Absolute Elevation: The Sister to Rolkur

Posted on October 15, 2018 by Jerrilee.
Categories: health, history, riding, training.

excerpts from an article by Bonnie Walker

versusThe controversy of rollkur within the world of dressage is not a new one. Also called hyperflexion, it is the practice of forcefully pulling a horse’s head into an extreme low, deep and round position. Many have seen photographs of horses being pulled into such a headset, inspiring anti-rollkur websites, publications and Facebook pages. But this is not an article about the evils of rollkur, but rather the less publicly sensational but no less harmful practice of absolute elevation.

No horse is meant to have their head and neck in any extreme position for an extended period of time and there will be repercussions physically if they are forced to do so. Rollkur is an extreme deep and low position, absolute elevation is an extreme high and back position. Since this is an article on absolute elevation, I will discuss mainly this, though you see in the nifty picture I drew, both absolute elevation, rollkur and relative elevation, which is the proper way of doing things.

collectiondiagram4So how does this thing called collection work? Let’s start with your horse’s hindquarters and work our way forward. The idea of “getting the hindleg under” and “lowering the croup” are two concepts that are commonly bandied about in the dressage world. What happens to create and more importantly, sustain, this way of moving is actually a full body experience.

While the sacrum of the horse does not have the ability to rotate, a horse’s lumbosacral joint does. This joint acts to ‘roll’ the horse’s pelvis under themselves, aiding in the compression of the hind legs (aka engagement). It might just be a little (for example in training level to achieve level balance) or it might be more extreme (for example the piaffe). This rotation of the pelvis and compression of the hind leg joints also allows the horse’s center of gravity to draw further back and away from his forehand. These mechanism do not work in a vacuum however and that full body experience we were referring to now must include to the horse’s back and abdominal muscles. Think of them as the platforms that link the horse’s front and back ends. If a horse does not have sufficient muscular strength within his midsection then there is NO WAY we can build a horse with the ability to truly collect.  In addition to supporting our weight, a horse’s midsection also supports and connects the mechanisms of collection in the forehand and hindquarters.  A horse does not have a collar bone as we humans do. Instead they have a muscular “girdle” of sorts that runs near wear the girth lays. When toned, this series of muscles, called the thoracic sling, acts along with the musculature of the neck and chest to elevate the front half of the horse. When these muscles are engaged the front limbs of the horse act to aid in his or her overall balance, pushing upward to maintain the elevated front end and encourage a rotated and engaged hind end. Just as the hind leg must rotate and compress more as collection increases, so must the front end elevate and push upward more to maintain its end of the bargain. All of these body actions to combine to create a phenomenon called “relative elevation”, which is the right and proper way to strength build and collect a horse.
There is no such thing as putting the horse in the headset and then waiting for the muscles to develop afterward. The muscles develop INTO the balance that supports a certain headset. Both extreme headsets (rollkur and absolute elevation) will force the horse to have issues breathing, as that tightly compressed throat latch area can impede airflow.

A swaybacked horse is an extreme example of what happens when the back drops.

A swaybacked horse is an extreme example of what happens when the back drops.

If the head is brought too high, too fast, then the front end does not have the muscular strength to elevate upward, the core musculature is too weak to follow it up and the hind legs cannot maintain the rotation and compression. So, the front end drops, the back sinks and the horse’s pelvis rolls outward instead of under. An array of tendon and joint injuries occur from this, not least of which is a phenomenon called “kissing spine”. This happens when the vertebrae of the spine are compressed together and rub on one another, bone on bone, which is extremely painful.
What you want to get comfortable with is watching how the horse’s body works, and knowing how it should correctly work. If done right, dressage will add to the strength and longevity of a horse. They will become beautiful old geldings and mares. If done incorrectly you will have a ten year old horse than rides like an old man.

About the author: Bonnie Walker,USDF Bronze and Silver Medalist, in San Diego, Ca, rides and shows in dressage. Her profound articles on riding and training are public on her blog DressageDifferent.com

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