FEI rules Patrick Kittel’s warm up methods “not excessive”

When Patrik Kitell warmed up Watermill Scandic, his tongue protruded from his mouth.

The so called “Blue Tongue” video, which shows Patrik Kitell training the stallion Watermill Scandic at a World Cup event last October sparked a huge debate about the use of Rollkur (or hyperflexion) around the world. A horse’s tongue can turn blue when the curb bit presses down on the tongue, impairing blood circulation.

After reviewing video of the event, the FEI says it has found “no reliable evidence” that the warm up techniques used by Kittel on his horse were excessive. The FEI issued Kittel a warning letter and was told his actions will be watched in the future.

That’s not to say that the FEI issoft on Rollkur. A round-table discussion on Rollkur by FEI officials yesterday has declared that any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable, and agressive riding must be sanctioned and emphasized that the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider.

The backlash against Kittel was swift. Many people wrote letters to the FEI protesting the use of hyperflexion and posters such as this sprang up on the Internet.

So what about Kittel?

The video below was shot by Epona.TV of the warm up area. Their criticism of his ride included the length of the schooling, as well as the use of hyperflexion. Their description is below:

For a minimum of two hours, Swedish Olympic rider Patrik Kittel trained his stallion, Watermill Scandic, in various degrees of hyperflexion, on Friday ahead of Saturday’s Grand Prix. EPONA.tv was passing by the warm up at 3.45 pm, and at this time, the rider was well into his session. At circa 5.45, the session ended.

During the first part of the training session, the horse’s tongue was briefly showing. The tongue was clearly blue, and flopped limply from the horse’s mouth. However, Patrik Kittel was quick to notice, and halted the horse before reaching for the muzzle with the hand furthest away from the camera. Afterwards, the tongue did not reappear.

I find the video incredibly difficult to watch. It’s not so much the tongue; I’ve seen many horses that stick their tongues out and it’s not always a sign of distress.

But to make a horse work with its nose almost touching its chest going around and around ad nauseum? To me it seems the diametric opposite of what dressage is supposed to be — lightness, balance, harmony and impulsion. I can’t come to terms with the idea that an end performance that attempts to achieve those goals can be built from a foundation that’s so forceful and restrictive.

Hyperflexion seems to be the training fad du jour. It’s been embraced by many top international riders and even if (and that’s a big if) they have the skill to use it judiciously, it will be emulated by less skilled riders and create a downward spiral of bad riding and unhappy horses.

I hope that FEI makes good on their promise to hold riders responsible for the welfare of their horses and that they start at the top.

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Should bitless bridles be allowed in USEF competitions?

Freedom models a Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle which features the cross under design.

Currently bitless bridles are not allowed in dressage competitions and are considered unconventional tack for hunters. You do see them in eventing (for the show jumping and cross country phases), in jumpers and in endurance competitions.

Increasingly I’ve seen discussion about the merits for changing the rules, especially in dressage, to allow the cross-under style bitless bridle to be permitted as an alternative to a bit. In 2008 the Dutch changed their rules to allow a variety bitless bridles in competition and now there is a motion in front of the USEF.

I’m not sure this is a great idea.

I think hyperflexion is an abusive training technique but it's not because of the bit. It's because of the way the bit is used by the rider.

My first concern is that this is a change that inexorably alters the foundation principle that dressage is built upon a horse’s acceptance of the bit.  In the best of dressage, the double bridle offers the most nuanced and subtle way for the rider to communicate with his or her horse.

Yes, it sickens me to see the power of the double bridle abused and I’m completely against the hyperflexion that is so commonly seen in warm up rings around the world. But that doesn’t mean that all bits are bad or that bitless bridles are necessarily better.  I strongly support the idea that riders and trainers be sanctioned for using abusive training techniques, but in my opinion it is not the bit that should be blamed, but the human using it.

Kroni did best in an LG bridle set either as a simple side pull or with mild curb action.

Let me clarify that I have nothing against riding bitless. Some horses do better bitless. I owned one. He  had a low palate and a thick tongue, which made many bits physically uncomfortable for him. When I found the right bitless solution for him, he practically sighed in relief. When I rode him bitless he was in self carriage, he was light, powerful and happy. He schooled up through second level dressage with no problem and he foxhunted first flight.

However, his issues with the bit disqualified him (in my mind) from being a competitive dressage horse. Not all horses are suited to every discipline. It may benefit them to school the movements, but if the horse doesn’t have the gaits, the obedience or the ability to accept a bit, why not find a job that suits them better rather than changing the rules?

The second reason I am so skeptical about this petition and the surrounding publicity is that it seems to be a product driven recommendation rather than a philosophical one. Why are only cross-under designs to be included? When the Dutch Federation evaluated bitless bridles, their judges looked several designs and from what I read in this article their preference was for a simple side pull design. In the end, the excluded those designs that were designed to be used without contact — mechanical hackamore, bosals, etc. and included other designs.

I had to try several different bitless designs to find one that worked for my horse. I tried the Dr. Cook’s bridle first because it was the one with the most published information. Kroni hated the poll pressure. His immediate reaction, which did not diminish with time, was to rear. He was much happier in a side pull. (Note: he did better in the Micklem multi-bridle because in that design the cross under strap is placed over the crown piece of the bridle, dispersing the pressure to the poll.) I have not tried the Nurtural bridle, so cannot comment on it.

On Dr. Cook’s site, he calls the double bridle “painful, frightening and dangerous” and his bridle “painless, effective, and no side-effects.” I think this is a vast oversimplification. In the right hands, bits (even a double bridle) does not need to be harsh. There are many bit designs now that allow riders to choose the type of mouthpiece that best suits their horse — just open a tack catalog and your mind is boggled by the choices.

Likewise, a bitless bridle is not necessarily painless or effective. My horse obviously found the Dr. Cook’s bridle painful because he reared when I tried it. I wanted to like the bridle. To make sure the nylon version wasn’t causing a problem by sticking during the release, I borrowed a leather Bitless Bridle and tried it too. There was no difference. I don’t have heavy hands but even just the lightest pressure on his poll caused my boy to get angry and then get light in front. He was more dangerous to ride in that bridle than in other bitless bridles or with a bit.

I think that before making a rule change, there needs to be much more thought and debate. To date, there really isn’t much data. Yes, I’ve seen the links to the “research study” conducted by Dr. Cook, Bitless Bridles touted as safer alternative for horses in new study. But seriously, this wasn’t a study that any research organization would call comprehensive: five judges evaluated four school horses who did a 27 minute demonstration ride, first with a bitted bridle and then with the bitless bridle. As the aphorism goes, multiple anecdotes don’t equal data. Four horses do not provide enough data to draw any meaningful conclusions. And if, as the press release suggests, the horses were ridden first in a bitted bridle and then in the bitless bridle, they could have shown improvement just because they were now warmed up and familiar with the routine.

So, off my soapbox! What do the rest of you think?

Read more of my writing on bitless bridles.

Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle: Will a cross-under design work for your horse?

Micklem Multibridle: Medium and strong configurations.

Micklem Multibridle: Side pull configuration.

On the Bit(less) Bridle: A comparison