Thursday, November 05, 2009

we're all connected

The world is a huge place, and I think we all feel the distance on a daily basis when we read and see footage of war-torn countries, countries reeling with poverty, and moments later, lavish wealth in others.

It's easy to think our personal causes are futile, and our contributions limited. How much can one person really DO?

The world is big, too many people have to act to make big change happen, even if I act I don't see a difference.

I remembered over the past few days something I used to struggle with when I worked with abused and neglected children, many of whom had parents' whose rights had been terminated, which put these children in the custody and care of departments of social services. The children had therapists, case managers, teachers, houseparents, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and more, and even so, it sometimes felt like they had no one, because as hard as this team of people worked, they couldn't always provide exactly what the children needed at the exact moment they needed it.

There is a clear memory in my head of a day I sat in a clinical supervisor's office bemoaning how futile it was. I can see the light falling in through the window behind her head and her very curly long hair silhouetted as she said one sentence: "We're all connected. You do your part and trust that it links up to the next person's part."

I immediately had the image of a ladder, or a bridge, and the accompanying notion that my part was not building the entire ladder, nor was it to build the entire bridge. My part was to put my rung in place, or my plank on the bridge. As long as I kept doing that, and everyone else kept doing that, and we all filled in when needed if someone couldn't do their one part, the bigger structure would get built.

This week I decided my plank in the rollkur bridge is to write an article.

In the past 48 hours I have been in contact with Paul Belasik, Gerd Heuschmann, Sylvia Loch, and now Pepper Ballard of the Humane Society of the United States.

I have no connections to these people, except that of course, I DO.

I have audited Paul's clinics several times and love his beautifully written books. I have read Gerd Heuschmann's book and articles, and felt relief that someone with a degree in veterinary medicine is taking the issue on in such a big, important way. I was thrilled to discover Sylvia's writing and her classical riding group that is and has been for a long while so active in working on this issue. This week I have been reading daily about the Humane Society's work in shutting down an abusive veal processing plant.

And although I write a lot about zen and the peace and calm of my quiet little corner of this big wide world, I also know the power of this thing called the internet, and a more subtle power that we all have but don't always remember:

we are all connected.

(photo credit to dear husband - I used this a few weeks ago but it's so perfect for this post I had to use it again!)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

respite care for equine advocates (and actually all of us)

This morning I went out to the barn to get my head clear and my focus back. After years spent working on the front lines with traumatized children and families, I know how important it is to take care of oneself while doing high-stress work.

Even writing a small series of blog posts about rollkur and opening up images of other equine issues (soring of gaited horses, tying down in various western disciplines, etc.) can lead to feelings of overwhelm and powerlessness. Folks who do this kind of investigatory work on a regular basis have to replenish their wells just as regularly.

While at the barn I purposely slowed myself down. Keil Bay can deal with a certain amount of my zen-like approach to making breakfast, but if I start slowing down my already slow pace, he is pretty good at ramping me back up. Fortunately my husband fed breakfast this morning, so my work was making a long, rambling trail of hay through the front field.

It starts with me and the wheelbarrow piled as high as my head. The herd falls in behind me and we make our way through the field as I toss out hay in very small piles. Today it was especially quiet out. When I stopped moving it was so quiet it almost felt like someone had turned down the volume of the neighborhood. I walked back up the hill and spent a few moments with each horse and donkey, just being still.

I scrubbed and refilled three water troughs, which took awhile. I opted not to try and do other chores while the troughs filled, but to stand and soak in some sunshine, breathe in the air, and listen to the sound of the water splashing.

Hopefully all the people working hard for animals of all kinds, including we human ones, can find some time to take a break, refuel, and go back to work with renewed energy and calm.

I think we all do better when we take time to watch the water run.

(photo credit to my dear husband)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rollkur 101: What You Need to Know to Take a Stand

Rollkur is seen in training and warm-up rings around the world as dressage riders (and riders in other disciplines as well) prepare for competition. A recent Epona TV video of a horse being ridden in a World Cup Qualifier warm-up in Odense, Denmark has brought riders, trainers, and equine enthusiasts of all kinds together in protest. Heather Moffett’s Blue Tongue Group on Facebook attracted 2600+ members in less than one week, and two anti-rollkur petitions online boast over 5000 signatures.

What is Rollkur?

Rollkur, or hyperflexion of the horse’s neck, is defined by the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale, the international governing body for all Olympic equestrian disciplines) as:

a technique of working/training used to provide a degree of longitudinal flexion of the mid-region of the neck. Hyperflexion cannot be self-maintained by the horse for an extended period of time.

In everyday terms, this exercise uses reins and pressure from the bit to pull the horse’s nose to its chest, thus over-bending the neck.

Why is it an issue?

Rollkur utilizes force to pull the horse’s head down to its chest. In this position the horse cannot see in front of itself, its breathing is impaired, and many experts and professionals believe rollkur may damage the horse both physically and psychologically. Ridden this way, the horse’s natural dynamic movement is lost, and classical dressage movement, as defined by the FEI’s own standards, becomes impossible.

If rollkur is so terrible why are riders using the technique winning at the upper levels of the sport?

Ask the FEI. The following is excerpted from the FEI Rules available to anyone as a downloadable PDF from their website. Read and compare to the Epona TV video. Search for online videos of winning FEI riders for the past few years and compare what’s being rewarded with the actual written standards.

Chapter I Dressage
The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete
through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple,
loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect
understanding with the rider.

These qualities are revealed by:
• The freedom and regularity of the paces.
• The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
• The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the
hindquarters, originating from a lively impulsion.
• The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness
(Durchlässigkeit) without any tension or resistance.

2. The horse thus gives the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is
required. Confident and attentive, submitting generously to the control of the
athlete, remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and
bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.

3. The walk is regular, free and unconstrained. The trot is free, supple, regular
and active. The canter is united, light and balanced. The hindquarters are
never inactive or sluggish. The horse responds to the slightest indication of the
athlete and thereby gives life and spirit to all the rest of its body.

4. By virtue of a lively impulsion and the suppleness of the joints, free from the
paralysing effects of resistance, the horse obeys willingly and without hesitation
and responds to the various aids calmly and with precision, displaying a natural
and harmonious balance both physically and mentally.

5. In all the work, even at the halt, the horse must be “on the bit”. A horse is
said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched
according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace,
accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact. The
head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the
vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance
should be offered to the athlete.

6. Cadence is shown in trot and canter and is the result of the proper harmony
that a horse shows when it moves with well-marked regularity, impulsion and
balance. Cadence must be maintained in all the different trot or canter
exercises and in all the variations of these paces.

7. The regularity of the paces is fundamental to dressage.

Why is this important now?

Rollkur is not new. After Dutch Olympic dressage champion Anky Van Grunsven was videotaped in a warmup arena riding her horse using this method and created a public outcry, the FEI met with a panel of world-class biomechanics and equine anatomy experts in Switzerland on January 31, 2006.

The FEI concluded that there was no evidence that rollkur causes direct harm to the horse when used in the right way by expert riders. They did add, however, that it could cause harm if used incorrectly by inexperienced riders and that hyperflexion cannot be self-maintained by the horse for an extended period of time.

The controversy surrounding rollkur rekindled recently when Epona TV published a video of dressage rider Patrik Kittel riding his stallion Scandic in a World Cup Qualifier in Denmark. The video showed Scandic’s discolored, limp, tongue hanging out of his mouth. The video has created a global outcry. Groups have been formed and petitions are being signed protesting the use of this controversial method and demanding investigation and action by the FEI.

What you can do to help:

Join Heather Moffett’s Blue Tongue Facebook Group for up to the minute updates.

Help get the word out. Put links on your blogs and web pages educating your readers about this issue. YOU MAY REPRINT THIS ARTICLE IN FULL OR TAKE THE LINKS PROVIDED.

Sign the existing petitions.



Write directly to the FEI.

FEI Dressage Task Force Members and all contact info HERE.

Write to your equine associations and ask them to take a stand.

Write to the sponsors of the World Equestrian Games to be held in Kentucky in 2010. Tell them you want to see happy horses (in all disciplines) ridden and warmed up humanely.

Support riders and trainers who ride and train without using rollkur.

(if you are a rider or trainer who would like to be listed here, let me know in the comment section and I will add your name and brief bio with link)

Support companies who sponsor these humane riders and trainers.

(if you are a company who sponsors riders and trainers who do NOT utilize rollkur and would like to be listed here, let me know in the comment section and I will add your name and brief bio with link)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Walter Zettl's perspective on Rollkur

This was a letter sent to the editor of the German St. Georg Magazine
(In response to the recent article entitled, "Dressage Perverse") - it predates the current video with Patrik Kittel but I feel it is important and offers yet another perspective by one of our contemporary classical masters.

Read more about Walter on his WEBSITE, and remember - part of speaking out against Rollkur is supporting those trainers and teachers who DON'T USE IT.


Translated from German

We can indeed be happy and grateful for having your Magazine and a chief editor like Gabriele Pochhammer who have dedicated themselves unreservedly to the wellbeing of our magnificent horses.

Should this not be the case also for every single rider? Is it not our duty to make the unnatural lives of our horses as tolerable as humanly possible? This does not only include correct boarding and regular exercise but also turn out and work. The objective of dressage should be to strengthen and “ennoble” the horse in its natural gaits through gymnasticizing, to obtain a constraint-free control and to enable us to “access” any exercises and transitions at any given time and at any given place. We should strive for a harmonious partnership, based on equal rights and mutual respect.

What we see and read about what happens in some arenas and warm-up paddocks is tantamount to enslaving and raping our magnificent animal partners. That we can even get close to them, in spite of their strength, we owe exclusively to their infinite patience and utmost devotion to us.

One is often prompted to ask why some riders exercise this sport as if they hated their equine partners, by torturing them with all kinds of artificial means, showing horses with their heads forcefully pulled down below the bit, to the point of touching their chests.

Without doubt, these riders are having great results. However, whoever has a heart for animals cannot condone this type of training, which must be condemned and rejected.

As long as show managers, judges, the National Federations and the FEI do nothing to stop these practices, this torture and abuse will only increase.

It is sad indeed that spectators are getting so upset about this type of riding and warm-up that they threaten show organizers with filing complaints with the SPCA.

How could we ever reach a point where dressage riding is being rejected even in the “prudish” North America?

Indeed, Sjef Janssen asked what on earth got into the heads of these “prudish Americans”. I will gladly answer that question. It is perfectly normal for people in North America to tackle anything that is directed against the moral values and the well-being of human beings and animals, and to rebel against such practices.

In this instance, the subject of criticism was the Show Steward whose duty it is to talk to and potentially admonish riders in cases of ugly and excessively long and harsh warm-ups.

That Steward has shown great courage in criticizing a most successful rider such as Anky. Sjef’s answer was that they did not fly 10,000 km just to see his long researched and finally found training method being torn to pieces by a Steward.

Sjef does not consider this type of long and excessive overbending in the neck to be animal abuse, as has been repeatedly observed. Sjef, Anky as well as their students and fans must surely hold a totally different view of what constitutes animal abuse.

Why is it then that he repeatedly had to defend his training method and to threaten legal action, such as prohibiting any video showing Anky during warm-up or banning photos and comments from a website? He has even gone so far as to seek a temporary injunction against parts of the article “Dressage Perverse?” published in the St. Georg Magazine.

Furthermore, Sjef has repeatedly stated that all horses that are ridden according to his method are happy and like to work for him. This was recently confirmed by some very influential, hand picked Ladies and Gentleman from the equestrian world. However, how can horses be deemed happy when they are pulled together and enslaved with mere force and all kinds of instruments?

Riders like Anky who are constantly in the limelight, should not only enjoy the notoriety but must also be able to accept criticism in the spirit of good sportsmanship. In the so called ”prudish” America, we still enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which allows us to criticize even the President.

Unfortunately, our poor horses are unable to scream out their pain. Otherwise, we would have to endure a lot of loud screaming and crying in many indoor and outdoor arenas and warm-up rings. It is a pity that Nature has cruelly neglected to equip our horses with the ability to voice their pain. Their lot is to continue to endure all pain and abuse quietly.

Our former “Grand Masters” would turn in their graves if they could see what our beautiful dressage sport has come to.

We can only hope that our sport finds its way back to what it should be: A sport that we can enjoy watching, not only in the show arena but also in the warm-up rings, as well as at home, in the absence of any spectators.

I wish with all my heart that Frau Pochhammer and the St.Georg continue to advocate a humane dressage training.