Icelandic Horse Connection

Cavallo Article on the Icelandic Horse World Championship

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Cavallo Article - translation
by Christine Schwartz

His eyes are flashing their whites, the nostrils are huge, the lower neck is as tight as a bow. When the chestnut enters the arena the audience erupts in applause.

Such pictures were the rule, rather than the exception at the World Championships in the Dutch town of Oirschot. Cavallo joined Dutch trainer, judge and psychologist Dr Ulrike Thiel at a visit to the WC in August. In addition the pictures were shown to Gaited horse experts for commentary.

“What is the rollkur for riders of Warmbloods is the pulled up head with Icelandic riders”, says Dr Thiel who also criticizes abuse in dressage and jumping competitions as seen in the July issue.

For horses either incorrect carriage is equally damaging because they are geared towards show, not flexibility. “The back and loins are tight, the horse’s vision is impaired the front legs are struggling to get away from the hind legs” compares Ulrike Thiel. Other similarities are the tip of the hoof that is kicked up, often seen in Warmbloods that are forced behind the vertical when they trot, it can be seen in Icelandics as well. Whether the neck is forced up of down, respiration is inhibited and in both cases spectators see – if they choose to - the same amount of stress on the horse’s faces. Rolling eyes, enlarged nostrils and tight mouths.

Both disciplines will talk the problem away, criticism is looked down upon. Those who critique poor riding in the Icelandic world will be put down as much as those who criticize the rollkur and methods used by Dutch dressage riders Sjef Janssen and Anky van Grunsven.

Bruno Podlech, owner of Icelandic Horse Farm Wiesenhof in Germany says the stressed faces and panic in Race pacers is normal. The gait is a way of flight for the horse, he says. The back is tight and the horse is close to bolting. Podlech, who has several World Championship titles under his belt, is convinced that to create the flight willingness in the horse it should feel as if it is running on ice.

However, a horse ready for flight is also fearful and that fear blocks the communication with the rider. “Therefore fear while pacing is damaging” says Austrian Icelandic horse trainer Gereon Wimmer. “Muscles that have been tightened due to unnatural restraints are bad for pace”, he says, a medium head carriage with stretched neck is the ideal carriage for pacing.

If the head is just a hair too high the body triggers a biochemical cascade of stress hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin., which speeds the horse up. The negative side of this burst of speed is horses that fight the rider.

For gaited horse trainer and judge Andrea Jaenisch these fights between horses and riders are always a sign that the horse is not trained well enough. Pace horses do not need the same type of lateral flexibility that is required for lateral work at the trot in dressage horses, but they should be subtle enough to flex and perform simple lateral work. “This creates more subtle horses and the transfer into pace is more harmonious”, says Andrea Jaenisch. Pictures like the gray horse on page 152 would be fewer.

Countless Sport riders of Icelandic horses explain about these pictures that a special gait requires special riding. Tolt only work with a high head carriage and dropped back. They forget that no matter if it is a Shetland pony or a Shire the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments follow the same biomechanical laws. A dropped back will hurt and tighten even the back of an Icelandic horse.

“If my horse tolts only in a tightened frame and not in its natural carriage, I need to stop tolting” says Thommy Haag, breeder, trainer and judge in Germany. This comment places Haag in a lonely spot because if you take a look at the track you see far more ambitious riders sitting on tensed horses and doing all they can to win the trophy. The goal is the “wow factor” as is written in the judge’s guideline book published by FEIF.

Higher, faster, more spectacular is required in the Icelandic world the same things we look for in dressage and jumping. Who still remembers that Icelandics started out in Europe to give riders an alternative to showing, have fun with their horses and ride without the pressure of winning ribbons.

That was half a century ago. Today the front end action of an Icelandic is so important that the pressure on the breed is the same as his college the Warmblood.

Necks are extremely raised, causing sore muscles and joints. When pacing this is supposed to keep the horse from galloping. When tolting this carriage activates the raising of the forearm and creates more action. This effect is also achieved when the saddle is placed too far back. The saddle pushed into the long back muscle on the vertebrae of the loin , paralyses the loin and activates the muscle that pulls the front legs upwards. In addition the saddle blocks the glutus medius when pushing from the back to the front. “As a result the horses are pounding with high action in a mechanical manner with lots of effort while the hind end grows naturally stiffer and flatter” says Andrea Jaenisch. At least in Germany there is a growing trend towards NOT placing the saddle too far back on the horse. In recent times riders have been receiving warnings for saddling too far back.

This is also true for riders who can not sit their horse’s trot and bounce onto their backs. “It is terrible that riders who ride at the WC can’t sit their horse’s trot” says Ulrike Thiel. “The horses have to be terribly tight to be that rough”.

Many riders braced against the movement, grabbed with their knees, sat leaning back in a chair seat and tightened their pelvis. Riding instructor Ulrike Thiel saw only two riders who stood out for a good seat and content horses. One of them was Lena Trappe from Germany who won a silver medal in previous years and also received an award for good riding. This proofs that good results are possible without tight muscles, but it is more work. According to Tommy Haag Icelandics have to be trained in dressage to level M or S (highest levels). “Then they won’t just run forward when asked to tolt or trot fast. However, the majority of show riders do not look at the classic way of riding but take the shortcut by pulling their horse’s head up to get more action”, he says.

“About 80% of our riders don’t have a foundation in their riding education as is typical in the world of Warmbloods,” says Thommy Haag. “Which is why they don’t even know about the damage they are doing to their horses.” Haag himself rode without instruction until he noticed that he had become stuck. Since then he learns from the Danish Master Bent Branderup, sidepasses at the tolt and places a lot of importance on flexion.

“This may make the movement somewhat flatter, but it is better for the horse’s back.” Classic riding and tolt are not a contradiction for Haag because he knows that even old riding instructions had good suggestions for gaited horses. After all there was some tolt in most breeds in Europe at some point in their past.

Much of this old knowledge disappeared as riders concentrated more on the gaits. Different training methods emerged, but they did not make it to Iceland. There riders used trial and error to come up with their own way of training horses, a solid foundation of training was not developed in Iceland. Even today there is a great lack official binding rules.

“The German FN rules are not faultless, but they explain the use of aids very well and give a good well rounded picture of education. We don’t have something like this for Icelandics”, says Haag and explains why missing guidelines create a lot of misunderstanding.

A good example is the Icelandic stallion Kraftur fra Bringu, who is often praised for his good collection.

“ Kraftur is a beautiful horses, but for true collection his croup is too high. He stomps more in front that engaging his hindlegs and he is too tight in his poll and neck” explains Haag. The dilemma is that many riders try to copy Krafur’s look. We can once again compare to the dressage world where the same problem arises with riders riding passage and piaffe. It bothers Haag that horses and riders are measured under the same guidelines no matter if they are competing at WC levels or beginner shows for young horses. The judges are tied to the rulebook which does not always work for horses of different levels. An example would be that at slow tempo tolt a horse with medium engagement of the hindend and high action in front receives the score of 8, however, a horse with high action and large movement but stiff back receives a 6.5. Exports know that this is geared towards the manipulated pacy tolter that can not engage his back. A low score of only 5 is given at changes of speed at the tolt to horses that show “good beat, average change of speed, correct riding”.

“This is nonsense” complains Haag. “It makes no sense to punish good riding only because the horse is moving naturally and does not show exaggerated action.” This practice causes good riders to drop the sport, just as happens in dressage. The price we pay is a loss of a true four beat gait and horses who can no longer stand still.

Where gait wonders are awarded with medals and natural movement is dismissed, manipulation of gaits is encouraged. “At the WC in 1993 one horse was kept in a dark stall and when he entered the oval track flashlights were used on him to get him to show himself with more flash” tells Haag.

Others are trained with elastics, a practice also known in the world of dressage, that creates marionette like action of the front legs” explains Birgit Dresel of Windwalker Farm in Germany. To exaggerate movement in the past riders would secretly re-shoe their horses inside the trailer between classes. This is now no longer allowed and shoeing is carefully checked during competition. However, usually the bad guys are a step ahead of those who want ethical treatment of the horses.

When the hoof problem was solved bleeding mouths slipped into the center of attention. Because some horses left the competition ring with bleeding mouths. Some classes were also shortened when one horse jumped out of the ring. “Excellent” praises Haag “but only the symptoms are being addressed, not the cause of the problem.”

This already starts at a ground level where brave ambassadors for better riding are receiving threatening phone calls and are publicly humiliated. The flee to the internet chat groups where attacks are carefully monitored and hits below the belt not allowed. They fight for ethical treatment of show horses that is lined out with FN and should also be followed by Icelandic horse riders.

Rule #7 states that “the goal of training should be a harmonious connection between horse and rider. Rule #8: The manipulation of performance though non ethical influences is to be shunned and needs to be punished.”

FEIF has tried this with warnings and yellow cards. These were pulled 8 times between May 2006 and September 2007. However to receive a yellow card riders have to pull extremely hard on the reins or beat a horse. However, general rough riding and horses that are extremely ewe necked are only penalized with minor reductions in their score.

“The muscle at the bottom of the neck is a stress muscle”, says judge Thommy Haag who wishes for stricter rules that punish poor riding. “If that happens we will only keep about 5 % of the riders in the top positions. The really good ones.”

By Anja Burkhart

Photos Page 153 Tommy Haag: This horse is no managing the transition from canter to pace. It avoids the rider and fights. These pictures can happen with all riders, such as a jumper who refuses a jump.

Dr. Ulrike Thiel : The back and neck are totally tight. The vertebrae in the back and neck are receiving too much pressure. The horse is completely on his forehand, which puts extra pressure on the joints. A rough pull on the mouth, his facial expression and unnatural carriage create a huge amount of stress in this horse. His dropped back shows his desire to flee. He experienced the rider as a predator on his back.

Andrea Jaenisch: The transition from canter to pace is not working here. This should be practiced more at home. If the horse braces this much it is useless to pull on his mouth. When the horse is in this physical frame the horse is too stressed to learn. In this case the rider only wastes a lot of strength.

Photos top page 154:

Thommy Haag: In a well trained horse light signals are enough to place it into pace. The overdeveloped muscles in this horse’s neck show that the carriage is all wrong. I wish this type of neck would be judged more critically. That would eliminate these types of pictures. Horses with this high carriage will also lean more towards a four beat pace and not have a very good flight phase.

Andrea Jaenisch: See page 153

R Ulrike Thiel: The horse is pulled up roughly by the reins. The rider is too far back on the horse’s spine, which creates pain to the tight back muscles. Due to the extreme tension and tightness at high speed the hip joint is overtaxed.

Pace 154 bottom picture: Tommy Haag: The curb chain is too loose which allows the shank of the bit to be pulled too far back. When looking at the tension in the neck you can see that the horse has no possibility to release. The mouth being tight shut does not hide this. Bad is the extremely low and tight noseband that keeps the horse from opening its mouth. It is sad that the combination of Icelandic bit and noseband is allows at international shows.

Dr Ulrike Thiel: The noseband is extremely low and is supposed to eliminate bracing. However the horse still tries to show his pain exaggerated by the pinching of the tight down corner of the mouth.

Pictures page 156 : Thommy Haag: Again the mouth is tied shut. If it wasn’t if would be wide open when the rider pulls in this manner. The rider is behind the horse’s movement. In her defense one might assume that another horse is suddenly coming towards her and she is trying to avoid a collision.

Andrea Jaenisch: It is useful to bend the neck to loosen a horse, but it has to be done lightly. When the rider uses a pull and strength the opposite will happen. To protect itself from injury that can result from heavy and abrupt pulling on the rein, the horse will tighten its mouth and neck. Even though bending can be useful he opposite happens when you use strength.

Dr Ulrike Thiel: The rider pulls hard on the rein which tightens the horse’s neck and poll. It becomes crocked and tightens his back. This putts more stress on the joints.

Bottom picture page 156: Thommy Haag : The horse’s carriage is not great, but okay. The mouth is closed, there could be more stretch. The rider is sitting too far back.

Andrea Jaenisch: When the saddle is placed this far back it causes too much pressure on the loin and back muscles.

Dr Ulrike Thiel: The rider is far to big and heavy for the horse and rides in an extreme chair seat which blocks his hips and makes it impossible for him to follow his horse’s movement. This causes a lot of extra pressure on the horse’s loins and the horse has no way to move fluidly as the rider blocks the flow.

Drawing page 157: Bottom of the neck and results:

When the rider pulls the horse’s neck up the bottom of the neck tightens (especially the muculus brachiocephanlicus). This pulls the back muscles together the ligaments can’t work properly and the tips of the vertebrae touch each other.

The back no longer functions as a bridge but is dropped.

Pictures page 158 Thommy Haag: It is not possible to be more ewe necked than this. It is impossible for the rider to get the horse into pace in this posture. The white in the horse’s eye shows that he is fearful and in pain. He is looking back at his rider. The horse is lacking stretch which may be partially because the horse is just being taken from gallop to pace.

Andrea Jaenisch: See page 153

Dr Ulrike Thiel: The horse has extreme pain in his withers where the points of the vertebrae are touching. The longissimus dorsi is tightened and therefore can not perform its function. The horse’s eye shows strong signs of fear and pain. The nostrils are enlarged because the horse can not breathe properly in this position. The mouth is open showing pain.

Small picture page 159

Thommy Haag: This carriage has been forced, sadly it has become a typical way for a horse to carry itself in tolt. In the long run this will create problems in the mouth.

Dr Ulrike Thiel: The bit and rings on the side of the bit are pressing into the mouth. They are causing pain and the horse responds accordingly. It is sad that a rider who just won a ribbon is nor responsible enough to thank his horse.






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