You may have seen the video of the 'dancing horse' - Blue Hors Matine - the Danish grey mare which came second in the freestyle dressage at the 2006 WEG. Matine was a glorious horse and mostly excused her trade mark tail swinging - a sign of tension which should result in loss of marks - by judges and audience alike because of how expressive her movement was and because she was white and fans of equestrian sports do so love a white horse.
Marine had a meteoric rise to the top and a spectacular fall after just one season of competition at Grand Prix. She was retired at the age of 10 and put down at the age of 13 after a field accident in which she broke her carpal joint (the anatomical equivalent of the human wrist). She had been retired to stud after straining her pastern when she slipped off the ramp of a transporter, and never came right. It's a common enough story.
Lots of people see the video - it is the most commonly viewed equestrian video on YouTube - and most think it's an example of rider and horse in perfect harmony, the peak of equestrianism. But there's a dark side to all equestrian sports, and one that gets darker the higher up you go largely because more money and ego are involved.
Matine's rider, Andreas Helgstrand, was a proponent of 'rolkur'. This training method relies on extreme hyperflexion of the horse's neck with the alleged aim of building up the muscles of the 'topline'. It is highly controversial. Opponents of it argue it is cruel and damaging to the horse; advocates and proponents of it argue it is a perfectly safe form of exercise when performed by skilled riders.
Dressage is supposed to be the 'highest expression of horse training', progressing through stages to the highest possible level, Grand Prix. The outline demanded of the advanced dressage horse is derived from the horse's natural display postures - i.e. arching the neck, and elevating and /or lengthening the stride. The advanced dressage horse has to be - i.e. it is a requirement of the FEI - worked in a double bridle in competition. That's two bits attached to two sets of reins. The single jointed snaffle element has a nutcracker action and is judged to be less severe; the solid curb bit has a chain that runs under the chin which tightens when pressure is applied to the rein, and has a lever action on the tongue and lower jaw occasioned by the bit's long shanks. The pressure that can be exerted on the jaw, tongue and chin by even moderate rider action can be extreme.
The picture above is a close up of a horse being worked in by Andreas Helgstrand at a competition. The way the horse's nose is wrinkling and the fact his mouth is open indicate he was in some distress. The fact that his tongue is blue is as a result of the loss of blood flow because of the pressure of the curb bit. That, and spur marks on the horse's flanks, evoked international outrage and resulted in Helgstrand facing cruelty charges.
Helgstrand was acquitted of animal cruelty although he was judged by the Danish Dressage Federation to have been using the double bridle and aids 'inappropriately'. The spur marks were judged by a vet not to have caused the horse harm but the question that was not asked or answered by the vets or the courts was, is why did a supreme equine athlete need to be spurred so heavily?
The answer may be that the horse was in pain from the bone spurring the vet found on the right side of the animal's lower jaw, which would have been caused by repeated pressure and concussion from the bits. It may also have been that he was in oxygen debt because of the impairment of his respiration - both from having an open and wet mouth, and having his head cranked into a posture that, in effect, almost pinched his airway shut.
This is another Grand Prix rider employing hyper flexion when working in a horse before a competition.
Anyone who knows anything about the horse's anatomy and physiology knows that extreme hyperflexion both inhibits breathing and prevents the horse from seeing where it is going. It is a simple anatomical fact that when the horse has its nose 'behind the vertical' i.e. it is 'over bent', it cannot see properly, nor can it breathe efficiently. The physiology is simple so there is no excuse for how often and how utterly it is misunderstood - to the horse's detriment.
Horses at liberty adopt display postures only briefly. All horses when exercising at liberty have a closed and dry mouth because the more the horse exercises, the more air it needs. When the horse is exercising it does not want to be producing large amounts of saliva because of the fact that it - like us - cannot breathe and swallow at the same time. Unlike us, the horse can only breathe through its nose.When it needs to maximise air intake, it swallows what is in its mouth and closes its mouth firmly which ensures its oesophagus is fully closed off and its airway is fully opened. It flares its nostrils and stretches its head forward which ensures a smooth flow of air into its lungs. Its body is in exercise mode - i.e. adrenaline and cortisol are being produced to kick start and fuel activity and saliva production stops - the mouth is closed and dry. Saliva and/or food in the mouth when breathing heavily means there is a risk of breathing fluid or solids into the lungs which would result in a severe coughing fit in the short term and aspiration pneumonia in the longer term.
Put simply, a closed dry mouth ensures no choking and the full opening of the airway. An elongated neck and flared nostrils means the passage of air to the the lungs is maximised. You have only to look at the way the horse stretches its neck down and forward when is is galloping - going flat out - or when it is recovering from extreme exertion to see how important that anatomical arrangement is.
A bit interferes with those processes by creating confusing signals - i.e. unless the horse is in a state of panic, the presence of something in the mouth provokes autonomic saliva production. Horsey folk are told is a sign of 'the horse 'accepting' the bit which means that the horse is not panicking but is experiencing competing autonomic signals: something in mouth = produce saliva to aid mastication and digestion; exercising = need for closed, dry mouth to maximise efficient respiration and avoid aspiration of saliva or food particles.
The reason that ALL dressage tests from beginners to advanced have periods of extended or free walk in them are to allow the horse to regain its breath because the head posture required of the dressage horse - even when technically perfect, i.e. the nose being on or slightly in front of the vertical - restricts the airway. It also inhibits vision. The horse raises its head to focus on distant objects and lowers its head to focus on anything close to it. The more 'over bent' the horse's head is, the less it can see - its vision is restricted to what is immediately in front of its front feet.
Being released from a position of severely restricted vision and air intake is the reward associated with the pressure of hyperflexion. Hyperflexion is not about building up the top line, it is all about domination.
The horse was and remains a potent status symbol. The image of the prancing horse, a powerhouse of brute strength and energy held in check by the rider's hands on the reins is one beloved of ordinary folk as well as megalomaniacs and those who portrayed them in stone, bronze and on canvas. To my eye, these statues below depict horses that are in pain and terror. There is no excuse for this these days.
In case you are tempted to think that cruelty cloaked by tradition is confined to the upper echelons of dressage - think again. This piece of abject grossness below is American saddlebred showing - and there are equally vile and routine abuses of horses in reining and rodeo, in show jumping and eventing and horse racing.
If you want to see how a Grand Prix dressage horse will choose to position its head when ridden without a bit - this is a demonstration by Polish rider Andrzej Slack.