Moderate Neck Hyperflexion May Not Stress HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · July 17, 2012
Extreme neck hyperflexion describes a posture in which a horse’s neck is tightly bent, with the nose held close to the chest. Extensive use of this “rollkur” position by riders has been condemned by horse welfare advocates who feel that obtaining the hyperflexed position and forcing the horse to maintain it for an extended period of time can be defined as stressful and possibly even abusive actions. Some riders and trainers, however, use brief periods of extreme hyperflexion and feel this practice is helpful in stretching the horse’s neck and encouraging submission during warmup periods.
Is hyperflexion a cruel punishment, or a useful training tool? To investigate the question, veterinarian Christine Aurich of the University of Veterinary Sciences in Austria designed a study in which 16 young but somewhat experienced sport horses were longed at all three gaits for a period of 13 minutes. Each horse was longed with a normal neck position and also while using fixed reins that positioned the neck in moderate (not extreme) hyperflexion. Aurich measured heart rate, heart rate variability, and salivary concentration of cortisol for each horse directly after both of its longeing periods. She found no difference in these common indicators of stress in flexed and nonflexed horses.
However, Aurich cautioned against interpreting this research as proof that long periods of extreme hyperflexion are all right. This study used riderless young horses that were experienced in longeing and were only moderately flexed. Adding the weight of a rider, having the rider use bits of varying severity, holding the flexion for a longer period of time, and asking the horse for more extreme flexion are all factors that could change the horse’s stress level. Brief periods of extreme hyperflexion used by an experienced trainer might not result in significant stress, while a rough-handed, inexperienced rider using a severe bit could cause significant pain and stress. As with other horse training and management procedures, moderation is probably the best practice.