What it is, why it’s done and how it’s being stopped?

By Julie Taylor

This article is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.

Photo by Crispin Parelius Johannessen

You can see it unfold in the warm-up ring at any international dressage competition. Riders riding their horses in a small trot first, the neck fairly low and the nose only slightly behind the vertical on what appears to be a relatively soft contact. Then, gradually, the rider will pull or see-saw the horse’s nose further and further in towards the chest or neck, depending on how high the head is held. That’s when the kicking begins. The shorter the horse becomes in the neck, the less the hind legs can step under. The rider uses harsh kicks with the spurs, sometimes in combination with loud cracks of the whip, to “wake up” the horse – the hind legs become electric, the horse is in flight mode, and that’s where the hyperflexion comes in handy. As long as the horse’s neck is overbent, it’s very difficult for him or her to run forwards through the rider’s hands, enabling the rider to kick and/or whip to their heart’s content to achieve the frenzied leg movements favoured by dressage judges. The horse has nowhere to go, so they stay.

The above description is not of the riding of “a few bad apples.” This style of equitation is ubiquitous at FEI events, practised by some of the most decorated riders in FEI history in jumping and dressage. It is almost never called out by the officials in charge of protecting the horses. It’s nothing new either. Since the dawn of equestrian writing, authors have described the act of squeezing the horse’s natural brilliance out of them by means of pain and coercion. Xenophon described it like this :

”…if the rider pulls him up with the bit while simultaneously giving him one of the signals to be off, the horse, galled on the one hand by the bit, and on the other collecting himself in obedience to the signal “off,” will throw forward his chest and raise his legs aloft with fiery spirit; though not indeed with suppleness, for the supple play of the limbs ceases as soon as the horse feels annoyance.”

In his house brick-sized book, Roll-Kur, Professor Heinz Meyer shows many examples of hyperflexion having been used in ancient Greek and Egyptian times to subdue horses . And most people have seen similar evidence in more recent paintings and sculptures. It’s an ancient way of making a horse do something they don’t want to do, and as Professor Meyer told me in an interview many years ago, it always came at the expense of the quality of the horse’s movement – exactly as Xenophon described.

What is new is that in recent decades, we have bred horses so inherently mobile (some are starting to say hypermobile, but that’s another story ) to allow riders to take coercive measures as far as they like and still have an extremely supple horse. It’s often said in defence of hyperflexion that modern horses are different and need to be ridden differently. This makes it seem as if hyperflexion is a new technique invented for a new type of horse, when, in fact, it is the other way around. The modern sport horse is a new type of horse invented to suit an ancient form of coercion.

The problems with hyperflexion are myriad from the horse’s perspective. Firstly, the level of rein tension needed to achieve and sustain the hyperflexed neck posture is guaranteed to cause pain in the horse’s mouth . And the constant kicking and digging with spurs to keep horses going despite strong bit pressure is probably not a lot of fun either. Nosebands must be tightened excessively to camouflage the horse’s attempts to avoid the pain from the bit or bits. And a horse in hyperflexion experiences compromised respiration and cannot look where they are going. Finally, the tense goose-stepping action which results from this type of riding predisposes the horse to orthopaedic injuries. “Butcher’s trot” or “auctioneer’s trot” are some old terms for this way of riding, alluding to the fact that it may look pretty to some, but it’s not very healthy for the horse.

When the German horse magazine St Georg started shining a light on hyperflexion at FEI events back in the 1990s and early 2000s , the equestrian industry engaged in a massive gaslighting campaign, telling critics the overbent necks were for the horses’ health, a beneficial, gymnastic exercise to make them more supple . Even well-regarded scientists chimed in to lend credence to this narrative, despite the total lack of any evidence to support their views. Distressing images of the practice – termed low, deep, and round or LDR by the people who used it – were dismissed as unfortunate moments in time..

Today – thanks to YouTube and other social media – there can no longer be any doubt that those original, scandalous photos published by St Georg in 2005 under the headline “Dressur Pervers” were in fact telling the truth. There can also be no doubt that the practice continues, unfettered by the FEI, despite the announcement in 2010 that it was banned.

Rollkur is a serious problem, not just for horses but for the FEI and the sport in general. It is one of the major threats to equestrian social license to operate . This raises the question: why not just fix it? Why not just enforce the rules? Why continue to allow it? Why lie to the public? The only plausible answer is that the FEI can’t fix hyperflexion, which makes it useless to continue to appeal to the federation. Instead, horses will need legal protection from this form of abuse. Ideally, a ban on forced neck flexion – or even better, forced neck positioning – will be introduced in the countries where equestrian sport takes place.

Recently, Denmark’s Animal Ethics Council published a statement containing a recommendation that the Danish Equestrian Federation ensure that horses are no longer made to endure “fixation of body parts” . The statement also includes a paragraph where the Council declares that it is unclear how the banned method, hyperflexion, can be discerned from the allowed method, LDR. This is significant because hyperflexion has continued to be allowed for over a decade since the ban under the guise of LDR. Stating that the two can’t be told apart amounts to accusing the federations of allowing abuse.

The Danish Animal Ethics Council advises the Minister of Agriculture in matters of new or altered animal protection legislation, and at the end of its statement, the Council gives the Danish horse sport industry one year to phase out painful and coercive methods of training before it will recommend that specific legislation be drafted for the protection of horses in sport. As it is highly unlikely that the Danish Equestrian Federation can manage to stamp out hyperflexion within this (or any) timeframe, it’s currently looking as if Denmark may soon get a legal ban on riding overbent horses.

This article is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.


1 Xenophon, On Horsemanship, The Project Gutenberg, Aug 2008, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1176/1176-h/1176-h.htm , accessed 30 Mar 2023

2 Heinz Meyer, Roll-Kur, Wu Wei Verlag Schondorf, Jan 2008

3 Karin Leibbrandt, Paying the price for spectacular horses, Equitopia, Mar 2019, https://www.equitopiacenter.com/the-price-we-pay-for-spectacular-horses/, accessed 30 Mar 2023

4 David J. Mellor, Mouth Pain in Horses: Physiological Foundations, Behavioural Indices, Welfare Implications and a suggested solution, Animals, April 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7222381/, accessed 30 Mar 2023

5 Emmannuelle Van Erck, Dynamic respiratory video endoscopy in ridden sport horses: effect of head flexion, riding, and airway inflammation in 129 cases, Equine Veterinary Journal, Nov 2011, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22082441/, accessed 30 Mar 2023

6 St. Georg staff, ‘Dressur Pervers’ [Perverted Dressage], St. Georg, Jul 2005, https://www.st-georg.de/hintergrund/rollkur/dressur-pervers-aus-st-georg-juli2005/, accessed 30 Mar 2023.

7 FEI, ‘Report of the FEI Veterinary and Dressage Committees’ Workshop: The use of over bending (“Rollkur”) in FEI Competition’, 31 Jan 2006 (Updated and revised version published 5 Mar 2006), no longer available online.

8 Douglas J, Owers R, Campbell MLH. Social Licence to Operate: What Can Equestrian Sports Learn from Other Industries? Animals. 2022; 12(15):1987. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12151987

9 Det Dyreetiske Råd (The Danish Animal Ethics Council), Udtalelse om brug af heste til sport (Statement on the use of horses for sport), the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries of Denmark, Mar 2023, https://detdyreetiskeraad.dk/udtalelser/udtalelse/pub/hent-fil/publication/udtalelse-om-brug-af-heste-til-sport-2023, accessed Mar 2023