We all know what hyperflexion is. Because it's not a rare behind closed door thing that you need to catch with a hidden camera like barring or see-sawing.
Hyperflexion is a broad, common, well taught and even rewarded method, in the olympics, at every FEI dressage event, local competitions, on social media and at home.
Yes, it’s a method in training to reach a certain goal. And that's all there is, the goal, not the actual understanding and knowledge of what is done and how it affects the horse.
Content: Why would one use hyperflexion?
Why would one use hyperflexion?
Let’s talk about the goal. Like with so many controversial methods and tack, the goal often justifies the disadvantages of said things. For example the flash strap: to prevent that the horse opens its mouth and puts its tongue over the bit - which can be indeed harmful. But the problem with the horse's mouth starts way earlier and the root should be tackled - not just using a bandaid to hide the problem.
Hyperflexion or in its more extreme variation Rollkur is used to bend the neck of the horse down and inward. The use this serves is to collect the horse in the front so it will engage more in the hind. There are several more reasons heard from people using or defending it, like it makes the horse more subtle to the aids, more soft or even plainly more compliant.
And true, engaging the hind and collecting in the front helps to develop the thoracic sling, build shoulder and back muscles and make a horse stronger and healthier while carrying a rider. So does this outcome justify the means? And are the ‘means’ even that harmful?
Is compliance really the way to go to find harmony as a rider with a horse? Is it truly voluntary if we hold on to the head of an animal with so much force?
The thing with the outcome and the theory of hyperflexion is: it’s a theory. In practice a body doesn't work this way. Horses are no robots or any different in their built than we are. They have the same inner structures of muscles, ligaments, organs and nervous system.
So tell me, do you work better under pressure? Do you work out better if your head and neck are held in a certain position? Do you get fitter and stronger doing the same movement in the same position over and over again? Or will your body eventually ache and compensate?
Why is hyeprflexion harmful?
Hyperflexion does nothing more than restrict the horse. In its movement, in its sight, in its breathing, in its relaxation and its ability to develop a healthy movement pattern.
Studies have proven that different head positions have an impact on the nervous system and how the horse is feeling and experiencing and hyperflexion really does cause a higher stress level - which is no surprise given some knowledge of anatomy and what happens in the mouth, throat and neck.
Several dissections of deceased horses have also shown drastic changes in the cervical spine, especially the c3 vertebrae where the neck makes a ‘break’ when held in hyperflexion.
Not even regarding the increased risk of mouth injuries and induced bit pain which only adds to the discomfort and stress.
Breathing in this position can be difficult as well as the angle to the trachea becomes too small.
Horses need their head to not only balance themselves out and give into relaxation of the big carrying muscles in back and chest, but also to correct their sight. Seeing is one of the most important senses to them regarding their safety and in order to adjust the sharpness of their horizontal pupil they need to move their head.
All these factors make clear that holding the head in a certain position has no place in a welfare oriented training approach. It is anatomical, biomechanical and morally incorrect.
But what about healthy movement, thus an engaged hind, round back and lifted front? Don’t we need that in order to keep our horses healthy riding horses?
Absolutely we do. There's no way around training a horse for carrying a rider and that does require a strong thoracic sling, well developed back muscles that embed the spine, correct balance and an active hind that steps under and over.
So let’s come back to voluntary and the way a body works.Since we are no machines our nervous system has a lot to say about how we move.
When we are afraid, in pain or uncomfortable we crouch, protect our chest with crossed arms or round shoulders, we make ourselves smaller and “hide”. Now try to dance lightly, expressively and in harmony with your body. Doesn’t work right, because you have to feel it. You have to feel light, expressive and harmonic. You have to feel your whole body and the muscles moving with ease.
What should we be looking for instead?
You can't have a stressed, afraid or uncomfortable horse to look and search for healthy movement and harmoniously engage its whole body. You can’t have a muscle relax while it's restrained to one position in tension.
In order to achieve the posture the horse needs, the horse needs to find it and be rewarded for it. With lightness and positivity. And that needs a mature body, time and skill. Posture doesn't come overnight, with the same repetitive movements and for sure not with force.
We can teach horses to use their body differently, experiment with it and find relaxation while engaging. You can do so best while working from the ground and in hand. And then if you both know when and where to achieve it you can translate it to riding.
It’s not a longer way, it's the right way.
Because short cuts usually end up being detours. Especially when it’s compromising the psychological and physiological integrity of the body and causes actual harm that can turn into long term deformities and injuries.
You see hyperflexion everywhere. With great names at great events. Keep in mind what keeps those events driving, organizations and business running. It’s not the interest in horse welfare. And the horse sport is and always was a business.
But our love for horses can maybe turn it into a different direction where we spent money on the right things. And for that we all must be aware, knowledgeable and understanding, from top to bottom.
To form your own opinion and confirm what I wrote above I invite you to do your own research. You can start here https://www.sciencedirect.com/search?qs=hyperflexion%20horse