A Beginner’s Guide to Rollkur

If you want to read more in-depth into rollkur there are some wonderful resources (unfortunate that they are necessary, but none-the-less available) on the web and I provide links to them at the bottom of this post.

Sequential images showing horse in extreme hyperflexion rollkur under saddle

Q : What is Rollkur?

A : The word Rollkur was coined for what is now frequently referred to as hyperflexion of the neck. The term in german refers to a cure for stomach aches in which the patient rolls periodically in order to thoroughly coat the stomach with medicine.

Rollkur itself is a method in which neck flexion is taken to an extreme for a period of time. Often promoted as being a fix-all for suppling and stretching the horse’s neck it has also gained popularity as being able to raise and strengthen the back. Because of the way in which Rollkur changes the horses balance it will help to promote very flashy knee action, and is also used as a method of control because it limits the horse’s oxygen supply, eye sight, and puts the horse off balance – essentially rendering the horse helpless to the rider’s whims.

Bay horse ridden in lateral hyperflexion at a competition

Q : Isn’t Rollkur necessary in the sport of Dressage?

A : Rollkur’s use and abuse has not been limited only to the sport of Dressage. Many western trainers and riders also utilize Rollkur however its use in other disciplines has not gained as much exposure and publicity to become widely known.

The sport of dressage was originally based off of cavalry riding which had been adapted from Classical Dressage principles. Unfortunately over time and evolution many practices change – some for better, some for worse – and the nature of judging and training has created an environment in which Rollkur is not only be accepted based on the marks given to riders using the method, but is inching towards the standard protocol based on those leading the sport in Grand Prix and Olympic level competition.

Rollkur is not necessary to being successful in Dressage, but is often resorted to because it promises results which many riders feel they cannot accomplish without it.

Icelandic Horse hyperflexion

Clinton Anderson western hyperflexion / rollkur

Q : How long is the horse held in a Rollkur position?

A : I have watched videos in which horses were placed in Rollkur throughout a 10 minute ride, others held in Rollkur for minutes at a time.

Q : Does Rollkur stretch the neck muscles?

A : It is important to understand the principles involved in stretching muscles, becase there is such a thing as over-stretching. Too much of a good thing quickly turns into a bad thing, and too much of a bad thing goes sour even faster.

Rollkur will indeed stretch certain muscles in the neck because of the position it places the horse in for an extended period of time. Just muscle fatigue alone will have set in. I looked for a solid answer on how much the average horse’s head weighs, some sources say 12lbs while others say 6lbs. Either way, the horse’s neck is not designed to contract in the way that Rollkur requires for long periods of time.. but getting back to the stretch of the horse’s neck muscles. Overstretching can cause microscopic muscle tears, and can actually lead to more inflexibility over time as the muscle is constantly trying to repair itself.

Close-up of horse in extreme rollkur chin touching chest

Q : What are the physical risks of using Rollkur?

A : Outside of risking muscle damage due to overstretching and muscle fatigue, long term muscle tension can also lead to bone spurs (osteophytes) as well as bone degeneration due to the position of the cervical vertebrae (neck bones) when placed in a position they are not designed for.

Rollkur neck position compared to human neck position

Q : Can Rollkur lift my horses back?

A : The neck plays a very miniscule role in the elevation of the back in motion. Think of your own body for example, Rollkur to lift the back is a little like bringing your chin to your chest trying to flatten your low back. What happens when you pull your chin to your chest is you round your shoulders, leading to a posture that tips forwards – in a horse this would place him on the forehand. On the other hand, if you want to flatten your low back effectively you achieve it by rotating your pelvis – which in a horse is what collection is, the horse’s pelvis rotates bringing the hind legs further under the body which creates strength and support in the back and allows the horse to carry his weight more efficiently.

Power and Paint Rollkur on the lunge line in sidereins

Q : If Rollkur is so bad, then why are the professionals using it?

A : The answer to this question may be more tricky. The individual motivations I cannot say, but I would be willing to guess that the amount of money involved in high level equestrian sports is enough to motivate a large number of individuals to using whatever legal tactics necessary to win.

Stephen Peters at awards ceremony

In Closing…

I think that it is important to remember that the term “professional” only means that a person is getting paid for what they do. You can be a professional con-artist just the same as being a professional human aid worker. Being a professional does not immediately guarantee that someone is basing their actions on the welfare of their horse, or clients for that matter. How many professional riding instructors have you ever witness berate their students?

Another key is that often our eyes are not trained to see past the beautifully groomed horse that has been perfectly turned out in the most expensive tack, ridden by a rider whose clothing is impeccably expensive. How many Americans were trained to see the collapse of our economy even while many signs were standing right in front of us? Just because we do not recognize it at the moment does not mean it doesn’t exist.

The element of prize money is another factor that I believe has led, not only to the use but, to the continued use of a method in which no one can logically argue it is beneficial to and in the best interest of the horse.

Man riding a bay horse in extreme lateral hyperflexion of the neck or Rollkur

More Resources

Your Opinion Matters

What are your thoughts? Do you believe that Rollkur’s continued use is driven by success, fame, money? Are there elite equestrians you believe are using Rollkur to train but have not gained as much publicity as Anky Van Grunsven and Isabell Werth?  What about Rollkur do you find appealing or repulsive?

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by Erica Franz

I've been riding since I was 9, and in love with horses from the day I was born. Living in Washington with my husband Jason, 2 horses and our 4 dogs.