Rollkur at the Olympics Ignites Social Media Protest

It has been gratifying to see the outpouring of negative responses online to the obvious use of the “training” technique called Rollkur in Olympic dressage competition.

The technique, which involves riding with a horse’s head pulled to its chest in hyperflexion, was addressed in a wishy-washy set of guidelines by the FEI in early 2010.

I can’t say I’m surprised that the FEI didn’t follow through and take real, decisive action to stop the practice. Calling it something else (Low, Deep, Round) and putting in place a bunch of vague suggestions really didn’t cut it.

And given the international governing body’s “ho-hum” attitude about Rollkur, I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked to see the practice right out in the open at the Olympics.

Here’s one of the rides that’s drawing a lot of negative attention, top-ranked international rider Adelinde Cornelissen’s 81.67 test on Parzival. The Dutch rider is trained by Sjef Janssen, who with three-time Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven is credited with the invention of the practice. (Another view on the official NBC site if you want to watch it close up.)

I find it hard to watch this test through because it looks so dull, so mechanical. The horse seems heavy and slow, like he’s wading through deep water every single step. Even in piaffe and passage when the legs look springy, I see no swing in the spine and none of the undulation through the back that should carry the impulsion from the hindquarters through the rider’s hands and forward.

I keep wondering how fabulously poor Parzival would move if Cornelissen would just get off his mouth and let his back swing.

I have the same problem watching many of the top dressage competitors, who seem to have forgotten the goal of the progression of training is supposed to be lightness and ease, that brilliance can’t come from force.

It’s just so obvious that these riders are holding these horses up. You can watch them straining through their own backs to pull the horses into every movement that requires collection. When a rider is that braced in her back, the horse cannot be soft and swinging in his back. Can. Not. Period.

I went back to look at some vintage Olympic footage to find some dressage medal winners who seemed to have a better grasp (pun intended) on how to ride with balance and grace.

Take a look at the 1984 gold medal performance of Reiner Klimke on the 17-hand Westphalian gelding Ahlerich. Dr. Klimke sits quietly and you can see his hands sometimes move to help steady or straighten the horse, but once the adjustment is made you see the horse improve in the movement and his hands go still.

What a bright, engaging performance this is. Light, springy and certainly forward. Notice how you can see the energy created by the hindquarters undulate forward into and through the rider’s hands. That’s what engagement and suppleness look like.

Watch the test performed by 1976 gold medalist Christine Steukelberger and Granat, a massive Holsteiner gelding. This is a less expressive, more correctly workmanlike performance than Klimke’s above, but still the rider helps the horse instead of hindering. You can sometimes see her lean back and brace a bit – notably in the canter pirouttes – but her hands and legs are quiet throughout.

It’s not the waving torso and constant bang, bang, bang with the legs and hands that seem to be the hallmark of some of today’s top winning competitive riders. They certainly have forgotten that the mark of a truly great rider is to make him- or herself invisible so that all the attention focuses on the horse.

Think Spanish Riding School: when you picture the quadrille in your mind’s eye, you don’t think of riders flailing and flapping away. You see the lovely horses dancing seemingly without effort.

No dancing without effort for the horses subjected to Rollkur, hyperflexion or low/deep/round. And, sadly, instead of disappearing, the technique seems to be crossing into other disciplines, as well.

I certainly hope concerned horse lovers all over the world keep up the pressure on the FEI to well and truly ban Rollkur in all its forms.