New Research Shows Stress Response of Differing Training Techniques in Horses

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EXAMINER.COM -- JULY 25, 2012 -- If you want to start a rousing fight with dressage trainers simply ask them what they think about the practice of rollkur or low deep and round (LDR). The controversial practice which encourages horses to carry their chins deep into their chest has caused such a stir that veterinarians at the University of Vienna decided to study it's effects on equine stress hormones.

In a paper released yesterday the researchers found that when rollkur was practiced alone on a lounge line it creates no measurable increase in the stress hormone cortisol than does lounging a horse in a relaxed bitting rig. Additionally, other than a small amount of heat on one part of the neck, all parameters including heart rate and apparent observable stress were the same for those horses bitted normally and those bitted using the LDR method.

LDR as a training method has been on the rise since the early 2000's. The idea behind it is that horses in a hyper-flexed position will experience a deeper muscle stretch and benefit from lengthening of the muscles. In 2011 the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) moved to ban the practice after receiving over 40,000 letters from dressage enthusiasts and trainers stating that the practice causes uneccessary discomfort. The FEI's ban is against the practice of forcefully placing the head in an exaggerated hyper-flexed position. If the horse is put there without the use of force the FEI allows it. Exactly how one can tell the difference is still much in debate.

Dressage which hones to ancient practices and sees itself as the 'purist' of equine sports is awash in controversy because of this practice. Unlike other equine sports, dressage adheres to a rule that horses must look relaxed, and a horse going about with it's chin on it's chest may look like a lot of things but relaxed is not one of them.

The researchers in Vienna only bitted the horses and lounged them, they used no whip, and no horses were driven into their frame. But on the face of it the research does seem to show that for all that it looks uncomfortable head position by itself does not cause undue stress. The paper, which will be published in it's entirety in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, is a shot across the bow about how what people see is not always the case in animal comfort.

For the trainers, spectators and horses involved, the debate will probably be unmoved by the research. A fair argument can be made that horses longed without being driven forward are not moving through their back and that the research is meaningless. Additionally over-flexion while carrying weight may pose additional discomforts. The good news with this research is that it is the first step in evaluating stress response to a horse training method. Even if rollkur pans out as a non-stressful method, other methods across other equine disciplines will no doubt fare poorly. Right now there is a baseline for horses in training that can be expanded to help breeds and riding styles which do not benefit from a long history of hysterically nit picky trainers and adherents.

Imagine a time when training styles as well as disciplines came with an understanding of how stressful they are to the horses involved. Instead of choosing a training idea based on results in the show ring, owners could choose one based on how stressful it is to the horse.