Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price
It’s controversial. This training technique has been a topic of debate for over ten years. Hyperflexion is not just a dressage issue. Hyperflexion has been used by jumping trainers and others. It also has implications for how people train horses.
Hyperflexion is when a horse is ridden or longed with his neck and poll tightened and his profile behind the vertical. His head might touch his chest, his knees, or be turned either way. The technique is said to improve a horse’s ability to lift and round its topline, which is essential for collecting work. It also supples his muscles and encourages expressive gaits. Critics claim it causes harm to the horse.
Who’s right? Research is now providing answers. We’ll be looking at both the arguments and data in this article.
Anne Gribbons, a dressage judge and trainer, says she first encountered the technique at the 1990 World Equestrian Games. Anne, who has competed and officiated at the highest levels of competition in the United States and overseas, said that Nicole Uphoff used it on Rembrandt her champion in the warm up. “This horse was very spooky and I believe extreme flexion was used by Nicole Uphoff on her champion Rembrandt in the warm-up.” Anky van Grunsven, Isabell Werth, Germany, and other skilled riders adopted the technique, and others began to follow their lead. Anne warns that if the rider does not have sufficient skill, it could be dangerous.
In the middle of the 1990s, it became common for horses to be ridden or ludicred in hyperflexion during precompetition warming-ups. Many critics, including respected veterinarians and trainers, began to object to the practice as abusive. To investigate the matter, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), established a working group consisting of 60 riders, trainers as well as vets and officials. Hyperflexion of neck is a method of training/working to give a degree longitudinal flexion of midregion of neck that can’t be left alone without welfare implications. There must be an understanding that hyperflexion as a training aid must be used correctly, as the technique can be an abuse when attempted by an inexperienced/unskilled rider/trainer,” the group determined.
Nicole Uphoff used extreme flexion on her Rembrandt champion to help her horse focus. This technique was quickly adopted by other riders and was common in warm-up rings by the mid-1990s.
However, that didn’t resolve the problem. After Patrik Kittel, a Swedish rider riding a horse in hyperflexion, went viral in 2009, there was a furore. The horse’s tongue appeared to have slipped in front of his eyes and was blue. Kittel was cleared of any violations by an FEI investigation. However, there was outrage at Kittel’s “blue-tongue dressage” video. A review of the guidelines was ordered.
Many revisions later, the FEI position is nuanced: Hyperflexion–redefined by the group as extreme flexion achieved through “aggressive force”–is unacceptable. The organization states that extreme flexion can be beneficial for pre-exercise stretching if it is achieved with minimal force and sustained for no more than 10 minutes. The key element in the FEI isn’t the degree of flexion, but the way the position is achieved.
Anne, who was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee during the midst of all the chaos, says that it has been difficult to put a policy in writing. “It’s still a work-in-progress.” Hyperflexion, which refuses to die, has turned into a zombie controversy.
Science Steps in
Professor Rene van Weeren from Utrecht University spoke at the ISES 2011 conference about flexion in horses. However, he stressed that there were only limited studies. Last year, 55 articles were presented that evaluated the effects of different neck and head positions.
(c) Arnd Bronkhorst
What does extreme flexion do to horses? Researchers have attempted to answer this question in many ways. They focus on different effects, sometimes coming up with contradicting conclusions. Uta Koenig Von Borstel, PhD, a professor from the University of Gottingen in Germany led a review of 55 articles that evaluated the effects of different neck and head positions. These results were presented at 2015 International Society of Equitation Science conference, which supports research into horse welfare and training.
For their findings regarding the physical effects of different neck and head positions on horses’ welfare, the review examined individual studies. The review also considered factors that could vary from one study to the next, such as horses’ training level, study design, quality, and length of hyperflexion. These studies measured head and neck position in terms of relative elevation and flexion, rather than aggression or force. Hyperflexion was, for most people, any neck flexion that places the horse’s profile below the vertical.
Dr. Koenig Von Borstel says that there is no agreement in practice about what level of pressure should be considered acceptable or when pressure should become forceful. A good threshold, according to science, is the maximum pressure that a horse will accept in order to attain a food reward. These thresholds are often exceeded when horses are riding in flexed positions.
Studies have shown that increased flexion can cause tension in the nuchal ligament (the main ligament of your neck), according to studies. Studies suggest that this could lead to injuries, particularly where the ligament connects with the vertebrae.
Diagram Nuchal Coloring Atlas of Horse Anatomy
- Impaired breathing. Studies found evidence of hyperflexion-related airway obstruction. The windpipe opening at the pharynx narrows due to Flexion, which makes it more difficult for air to flow through. Although the horse can still inhale, he must work harder to breathe. These horses were more anxious if they had difficulty breathing.
- Irregular vision. Another cause of anxiety is that horses can’t see clearly when their faces are tilted towards the ground.
- Damage to structures of the neck. Increasedflexion places tension on the nuchal, the main ligament in the neck. This can cause injuries, particularly where the ligament connects to the vertebrae. The vertebral joint can become arthritis over time.
- Anxiety and stress. A number of studies have shown that horses who were ridden or longed in Hyperflexion showed increased stress levels. As well as the physiological effects of the position (such as impaired vision and breathing), rider interventions (such as rein pressure or forceful aids), were mentioned as possible causes.
There are many ways that researchers can measure stress. Janne Christensen, Aarhus University, Denmark, conducted a study that measured stress levels using behavioral signs like head-tossing or physiological changes such as an increase in the levels of cortisol, saliva, and other behavioral indicators. The subjects, 15 dressage horses that were used to working in hyperflexion, were ridden by their regular riders for a 10-minute program in a loose and competition frame. They also had to do hyperflexion. After hyperflexion, the horses displayed more head-tossing and had higher cortisol levels.
Some research suggests that horses may also suffer from adverse effects due to lower levels of rein contact or flexion. She says that most of the studies Dr. Koenig von Bordstel reviewed did not examine the effects of increasing flexion. “But, in the meta-analysis it was clear that studies with different degrees flexion showed more negative effects than those with more flexion.
Hyperflexion & Performance
The electrical activity of neck muscles was monitored by research. It was found that the muscles at the top (splenius, trapezius), were more active when the horse’s profile was directly in front of the vertical. Hyperflexion was characterized by a greater activity of the major muscle in the lower neck (brachiocephalicus).
Diagram Muscles Artwork by S. Hakola/ A. O’Shea
Hyperflexion can be used as a training tool to get the horse to lift his back and stretch important muscles. It is also said to improve the horse’s gaits and performance. The evidence from the studies she reviewed was mixed. Nearly a quarter of all studies found benefits from hyperflexion, while nearly the same amount found negative effects. Rest of the studies were inconclusive. These areas were the most common.
- Movement (kinematics). Many studies have shown that horses who work in hyperflexion experience increased range of motion in their backs and limbs. Some studies also showed that the step length was shorter, while the time taken to complete the stride decreased. These changes were not observed in horses that were working without a rider or restricted to certain gaits.
- Workload. Based on horses’ heart rates and blood lactate concentrations, some studies suggest that horses work harder in hyperflexion.
- Muscle activity. Research showing that electrical activity was measured in different neck muscles revealed that muscles at the top (splenius, trapezius), were more active when the horse’s profile was directly in front of the vertical. Hyperflexion was characterized by a greater activity of the major muscle in the lower neck (brachiocephalicus).
- Performance. According to the horse’s level and training, dressage horses scored lower, higher, or the same when hyperflexion was a part of their warm up or training. Hyperflexion was deemed more comfortable for young horses, possibly because they were less submissive.
Conclusion of the review? The negative effects far outweigh any benefits. Dr. Koenig von Borstel believes further research isn’t needed. She says, “The data clearly show that hyperflexion is harmful. There is no reason to give more horses such treatments.”
What about the athletic benefits that muscle stretching has? According to the FEI guidelines, dressage stewards are responsible for monitoring warm-up rings. They consider neck flexions that are “low, deep, and round” as forms of warm up stretching. In almost all sports, stretching is an essential and well-established practice. It is used in equestrian sport for the continued suppleness of the horses.” The guidelines state.
Sports-medicine experts recently raised concerns about the benefits of static stretching for athletes, especially pre-exercise. Phil Page, PT and PhD, is a condition specialist and teaches at Louisiana State University. He explains in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that static stretching involves holding a position for a short time (not minutes). Then, you release it. You can either do this passively (by your partner) or active (by you, the athlete). Dynamic stretching is the movement of a limb through its entire range of motion. While both types of stretching can improve range of motion, static stretching done before exercise has been shown to decrease muscle strength and performance when running or jumping. The FEI guidelines define some terms differently. They call a stretch “static” if it is done at a halt, and “dynamic” if it is in motion.
Extreme flexion is not just a problem in dressage. It is also used by trainers in jumping and other disciplines. This technique has important implications for how horses are trained and ridden.
(c) Arnd Bronkhorst
“Pre-exercise muscles stretches should not be used for horses that must produce high levels muscle strength or power,” states Hilary Clayton, BVMS. She is a professor emerita at Michigan State University, and a consultant in horsesport science. Dr. Clayton has extensive experience in research related to equine biomechanics and recommends core training exercises that are different from hyperflexion. Core training exercises are not meant to stretch the neck muscles, but to activate deep stabilizing muscles that protect [spinal] joint from injury. She says that core exercises are closer to Pilates than stretches in this respect. Core exercises include “carrot stretching,” which involves the horse moving his nose towards his chest, knees and front fetlocks in order to reach a carrot, or another bait. Dr. Clayton says they are done before any exercise to activate the deep stabilizing muscles.
She adds that carrot stretching is done when the horse stands rather than while in motion. This is because the neck isn’t meant to move or be held in extreme positions during locomotion. “We ask the horse to move his neck through full motion at the halt in order to activate and strengthen the deep stabilizing muscles in various positions.” After a few seconds, the muscles can relax again before the exercise is repeated. She notes that horses should not be held in an unnatural position for prolonged periods of time.
Carrot stretches, also known as static stretching, are a form of static stretching in which the horse moves his nose towards his chest, knees and front fetlocks while standing still. This allows him to grab a carrot or other bait. This activates and strengthens the deep stabilizing muscles from a variety positions.
(c)Amy K. Dragoo
ISES released a position statement after its 2015 conference that stated, in part, that riders, trainers, and officials of sports must be aware that flexion can have a gradual effect on welfare and that proper head and neck postures will not compromise psychological or physiological function. It is important to keep the horse’s airway open and ensure that the horse maintains its posture without the help of a rider/trainer or tack/equip.
Is the current FEI guideline, which allows extreme flexion by “unforced or nonaggressive methods”, sufficient to protect against abuse?
Dr. Koenig Von Borstel says that riding is all about negative reinforcement. This means that the rider applies pressure to the horse using the reins, legs and spurs as well as whip, until the horse responds. At this point, the pressure is released. The neck conformation of most horses doesn’t allow them to maintain extremeflexion for long periods of time on their own, so it is essential that the rider applies a certain amount of pressure. This is clearly against dressage doctrines that aim to maximize lightness and self-carriage.
Anne Gribbons believes the key question is how force should measured. It would be great if a horse could perform Grand Prix without the rider, but there is always tension and force. What is the point? It is when the rider grabs hold of the reins and kicks? It could be when the horse appears anxious or scared. Some horses are naturally tenser than other horses. She says that although we tried to be as precise as possible in the guidelines, it is still subjective.
“It is amazing to see that hyperflexion has never been as popular in America as it was in Europe,” Anne says. Anne says that most Americans don’t enjoy hyperflexion training. They use it to force submission. It can be used for short periods of time, but Anne says it may be useful in certain situations. For example, a horse that is extremely distracted or unable to deal with the environment or a young horse that insists on hollowing out his back “just so he gets that idea that he can do this.”
Anne believes that rules and supervision should be used to address abuses. Anne says that stewards’ clinics are a forum where officials can learn to spot signs such as changes in breathing, sweating and a panicked expression in horses’ eyes. We want horses who are happy doing their job. They must be protected. While we can regulate acts at shows, it is up to the riders and trainers at home.
The Mechanisms of Flexion
While most people think of flexion as affecting a horse’s neck and head, flexion can also affect his whole body and how he moves. The neck is an extension and support system for the spine. It’s connected closely to the back.
Bones : The seven cervical (neck), vertebrae protect and enclose the spinal cord. Each bone has a unique function and is designed specifically for its location. The first line is the atlas vertebra. It allows the horse to turn his head to one side or the other to produce direct flexion and indirect flexion at the poll. Next up is the axis vertebra. It allows tilting and twisting of the head. The remaining cervical vertebrae form an intricate chain that runs down to the base and then turns to join the rest below the withers.
Joints – The joint between the vertebrae allows the neck to be bent, bent, and turned, but the individual range of motion they allow is limited. Hilary Clayton says that horses prefer to use the joints at the base and poll of their necks rather than the ones in the middle neck. However, the rounding of the neck muscles can make this confusing. “In the low, deep, and round position, most of the flexion occurs at the base of your neck. There is actually very little flexion in mid-neck.”
Ligaments : Strong, flexible ligaments support the spine column. The bones are held in place by the short ligaments between the vertebrae. The long nuchal ligament runs from back to skull to withers. It is covered by elastic tissue that extends from neck vertebrae to body. It joins the supraspinous, which supports the back, at the withers. These ligaments are responsible for holding the vertebrae in position and controlling the horse’s neck movement by flexing, extending or bending his neck. Dr. Clayton explains that tension in the nuchal ligament pulls withers forward when the neck is flexed deeply. This helps keep the back round in the area below the saddle.
Muscles – Most of the neck’s muscle is made up of muscles. The vertebrae are stabilized by the muscles that are short and deep. Long muscles that are anchored at specific points on the bones or ligaments contract to raise, lower and bend the neck. In some cases, they can also move the front limbs forward. These include the semispinalis, trapezius and rhomboideus muscles, which are located above the spine and along with the brachiocephalicus.