The controversy of rollkur within the world of dressage is not a new one. Also called hyperflexion, it is the practice of forcefully pulling a horse’s head into an extreme low, deep and round position. Many have seen photographs of horses being pulled into such a headset, inspiring anti-rollkur websites, publications and Facebook pages. But this is not an article about the evils of rollkur, but rather the less publicly sensational but no less harmful practice of absolute elevation.
When advancing up the levels in dressage, we begin at training level with the expectation that the horse must maintain himself in level balance. What this means is the hindquarters of the horse must weight themselves equal to the forehand, or front legs of the horse. For some horses, either because of strength, conformation or attitude, the achievement of level balance is one which may take some time. Then we move higher in the levels and introduce the concept of collection, which means the horse must move his center of mass increasingly toward the hindquarters and weight them further, as the forehand elevates. This becomes more and more pronounced until the horse is at Grand Prix, where a series of challenging movements test the strength of this collection mechanism.
So how does this thing called collection work? Let’s start with your horse’s hindquarters and work our way forward. The idea of “getting the hindleg under” and “lowering the croup” are two concepts that are commonly bandied about in the dressage world. What happens to create and more importantly, sustain, this way of moving is actually a full body experience. To begin, the pelvis of the horse changes to improve his or her balance. While the sacrum of the horse does not have the ability to rotate, a horse’s lumbosacral joint does. This joint acts to ‘roll’ the horse’s pelvis under themselves, aiding in the compression of the hind legs (aka engagement). It might just be a little (for example in training level to achieve level balance) or it might be more extreme (for example the piaffe). This rotation of the pelvis and compression of the hind leg joints also allows the horse’s center of gravity to draw further back and away from his forehand. These mechanism do not work in a vacuum however and that full body experience we were referring to now must include to the horse’s back and abdominal muscles. Think of them as the platforms that link the horse’s front and back ends. If a horse does not have sufficient muscular strength within his midsection then there is NO WAY we can build a horse with the ability to truly collect. In addition to supporting our weight, a horse’s midsection also supports and connects the mechanisms of collection in the forehand and hindquarters. Speaking of mechanisms of collection, the next piece to the puzzle is the forehand. And yes, the forehand has a very important role to play in the collection of the horse. A horse does not have a collar bone as we humans do. Instead they have a muscular “girdle” of sorts that runs near wear the girth lays. When toned, this series of muscles, called the thoracic sling, acts along with the musculature of the neck and chest to elevate the front half of the horse. When these muscles are engaged the front limbs of the horse act to aid in his or her overall balance, pushing upward to maintain the elevated front end and encourage a rotated and engaged hind end. Just as the hind leg must rotate and compress more as collection increases, so must the front end elevate and push upward more to maintain its end of the bargain. All of these body actions to combine to create a phenomenon called “relative elevation”, which is the right and proper way to strength build and collect a horse. To read more about this click here and here.
So now that your brains are dried husks of their former selves, how does this relate to absolute elevation and rollkur? Essentially, they are short cuts in training. No horse is meant to have their head and neck in any extreme position for an extended period of time and there will be repercussions physically if they are forced to do so. Rollkur is an extreme deep and low position, absolute elevation is an extreme high and back position. Since this is an article on absolute elevation, I will discuss mainly this, though you see in the nifty picture I drew, both absolute elevation, rollkur and relative elevation, which is the proper way of doing things.
So why absolute elevation? Generally this happens one of two ways – a rider wants to compete at the upper levels and knows that FEI horses have their heads higher than old Dobbin at training level. So they slap a double on, shorten the reins and lift that head up as high as they can. The other option is that perhaps there is a talented young horse with the aptitude for the upper levels. They are paired with a very ambitious rider who does not take the time to develop the horse muscularly and instead lifts the head before the body is ready to support the balance that the headset would imply. Essentially they are shortcuts, either out of lack of ability, ignorance or ambition and at the expense of the horse. What results from this is a bodily breakdown, for there is never a chance for the muscles to develop once the headset is fixed in such a way. There is no such thing as putting the horse in the headset and then waiting for the muscles to develop afterward. The muscles develop INTO the balance that supports a certain headset. Both extreme headsets (rollkur and absolute elevation) will force the horse to have issues breathing, as that tightly compressed throat latch area can impede airflow. Anytime the horse’s head is pulled into a tight headset either high or low instead of extending his or her head out into the bit, there will be issues with breathing and salivation either none or excessive. What absolute elevation also affects is the horse’s spine. If the head is brought too high, too fast, then the front end does not have the muscular strength to elevate upward, the core musculature is too weak to follow it up and the hind legs cannot maintain the
rotation and compression. So, the front end drops, the back sinks and the horse’s pelvis rolls outward instead of under. An array of tendon and joint injuries occur from this, not least of which is a phenomenon called “kissing spine”. This happens when the vertebrae of the spine are compressed together and rub on one another, bone on bone, which is extremely painful. To read more about this click here. What also suffers is the rotation of the hindquarters. If not supported by the forehand and core, a horse’s hindquarters CANNOT rotate under and compress. From the outward eye we will then see a disparity in the parallelism of the front and hind legs.
You will see a wildly flaying front leg with a inactive hindleg. This is because the position of the horse’s pelvis is rotated the wrong direction and so when the horse’s hindlegs step into the next stride, they are doing so at an angle that does not mirror the front and is not conducive to collection within relative elevation. Take a look at the picture examples – I tried to choose ones that are fairly subtle and not the crazy extremes.
A note: Absolute elevation is not the only reason that this disparity exists. Horses are now being bred with such a free shoulder that parallelism may not be possible in certain cases, unless the horse is kicking himself in the belly. The important thing to do is look at the overall picture, how the horse is holding his hindquarters, how he is stepping under and how the forehand is acting.
Another symptom of the lack of relative elevation is the phenomenon of the ‘toe flipper’, where you see in extended trots the horse’s toe tipping upward. The function of the forehand is not being fulfilled, it is not elevated but rather slack and depressed. So for the horse to reach into the next stride they are forced to swing the hoof under and out rather than over and out. Roger? This creates the toe flipping look. If you see a lack of parallelism coupled with a flipping toe then you can bet your breeches that something isn’t quite right in the realm of relative elevation.
The body of a horse is a complex mechanism, as much as ours or any other living thing. It is important to remember that correlation is not causation. Just because your horse has been diagnosed with kissing spine does not mean you are a monster. Just because there is a lack of parallelism does not necessarily mean the trainer is not correct in their methods. What you want to get comfortable with is watching how the horse’s body works, and knowing how it should correctly work. If done right, dressage will add to the strength and longevity of a horse. They will become beautiful old geldings and mares. If done incorrectly you will have a ten year old horse than rides like an old man. Correct is as correct does and the body must be build to support the balance of the level we are asking them to perform. It is when you put the cart before the horse that the horse will suffer – pun completely intended. Below is a video of Guenter Seidel and UII – watch the balance change through the body in the piaffe.