‘Challenging the Status Quo’ was the theme of this year’s World Horse Welfare conference held in London on Tuesday (November 10).
And challenge was certainly what dressage trainer David Hunt did as member of the panel debating ‘traditional horse management and training practices are best’.
Clearly in his opinion the answer is: they are not. He stated that the use of ‘round and deep’ – a method of training used since around the beginning of the millennium – has “enhanced the performance” of British dressage horses and “brought the sport a long way forward”.
The term ‘round and deep’ is — rightly or wrongly — associated with rollkur, the position a horse is put into whereby the horse’s neck is hyperflexed and his chin is pulled into the chest. Hunt admitted that rollkur, which has caused global and emotive controversy, is at the extreme of round and deep and acknowledged the problems it has caused.
Whether the audience was asleep, had no idea what he was talking about or simply didn’t want to go there, who knows, but while he threw down the proverbial gauntlet, seemingly nobody really wanted to challenge the President of the International Dressage Trainers Club on the subject of ‘round and deep’. Fat horses, urban horses, worming and evidence based science were seemingly more important topics. I would forgive Hunt for feeling rather deflated at the lack of response.
His reasoning was that in England we have always been taught that “having the horse’s nose in front of the vertical is the done thing”. In his opinion, this can hamper the horse’s progression “because it trains the horse to go against the contact”. David believes that “round and deep, as it should be, is where the horse is in a better balance, very submissive to the contact and actually is not forced into a shape”.
He claimed that; “since round and deep has come in, horses are in a better balance, and have more energy,” and went on to say that “I think you will agree that the scores have shot up from the middle 70s to the 80s and 90s now and I believe this is all part and parcel of the same thing”.
There is no denying that in the last decade our riders have achieved higher scores. But I confess my eyebrows went up as I considered Hunt’s argument. Is the success of British dressage in the last ten years really due to ‘round and deep’? It is a big hypothesis. But who am I to argue with a former international rider and renowned trainer?
In any warm up arena now you see riders – of all levels – encouraging horses into a long and low outline. You even see it in eventing. Event rider Ruth Edge (who also rides pure dressage) will always start her horses this way while others struggle to get their horses ‘on the bit’. And her horses usually produce leading scores.
The long, low outline is a more natural position for a horse that is designed to spend its days walking and eating grass off the floor. It stretches and relaxes the back muscles — in order to hold a head high a horses back muscles have to be contracted, which, if held for a long time, is very tiring. No wonder horses lacking correct training (and trained riders) that end up ‘hollow’ start fighting the contact. It is painful. And we also see horses in that position anywhere and everywhere.
I also remember, what was to me an influential talk from the famed German vet Dr Gerd Heuschmann who attributed many modern back problems to the fact that young horses no longer spend their formative years walking fields with their heads down eating. Instead they are stabled, barned or kept in small patches, eat intermittently and often from hay nets or racks which put the horse in a totally unnatural position.
So working long and low, which, as the horse becomes stronger and more advanced, becomes round and deep, has to be beneficial — it strengthens and relaxes back muscles which in turn makes them more supple and comfortable. And we can see for ourselves that all our grand prix riders train their horses like this now.
However, I am not sure that the recent success is due to this one thing alone. We now have more riders than ever interested in the sport, which has led to an increased interest in training and methods and a greater understanding. We also have some fantastically talented riders who ride with empathy and work with their horses. And, importantly, riders have much better quality horses; horses that have been bred and designed for the job of dressage — which we most certainly didn’t have until quite recently. And this I think has made a huge difference — although one could argue they still have to be trained.
Yes, Hunt’s argument has merit and I thank him for making me think longer and harder about this: in part, I agree with him— but I don’t believe round and deep is the only reason behind the newfound success of British dressage.