Aesthetic Modifications (Such as Tail Issues) and Training Modifications (Such as Rollkur) that Impact the Welfare of Competition Horses
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
C. Heleski
Ag Equine Programs/Animal and Food Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA

“Equitation science promotes an objective, evidence-based understanding of the welfare of horses during training and competition by applying valid, quantitative scientific methods that can identify what training techniques are ineffective or may result in equine suffering” ( The relatively young field of equitation science has yielded many important findings in terms of equine welfare in a competitive setting; for example, König von Borstel and others4 performed a meta-analysis of 55 studies related to hyperflexing horses’ necks (e.g., rollkur). In 88% of the studies, the hyperflexed neck posture negatively impacted welfare. During our discussion we will discuss differences/perceived differences between rollkur and low, deep and round. We will also discuss how similar tactics are used in other disciplines, besides dressage and show jumping, but are less often scrutinized.

Within the competition side of the horse industry, there are a number of aesthetic modifications undertaken to enhance the (perceived) beauty of our equine competition partners. Many of these have not traditionally fallen under the umbrella of equine research. Modifications to the horse’s tail provide an interesting set of examples2 to discuss why each practice was started, what is the rationale by industry insiders to continue the practices, how do the associations and their rulebooks respond, and what are potential welfare implications. The four tail issues we will specifically discuss are tail docking in draft horses, gingering for high held tails in certain breeds, nicking and setting the tail in certain breeds, and blocking the tail in certain disciplines. There has been very limited research in this area,5 and some of the practices continue to be performed ‘under the radar.’ We can, in all likelihood, extrapolate to extensive work that has been done in other mammalian species, e.g. lambs.1


1.  Fitzpatrick J, Scott M, Nolan A. Assessment of pain and welfare in sheep. Small Ruminant Research. 2006;62(1–2):55–61.

2.  Heleski CR. Equine welfare in a competitive setting—What can ten-plus years of research by the equitation science community tell us? (And what critical pieces are still missing?). Journal of Animal Science. 2016;(94)54.

3.  International Society for Equitation Science.

4.  Konig von Borstel U, Hall C, Pierard M. Hyperflexing horses’ necks—meta-analysis and cost-benefit evaluation. Conference proceedings: ISES Denmark. 2014.

5.  LeFebre D, Lips D, Odberg F. Tail docking in horses: a review of the issues. Animal. 2007;1(8):1167–1178.


Speaker Information
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C. Heleski
Ag Equine Programs / Animal and Food Sciences
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY, USA

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