that hard to accept the fact that some horses just cannot go with a bit, either because their mouth is too hard or for various other reasons? Why have we allowed a man who practically taught himself to ride tell people who have been riding for years longer than he how to control their horse?

I would like to see this rollkur era ushered out and fast. The Saddlebred industry used the horrible chain devices to get their horses to step higher, and that is now mostly gone, with the understanding that now they use certain drugs, and even then gaited breed organizations are cracking down on them. The miniature horse showing industry "back in the day" had a style of keeping your horses hooves very long heightwise, which made it difficult to walk. That was ushered out after scientific proof showed how bad it was for hooves and especially the fetlocks, shoulder, heck: the entire leg in general! Scientific proof shows this showy, spit-splattering rollkur method is horrible for the horse's musculoskeletal system in the long run and short term.

It really makes me want to decide now, at first level, whether or not I really want to compete and be judged down because I'm not "showy enough" with my horse (my great orginal instructor had been marked down at shows simply because she was riding an Appendix Quarter Horse, and even though she did the patterns the best, the warmbloods and Andalusians were the flashier horses, so they got marked up for that. Seriously now) for not overflexing her neck, which gets more and more drastic the higher and higher you go. I feel now that I might just want to get a bitless bridle and learn dressage for pleasure and to feel that I have accomplished something in bonding with my horse.

Thank goodness dressage is not the only equestrian sport with issues (I know showjumping has a fair amount too, as wellas eventing, and saddleseat, and western pleasure, and the list goes on!) And almost every sport has its "rollkur". Why can't a fair amount of educated people, not raving PETA-like fans, get up and do something about it? At least get the bitless bridle allowed?

It's not about ribbon and shows and fancy clothes, it's about bonding and love of the horse. If you don't have that, what are you doing in the equestrian sport? Go get into ballet or tack/field, where it's just your own body you have to worry about pushing and messing up. Be passionate about riding and having fun going to shows with your horse, not pushing your horse to the limit because you're scared to lose or too incompetent to ask for help and do a little research on how to solve your problems.

The horses are silent. The evidence, however, is deafening and painfully true.

A great article to read about this issue.

Me and Greta get back into lessons tomorrow, I'll put up how that goes. I'm excited!

Photos from Sustainable Dressage

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