If you have a passion for dressage, horse welfare, or both, chances are you've wondered about the fact that top-level dressage horses often perform with their heads positioned behind the vertical. A recent study from the equine research group at the Swiss national stud has indeed found a link between this head-neck position (HNP) and higher scores in grand prix dressage competition.

How the Study was Conducted

Under the leadership of Kathrin Kienapfel, the researchers examined the HNPs and instances of "conflict behaviour" — such as tail-swishing or "unusual oral behaviour" — in dressage horses during their warm-up and in the competition arena. Using footage from a five-star international competition in 2018 and 2019, they precisely analyzed the angles of the poll, nasal plane, and shoulders.

The Findings

According to the study's findings, dressage horses with noselines held further behind the vertical did indeed tend to receive higher scores. By cross-referencing these findings with each horse's observable "conflict behavior", the researchers have drawn a rather concerning conclusion. "The result implies that there might be concerns related to animal welfare and rule compliance," states the team in the conclusion of their study.

The Implications

Dr. Kienapfel maintains that the findings of the study "appear to contradict the established rules, yet these deviations are not penalized by the judges during competitions." Yet, rather than indicting the judges, she calls for a change in the system. "We should have acted yesterday but if we don’t, in the near future, riding horses will be forbidden, for welfare reasons. I strongly believe it is possible to ride, and do dressage, as a harmonious partnership,” she explained.

A Closer Look at the Rules

As per the guidelines of the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale), a dressage horse's head shouldn't be positioned behind the vertical. Yet horses were observed to be behind the vertical more often and show more conflict behavior during the warm-up than in the actual competition.

FEI dressage judge Stephen Clarke stated, “We have excellent stewards who ensure that the horses are not ridden in an abusive or excessively overbent position for any length of time in the warm-up areas.” He emphasized therefore that it’s the stewards', not judges', role to monitor the warm-up area.

Horses, Scores, and HNPs

While Dr. Kienapfel acknowledges many factors behind a horse's score, and that the HNP is only one among them, she believes that the current reward system is misaligned with the principles of ethical horsemanship. “If you do a good performance and your horse is behind the vertical, you’ve got a good chance of doing well. I don’t know why there’s such a problem acknowledging that there is a problem."

On the other hand, Clarke defends the judges’ current scoring methods. He elucidates, “We do see horses with great impulsion and expression, fulfilling the majority of the ideals of the training scale, but maybe a fraction behind the vertical, or maybe a little low at the poll.” In such cases, he mentions that these horses can still be awarded fairly good scores, but the perfect score will evade them.


The findings of this study will be thoroughly reviewed and discussed during an upcoming FEI veterinary committee meeting, stated an FEI spokesman. As observers and enthusiasts of dressage and equestrian sports, it's incumbent on us all to stay informed about these discussions, and, most importantly, upholding equine welfare above all.

There's room for both an appreciation for the athletic prowess of these magnificent creatures and a deep concern for their well-being. As we move forward in this sport we love, let's be sure we're moving together in the right direction.

Source: Horse & Hound (link)