The Ugly And The Bad – Hyperflexion And Us

I’ve said it before, when people suggest I’m being overly critical about their breed or discipline of choice, that I play no favorites.  The following blog article written by Erica Franz covers many things that are wrong in Dressage – Hyperflexion Breaks The Rules

But don’t let the title of the article scare you off, this applies to all of us no matter what discipline we choose.  It’s not just about the Dressage coined term ‘hyperflexion’, or a bunch of FEI rules being ignored by judges, riders and trainers that should know better.  It’s about our shortcomings as human beings and making really bad decisions at the expense of the horse, which we claim to love so very much.  The hypocrisy is enough to choke an elephant.

I echo Ms. Franz’s closing words:  Get involved, speak out, make this unpopular. Why are we afraid to protect our horse from abusive training methods, to save face from those who are popular at the moment. Have we never left high-school and the cliques and peer pressure? The horse must come first!

I also add, that ‘this’ applies to anything and everything that isn’t in the best interest of the horse.  Don’t stop at ‘hyperflexion’ or think because you don’t do Dressage that ‘this’ doesn’t apply to you or your discipline of choice.  In whatever discipline you choose there’s something smelly going on that needs to be stopped for the sake of the horse. Be brave, speak up, take action.

67 thoughts on “The Ugly And The Bad – Hyperflexion And Us

  1. I vote against hyperflexion, whether its rolkur in dressage, bitting rigs or overtightened side reins in western training, or just a butcher’s hands.

    That said, a horse can duck behind the bit, we can all have a bad moment where we lost balance and bumped the horse’s mouth and he backed off from the pain, it happens. But remember from the neck position thread, the muscles will tell us if this is done all the time to the horse. And the horse’s gaits will tell us as well. Four beat canters, disunited trots, horses on the forehand. We all need to recognize what is done out of sight of the public, because the horse’s body will tell us, and we need to speak out against trainer’s and competitor’s horses who show us that this is happening to them all the time.

    • Horses do duck behind vertical to avoid contact but rollkur is quite obvious with the addition of open mouths, lips pulled back inches beyond their normal position by the snaffle bit. I went beyond the “Hyperflexion Breaks the Rules” piece into a link loaded with photos of over flexed horses. Every one had obvious physical pressure putting the chin on the chest. Photo after photo of the same horse/rider combinations, decked out in full bridles with reins cranked back for all the riders are worth. It’s no different than the WP riders mentality of using draw reins and/or reins under the front legs of the horse to overset the head (on the ground) thinking that when the devices/pressure are removed, the horse will come up a touch – enough to win. Dressage assumes that rollkur will become vertical when pressure is released. Same mentality, different discipline. Everyone is learning the worst of the others’ habits. Kind of sad, really.

  2. Hello, I would just like to say one thing.

    I am currently riding an 8 year old Arabian gelding. We are working on collection, extension, bend, and flexion. At this stage in his training, in order for him to be collected (using his back, not straggling and not imbalanced) he does need his nose to be slightly behind vertical. I’m not cranking his nose in, his nose just tucks slightly more in when he is using himself. If I try to push his head out to vertical or in front of vertical at this stage, he will lose the use of his back and butt.

    Granted, this is not a permanent thing. This will last until he gains enough strength and understanding to be physically able to carry himself without going behind vertical. I am also aware that I am not perfect, yet for us to advance this is how it needs to be now. He is not being cranked in, he is relaxed, and this is what he needs at this point.

    • “If I try to push his head out to vertical or in front of vertical at this stage, he will lose the use of his back and butt.”

      There’s no reason to ‘push a horse’s head out’ (unless you’re saying the horse has learned how to evade and brace in this manner), but even then you don’t push the head out – wrong end, it’s the symptom not the cause. On an unspoiled horse, the head will always be where it should be according to level of condition and engagement. On a horse with good basics the stretchy circle is the exercise that tests the horse’s acceptance of contact, following the reins out by lengthening the topline and then following the reins in by shortening the topline while maintaining forward, rhythm, relaxation, balance etc…

      If the stretchy circle is mastered then the only other conclusion I can come to from your statement is that you’re riding your horse off his feet and unbalancing him. Thusly in response you’re under the impression that if you also combine that with holding his head that that will fix it until he’s stronger. Doing such will indeed make him stronger, but it’ll be the wrong muscles that are getting stronger and he’ll learn to brace and evade.

      I’m in the middle of fixing a horse which has had this exact thing done to her – told where to hold her head regardless of what she’d been telling her rider with her body about her condition, strength, and engagement. The first time I put her on the long lines she ‘assumed the position’ before she’d even taken her first step. It’s going to take me months to fix her body and that’s the easy part. The emotional and mental part that causes her to automatically adopt the fake frame, caused her to flip over on her rider, and causes her to blow up at random seemingly unprovoked can take significantly longer to resolve.

      I believe you’re going down the wrong road and will either regret it later on, or simply not recognize what’s happened to the horse. I do wish you all the best.

      • Good comment about the mare and how she’s an explosion waiting to happen. It doesn’t sound like she understand yield to pressure at all, only ‘be here’. Sounds about as fun as an OTTB – they can LEAN!

        I start all the youngsters with a reverse bend, move shoulder request relatively early on. I take a soft feel on both reins and use a firm inside leg to move the shoulders left/right and release as soon as the horse finds how to loosen one rein. I like that I’m getting the control I want (I’m too old for runaways, steering and brakes need to work) and the horse is learning a bit about a soft feel and how to ‘get rid of me’. Eventually I want this to transfer into circles where I can push the shoulder to the outside rein and hopefully not get too much bend. I need it for my comfort level but it seems to get the youngsters comfortable with the bit rather quickly – it certainly beats two reins in a tug-o-war contest that the horse can’t win at – and neither can I.

        Great subject. Lots of food for thought.

        • Hello again, thanks for the response. I just wanted to clarify one thing –

          When I say “pushing the horse’s head out”, I mean trying to get a stretchy circle before my horse is ready. This horse’s conformation makes it hard for him to get collected and use his back – he can do anything while bracing his neck and back. I’m also not holding his head in this position and forcing it, this is where he puts his head.

          When he is warmed up I can get beautiful stretchy circles, when stretching out. However, when asking for more collected work he tends to push against all my walls, looking for an evasion. This horse was built for longer strides, short strides aren’t yet his forte. However, as soon as he relaxes and lifts his neck, his head comes in too far. I am not looking to fix this now, as it is not my priority at this moment. Whether it be prior riding, or just something he does not know, until he can willingly and easily carry himself, it’s just not my priority.


  3. Teaching my mare proper head set was difficult. She used to run around with her head up and nose stuck out in front of her like a snobby cartoon horse, then we began getting her to lower herself into a nice head set and she almost immediately scrunched herself back to the other extreme into hyperflexion and we had to work on getting her to move back into the proper position again. We’ve got it down pretty well now. I’m letting her tell me what’s comfortable, not trying to dictate too much, just asking her to not go into those extremes.

    We started last fall/summer with a crap-ton of problems, head set being one of them, along with charging jumps, flipping her head, refusing to slow at the canter, refusing to do anything like a side pass, or turn off the front or hind end, charging out of circles, basically totally ignoring her rider. Now after a year to a year and a half, and many frustrating days later, we are a team, I know how to “talk” to her, I’ve improved as a rider and she’s improved as a horse. We’ve taught each other so much, and we now calmly canter through little jumping courses like it’s nothing. It took time and patience, not a quick fix of shoving her chin to her chest and demanding submission like so many riders seem to be doing today in the ring. People told me to just shove a gag bit in her mouth, that’d teach her. I ignored them, and I’ve never used anything but an eggbutt snaffle. You don’t need harsh tools to “teach ’em”, you need patience to properly train them and really communicate with them what you want. They aren’t machines to just crank into any position and do anything, they have muscles that can get strained, skeletons that can be damaged, minds that can be lost, and nerves that can be fried.

  4. No offense to Sterling or Quill, but the head is a result, not an aid to anything about collection. The horse’s head doesn’t do collection. The very long thread on the optimal position of the neck has several explanations, pictures of skeletons, etc. Pulling the nose back is not the proper way to get a head position, and if the horse is overly tucking the nose routinely, somehow, somewhere in your riding technique or you lunging technique, you are applying excessive pressure on the mouth of the horse to get something to look like collection, but you aren’t getting collection.

    As to Sterling’s observation, that the horse has to curl to get her back up, it is because she is trying to use her withers and neck properly, ie, the fulcrum over which the ligaments stretch to bring up the center of the back. Go back to that thread and there is a video embedded which illustrates this. That is the principle Mercedes is speaking to in mentioning the importance of the stretchy circle, or what the old time guys called chewing the reins out of the hands. That is the beginning of collection, using the skeletal structure of the horse combined with the topline ligament system to pull up the back like the cables in a suspension bridge. So Sterling, your mare needs t o lower her head, not because of her head but because of her withers and the nuchal ligaments. Her head is a weight, not an active part of what she needs to do, and her nose should remain in front of the vertical. The neck thread also mentions the ‘swan neck’ of arabs because of the breeding decision that the upper third of the “S” curve should be long, it looks pretty, and breeding favoring long necks in general, note the comments on the baby arab in the “assessing the youngster” blog. A long neck with a long turnover will tend to curl to much if any pressure is put on the mouth, it is an escape from actually doing the harder work of developing proper muscling. Because what the video skimmed over, but is very much more important if you ever want to reach full collection, is that the fulcrum of the withers should over time be the lesser way to lift the center of the back. All lifting starts with engaging the hindquarters, so if those are being left out behind, adress the hindquarter, the instructions are in the commentary with Blondmare and other posters of how to engage the hindquarter in these blogs. Secondly, the video shows some muscles in blue on the horse, but after naming them, it ignores the muscling of the neck. Those muscles are the story behind the pretty arched neck everyone wants to see, and they pull on the mouth to get which means those muscles never go to work. Those muscles, and the scalenus and complexus lift the base of the neck, doing by muscle power, actively engaging the muscles, what the fulcrum of the withers do in an elementary, its physics and inescapable way. Those muscle lift and straighten the skeleton of the neck and the withers, so that the spine levels out to the extent the conformation allows. And in collection, we want to be riding a level or slightly uphill spine if at all possible. Properly training those muscles will allow you to conquer three or maybe four inches of downhill in your horse, your little quarter horse or draft cross can probably come close to or be level, once you train it properly. It will never be as easy for them as with a horse bred to have a level or uphill spine when resting, because they will have to exert a lot of effort to maintain this posture, but they can do it. BUT not if you insist on pulling their nose in by mistakenly using your reins when you should be encouraging long and low with the nose out, not by thinking in terms of head sets instead of engagement, and not if you never figure out you need to learn to create flexion, a tiny motion in comparison to what pulling on the reins does or the false flexion of pullng the head back to your knee, but merely the tiny offset and tuck that releases the skull from the first vertebra.

    You can practice flexion first from the ground, if you are on the left of the horse, place your right hand at the crease of the jowl and neck, place the palm of your left hand over the bony bridge of the nose and very gently ask the horse to release to tuck its ‘chin’ just slightly to the left, the nose isn’t being pulled in, it is more a move left than in, the right hand can press lightly, to encourage the horse to offset that first vertebra. Think butterflies not power wench with these touches. Wait, reward the smallest try and start over, work both sides. As the horse begins to understand, it will probably start to scissor its jaws lightly and lick, it is mobilizing its jaw. Hence the part of Baucher that people overdo and gave him a bad name. Jaw flexions and mobilization of the jaw is the horse telling you it has released the poll into flexion. It is this small movement that sets up all the rest, allows the horse to become soft and flexible throughout its spine. You will never get this if you pull, have rearward traction on the reins or think that you need to move the head more than this small movement, which brings the inside eye into the circle so that you can see the corner of the eye. Sound familiar to those who have taken english riding lessons. It is not about bending the neck around either for those who have worked in western lessons/natural horsemanship. Bending the neck around has a purpose, ie, your horse learns to follow the feel of your hand without you applying pressure, but ultimately, he will twist at the second vertebra and his head will tilt, which is of no use in riding a horse, it leaks out energy and is an escape from the quiet communication that flexion allows.

    This is Harry Whitney working on horse on the ground, note the slack in the rein, but the horse hasn’t tucked its nose, but it has released at the poll, and its body is in a beautiful bend, note the outside hoof tracking in the path of the front foot, no crookedness with haunches cocked in or out, a bend you would love to ride into a corner or around a circle. It is not about the nose folks, leave it alone!

    What not to do, notice the tautness of the rein and the tilt to the horse’s head

    What to do when riding, note the tiny tuck and inward placement of the head, poll at the highest point, nice arch in the neck, this is just what we want to do:

    Again, at a walk while ridden, notice how small the difference is, nose slightly to the inside, eyes not both directly forward, that horse’s nose, if seen from the side would be approaching vertical, and notice there is no tension in the reins:

    Nuno Oliveira again, a lateral movement requiring more bend, but still note the slight offset of the flexion, poll high, horse relaxed, and given this is dressage, there is no tension in those reins, even though they are shorter:

    Another picture, what I suspect is a horse fairly early in its training career, schooling, again note the tension in the rein to the left, note the absolute release of the rein to the right, I suspect this was an argument moment, and just as Buck Brannaman or Ray Hunt might instruct, you apply equal pressure to what the horse exerts and you wait until they choose to give. The horse does not want to give, it has ever so slightly titled its head and Nuno has said no, you think about it. This is about as much as you would ever need to do with most horses, never pull back by equalizing pressure in both reins, release one, wait it out on one:

    Another thing to note about this picture, the original blog Mercedes linked to speaks to strength, but this is the kind of strength you need, note the bent elbow and fixed hand to the left, note the deep seat, weight fully into the seat bones, note the relaxation of the right arm, this is not about pulling the horse around, but not letting the horse pull you around or off your seat bones, this is core strength, fixed position, leverage, and using your skeleton to lock down as necessary.

    This is why good riding posture, core strength, understanding how your body works is absolutely necessary, it means you can resist without harshness or making a tug of war out of riding. A horse can’t poke it’s nose up and out into the sky if you know how to do this. It makes you safer, but also it makes your horse feel safer you won’t be hurting it. It can give in, it can trust you.

    • Good reference pics, J. I have to say that since I’ve been following this blog, I rarely see a dressage horse soft on the reins anymore. Even the youngsters in training are heavy and many look hollow – something I thought I was wrong about the past couple of years, and I wasn’t. They win so I assumed they were ‘correct’!

      • Very little about modern competition dressage is good any more, it is poisoning people’s ‘eye’ as well, they think they are seeing collection, seeing proper riding, seeing pure gaits being rewarded by judges, they are seeing things as bad as any riding anywhere, but more subtle during the show than the training pen or the warm up ring, from which spectators have been banned for obvious reasons..

      • Hello!

        I’m sorry if I miss some important points, where I am at it is very loud and it’s hard to focus. :p

        The gelding I ride works beautifully when stretching down (when warmed up), however, as we are starting to move into more collected work, he finds it hard to collect and use his butt more. I’m not pulling on the reins, I’ve worked hard to establish a fundamental “push” and stability, and any jiggling just means my gelding will move his head side to side and open and close his mouth. The only way to get a quiet mouth on him is to have very still hands.

        I’ve realized I’ve been saying something wrong, so I’d like to correct something there.
        When I set my hands at a position that isn’t curling up, my gelding automatically ducks behind the contact and lifts his head. It’s not about where my hands are, it’s just that he finds it hard to work collected, using his butt. Ditzing the reins is how he can shimmy out of using his butt.

        The best way to keep him soft through collected and extended work is to really make him use his butt. I hate people who saw horses’ mouths down or try to force a headset – I’m not trying to do this. I’m aware of when my horse is or isn’t using his butt – and when he isn’t, that is when he has giraffe neck.

        When I experimented today after reading some posts, I did realize that he does tuck his nose in farther than he should by himself, whether it be on a rein with the option to open up or not. It might be a habit, or it might not, but I view it as a training issue to be tackled when he is more physically able to start accepting contact. I also don’t see it as curling up – He is only a few degrees behind vertical, and working through himself. At least in my book curling up is when a horse’s head is down to his chest through habit or training – we may be on different pages here.

        Thank you

        • Sterling, I am glad that you were willing to experiment, most of riding is experimenting to get things right for that specific horse. Without seeing your horse, you riding it, the list of possibilities of what is causing him to curl is pretty great. So my suggestion here is that you make a checklist of physical reasons your horse may find it difficult or uncomfortable to stretch through his topline as thoroughly as we would want. Remember is is the entire system of the skeleton, ligaments and muscles working correctly that allows a horse to get his legs under himself, raise his back, the base of his neck, and collect. If any part of the system is ‘shortcircuiting’ the entire system produces less than optimal performance. So the curling needs to be addressed to get the most out of the back end, any pain or equipment discomfort issues need to be addressed, any mistakes in riding, and rushing the horse for a level of work he can’t maintain, which may be attributable to a conformation issue that will have to be taken into consideration when planning the work for that horse.

          Go back and look at the conformation blogs, and be honest with yourself, does your horse lack the kind of hip conformation that aids collection, does your horse have a long and weak loin with the LS joint placed well behind the point of hip, that means he will always have more trouble collecting, and will need slow conscientious work to be able to get the most from the conformation he has. Is he particularly crooked, unable to get both hind feet to engage equally, that will stop collection every time. But the right exercises can help him become straighter. Does he have back soreness that has never been addressed? Maybe not huge, but just some tight spots that need releasing? Is his saddle too narrow, many people need help with saddle fit, and many saddle fitters really aren’t that good. If his withers are pinched, he is more likely to duck and curl to avoid lifting them and his back into a saddle that hurts him. Does the saddle not fit you, throwing you into a chair seat or forcing you to perch up on your fork instead of sitting on your seatbones, pinching with your knees to try to stabilize? Mercedes also mentioned him being rushed, over tempo, that is a common problem for dressage horses, people mistake a big stride or a fast tempo for a correct stride.

          You mention keeping your hands still, do you do it by tensing, straightening your arms, so that every trot stride you are going up and down like a pogo stick, hands fixed, but not quiet as there is considerable movement. And at walk and canter, remember your hands have to follow, they can’t be fixed. Do you hold tension in your shoulders? Walter Zettl, an old and more classical instructor than many today, would in fact have you push the rein out a little to the horse that is curling or bogging down on one rein rather than be totally still, encourage the horse to seek the contact. Further, whenever the horse has truly lost balance so its falling forward, curling, tightening its back and lifting its head, whatever, you can’t keep hoping to find the balance by doing the same thing, you have to transition, either a turn or down transition, return to a working gait to get the horse rebalanced. Mercedes gave Blondemare a few short instructions, mostly that asked for two or so steps of collection using a corner and then return to a working gait, a few steps down right will do more than many trips around the arena done wrong. One of the other secrets, is that walk, a gait most riders can conquer and maintain their position and balance, and a gait most horses can balance at as two feet are always on the ground and the speed isn’t in the way.

          I ‘ll leave you to finish the analysis, but you need to fix both ends of the horse because you are always riding the whole horse.

        • “but I view it as a training issue to be tackled when he is more physically able to start accepting contact.”

          It needs to be worked on now, and here’s why: a horse can not collect or extend correctly when they do not accept contact. The training scale:

          acceptance of contact
          collection (and from collection comes extension)

          “When I set my hands at a position that isn’t curling up, my gelding automatically ducks behind the contact and lifts his head.”

          Hands should never be ‘set’ otherwise you get exactly what you’re getting. The hand may (particularly the outside hand) ‘hold/resist’ for a moment, but it should never just be set. The horse’s mouth is alive, not static, thusly the hand must be alive and talk to the horse. Obviously, a hand that talks too much will result in evasion or tension or outright bracing or crookedness or a gaping mouth or a blow up. Never forget that that mouth is attached to a head, which is attached to a neck, which is attached to a back, with has legs attached etc… The implications of hands gone badly is body-wide.

          It is expected that a horse might momentarily resist, lose balance, get crooked etc… when asked to do something new or harder, but that should subside within a few strides. If it persists then the rider has failed to properly prepare the horse for the new/harder endeavor. At that time the rider needs to back up and reevaluate.

          Mastering the basic elements by systematic gymnasticizing the horse makes everything else that follows relatively easy. It is when people are in too much of a hurry to get to the end that they skip vital steps along the way and end up going over the cliff. If you find you are struggling with a movement or stuck at a phase, rest assure one of the most basic elements is at fault. The horse can not progress with correctness until that element is addressed. That’s just the truth of it.

          • Hello!

            When I say “set” my hands, I’m saying that I’m not sawing, I say set as in responding to what he does, not forcing something to happen.

            We are working on preventing this from happening, and it really has been getting better in the past weeks or even days. It’s just it isn’t perfect yet.

            Currently, it takes about five/six steps to get him pretty straight and true within my aids. We’re doing a lot of varying things up to help focus him and keep him from becoming unbalanced, and it’s really helped.

            When you say that acceptance comes before impulsion, I agree to an extent. Yet without impulsion, there is no acceptance of contact from this horse. In order to receive acceptance of contact, he needs impulsion, and for that he needs to 1) use his butt to push himself forward, rather than trying to pull with his front end, 2) be straight and true (not a big problem), and instead of use the underside of his neck and brace upward, to gently flex down and forward, releasing his neck and fully using his back muscles. THEN I can get acceptance of contact.

            I think one thing that we aren’t on the same page about is whether acceptance of contact or impulsion comes first. For this horse, without impulsion there is no acceptance of contact, so impulsion comes first.

          • Impulsion is the change of forward energy to upward energy. It seems you are talking about forward energy being required to gain acceptance of contact from your horse, and that is correct for all horses.

            Certainly the training scale is not so rigid that elements don’t overlap at moments in time. They are all linked and intertwined, but neither can you get something from higher up on the scale without having achieved all elements below. For instance, you can not get implusion if the horse has not accepted contact.

  5. Modern competitive dressage is increasingly based on false principles and a false understanding of how the horse’s body works, as this blog among others has pointed out. I was calling modern competitive dressage “Big Lick Dressage” just because of the emphasis on big knees above all else. But things are clearly getting worse than I thought; FEI trainers are now using outright abuse like shocks to the withers and stones under the noseband. This is of course perhaps a logical extension: to keep getting the results, they have to move from just brutal riding to actual brutality. This is just one incident, but I have to think that if one person gets caught, more than one person is doing it (kinda like steroids in sports). This happened back in Feburary but I just picked it up off a friend’s FB feed a couple of days ago:

    I also think that a big part of the rolkur/heavy hands/rolled under thing in low-level amature adult riders comes from fear. BLD gives them permission to ride with a death grip, and they get nervous about loosening. One rider told me she had to keep her green horse (2nd months under saddle) rolled under for his entire workout because what if he spooked? A year later he is the angriest looking horse I’ve seen under saddle, though a sweetie on the ground.

    Also people get used to the reins as part of balance. Their seats get off-center from leaning back and driving so hard with their legs (spur at every step, even trail riding; one rider has white scars on her horse’s sides) and they probably do feel totally at sea without the grip on the reins. So a fad that was developed at higher levels to cheat and get the job done fast (and wrong) has also meshed with the bad habits of amature riders to mess up a lot of people’s riding, and also their horse’s backs, hocks and stifles.

    • Good observations Paint Mare. There are a lot of riders out there today who learned to ride in a “citified” sort of way (for lack of a better term). That is, riding lessons taking place in a nice safe enclosed ring on a nice calm horse. I’m struggling with how to word some vague ideas on this topic, but in a general sense I think it takes a good amount of saddle time, in varied situations, to develop the true independent seat and leg that are required to have a true following hand/arm. I think there are many riders who mean well and are trying hard, but just haven’t been presented with the opportunities to really develop that independent seat – because it’s a lot harder to gain it as an adult going in controlled circles at your nice boarding barn than as a kid repeatedly falling off your pony as you galloped around the countryside.

      So we end up with a lot of riders who (in my opinion, due to lack of a varied riding experience) are bit intimidated/nervous of the strength and power of the horse. A buck, a spook, or for that matter, even the power of a big canter really coming from behind, makes these riders uncomfortable. So they clamp down, ride from way too much hand, to get and keep a feeling of control. And when this kind of riding is rewarded at the highest levels, it gives riders of this type a sort of blessing to keep on doing it.

      I’m aware that I’m speaking in big generalities. I’m also aware that I am often this type of rider, despite a childhood background in eventing and plenty of time falling off ponies in the countryside, I still ride too much off my hands, I still feel nervous and react by holding tighter and balancing on the reins. Where I am making progress is in becoming more aware of this tendancy in myself and trying to correct it. Sometimes that takes a big leap of faith that the surge of power I feel from my horse is a good thing, not a scary thing. Having a culture where hyperflexion and the western versions of it are done by the supposed role models doesn’t help the everyday riders to overcome the natural tendancy to use too much hand.

  6. When I see undesirable / harmful / abusive behavior rewarded in the show ring, my blood boils. The standards have to be set properly. Then they have to be implemented properly by the judges. Judges who are properly qualified and educated. That goes for all disciplines. Pretty blasted simple fix if you ask me. So frustrating to see otherwise!

  7. This is Mercedes’ blog and we all know she can speak plainly and well for herself. But I want to state my opinion about the purpose of this blog. I fully believe that Mercedes started this blog to give herself and others she knew a place to come to discuss the science of horses and horsemanship so that we could all apply it to our riding. How a horse is built, how its skeletal system is made, where its muscles are, where they attach, how ligaments attach, how they function, is all a part of observed reality. It is science. How we use that to help us ride better is that we have to learn it, and believe it. All decision makng, whether a decision to go on faith, or a decision reached in the most logical manner, using all science available to us, is ultimately an emotional decision on the part of a human being. Our brains are hardwired to send decisions through the part of the brain where emotion lives and functions. And therein the great trap for humans when addressing the physical world as described to us by science. Many people, for emotional reasons, cannot accept the science. They cannot ‘believe’ in it. And so they cannot use it, they will make a decision to disregard it. It is human and unchangeable. We have to accept that.

    Utimately, some people will never change how they do things. Their beliefs are stronger than physical reality, they see the world in black and white, and when new information is given to them, they exclude it for emotional reasons before it ever hits the part of the brain that processes the information for ‘true and false’. Facts will be ignored in favor of belief. Other people struggle, they believe in science, that it has a purpose, they can see the skeletons, the muscles, the explanations, but it runs up against older beliefs, authority figures they admire, goals, like showing, that are important, and they suffer terrible cognitive dissonance, because two beliefs are now at war. For them, it can go either way. Lots of people confronted with this information, and being asked to approach horses, how they work, and therefore, how we ride, end up sitting down and crying if they accept they need to change. It is that powerful and emotional. Other people, who are already predisposed to accept science, it is strong in their hierarchy of beliefs, hear the information, and being predisposed to science, run out and try it, have a few eureka! moments, and get hooked on learning this new way.

    I believe in the science, I believe there are things that science can not yet explain, mostly because nobody has asked the right questions and spent the time to get the right answers, but that we will know more tomorrow than we today, every day. And that as incomplete as the science is, we need to take it and use it to the best of our ability.

    All of which is a long explanation to say, I understand when someone can’t take the advice based on the science. But for everybody reading along but not commenting, for everyone who is tempted to try this stuff, any given interaction with the horse is more art than science, it requires skills from us, patience and then it requires something back from the horse, and the abilities, the emotions, the learning curves of two intelligent animals trying to communicate, are going to lead to some things not going right. In those moments, remember, it is ok to fail, almost necessary in fact to really learn, and it is ok to start over and try again. But the science, the way that horse’s body works, it is real, it is the physical reality from which we all start. And if your horse isn’t using its body correctly, if you don’t see improvement across the whole system, one part just isn’t working, then none of it is really working right. Stop, think, re-evaluate everything and start again. Because no horse and no rider can avoid physical reality.

    • My opinion….Mercedes is frustrated with trying to prove her science to people who won’t listen or take any advice. I think she’s hit many brick walls trying to (here it comes) c-h-a-n-g-e riders’ ways. As my personality can be similar to hers, I get it, I can almost see her whacking her head upside a wall in frustration. I’m also a realist, so when the science is presented in a way that I can wrap my head around it, I will soak it up. I’ve taken a lot out of this blog and applied it to the horses I ride. I’m not too proud to say that I know everything. I certainly do not. People need to realize that Mercedes isn’t stating that she is perfect or that her horses are perfect, she’s providing education to those who will allow themselves to learn. I have added new exercises to my program and set off on a new course with my cowpony. I’ve applied the science to clients’ horses and will continue to do so. I’m a firm believer in a horse being everything it can be , i.e. not conforming 100% to any discipline. So I’m taking Merc’s tutorials on Dressage (collection, bend, riding the inside hind) and asking the cowpony to comply. We’re both learning, I’m laughing, he’s trying and we’re gaining our skillset. No harm, no foul.
      J, you’re right about people putting on the brakes at the emotional stop sign. It is hard to spend years doing things one way and then have some faceless blogger say you’re wrong, and it’s easy to throw back at her due to all those years of hard work, ribbons, trophies PROVING you were doing it right. But, we can be RIGHTER, better, softer, more effective. I’m not a great rider, will never be one, but I do ok, I turn out useful horses without resorting to inhumane treatment. I’m strict but fair and I put my heart and soul into every one I get on. Others can get on my horses and use them in a variety of ways. They aren’t one person horses and have the confidence to try new things without a fuss. Riding under Mercedes would most likely infuriate me (sorry, but you are a tad scary!)  because I’d be unable to do all she would ask. That’s ok. I can do more now than I could’ve a few months ago. Every horse I get on from this day forward will have a better ride than those before.
      Listen. Absorb. If you don’t understand something, ask! Post a pic illustrating your question or comment about flexion. Rollkur can be stopped by many reading this and that’s a start. If your horse is a touch under at times, it’s not the end of the world. If it’s stuck there, you need to fix it. If your knuckles are white, you need to fix it. “Insanity is doing the same thing the same way expecting different results”.

      • I personally am very pleased that you actually use this information, and then come back and say that you tried it. Makes all my bad typing and lost links worthwhile.

        • As someone who very rarely comments, I do want to say that I read this blog and think on it. Some of it is way over where I currently am. Some of it I can take out to my horses to try. But I do appreciate what is written here from Mercedes & the commenters. I will not be saying it every post, but thank you.

          • Thank you for lurking and letting us know that you are, and I’m happy to know that you’ve found the blog helpful at times. Don’t be a stranger!

      • I earned my Bronze medal about 15 years ago. I learned under a very traditional coach. The joy of a partnership with my horse was the biggest thing that I took away with my medal!!! (My boy did not have what it took to go beyond 3rd level but became a wonderful schoolmaster at that level.) I believe that this is what Mercedes is trying to give to everyone who reads this blog. She is trying to help each of us be able to look at the conformation of the horse that is in your/mine barn and then help that horse to be the best partner he can be through training that best addresses that individual horses’s weakness and strenghts. I truly am glad she takes the time to teach in this blog!!!

        0!!! This what has been so lost today and what I feel that Mercedes is trying to teach in this blog.

      • Mercedes is frustrated that it’s being referred to as ‘her’ science and ‘her’ methods. They aren’t ‘hers’. Mercedes wants people to know nothing is ‘hers’, she’s just a messenger. She’d also like to inform everyone that she has a message from her horses, all of them confirming for the world that they are indeed perfect. Lastly, Mercedes says it’s been quite some time since she’s made anyone cry in a lesson.

    • OK. You are absolutely right, but what about admitting that there may be other methods that are different, and maybe Mercedes way and another way are two different roads to the same destination. Yes this is her blog. I have learned much, but still travel my own road.

      • There aren’t different methods, that’s the whole point. Horses achieve engagement only one way and that (engagement) is (should be) the primary goal of any riding horse to prevent them from prematurely becoming unsound in a job (carrying a rider) that they aren’t well-suited to do. Everybody wants to think they’ve got some better or unique way to train horses. They don’t exist. The results of one’s training/riding are either correct or not. Correctness can only be achieved one way: engagement of the haunch. Engagement of the haunch can only be achieved one way: hind feet stepping forward equally and toward center body. Straightness can only be achieved one way: releasing the poll as described by jrga.

        You can’t cheat the horse and get away with it. They pay for it every single time. You can’t don the side reins, the Pessoa system, the draw reins, the curb bit et al.. and suddenly voila there’s engagement. You can’t spur and hold, you can’t set the hands, you can’t see saw on the mouth, you can’t bounce around with a stiff lower back, you can’t lean or drop a shoulder et al…and suddenly voila there’s a balanced and correct horse.

        None of any of this is ‘my’ training method. I don’t train a specific way. I only work towards what is known to be best for the horse in front of me.

      • I can think of a horse/rider combination that has made huge strides in movement and behavior and wouldn’t personally choose the method of retraining. Chazot and Jean Luc…something, I’m terrible with French names. I think most people are familiar with this 18 hand OTTB and his gravity defying rears when first ridden away from the racetrack. This horse was ‘allowed’ to kick at Jean Luc and I haven’t read where anything was done to prepare the horse for carrying a rider / saddle – desensitizing – before he got in the saddle and the horse took to rearing and he wrapped around the neck in a death-defying grip to save his hide.
        Me? I can’t stay on a rank individual like that. I would opt for a more traditional method of teaching the horse body control from the ground, respecting my space and that any kicks at me are punishable by DEATH. ( I would let him think that on no uncertain terms) So, yes, this method of retraining would not be on my list as and I would choose another that I believe in, that has worked on dozens of horses and never failed me. BUT, when I finally did feel safe on his back (which might be never based on those videos) I would have to use the same aids Jean Luc does to achieve the forward movement he’s striving for. If you’ve seen his methods, he trains much from the ground, in hand, utilizing the same aids he would from the back of the horse. He has a soft feel, the reins are always loose, sometimes too much so IMO, but effective. In case you haven’t seen Chazot:

        Merc, what are your thoughts on the Science of Motion?

        • horse looks really out and really sore in the back, more than just mental tension. Maybe he needed more than a month off, he needed medical help. Also, the trot is not always the most effective gait for retraining, it can be a harder gait for many horses. Plus, hands below the base of the neck with rearward tension, presents a wall, no place to go, both hands instead of one, look back at the picture of Nuno, look at any the good western gurus. The horse is given an out.

        • Pfft! The horse is unsound and someone of that experience should know it and I believe he does know it, in which case to get on an obviously unsound horse and pound on its back in sitting trot around and around in a useless, ‘we’re not going anywhere fast’, non-forward, hollow trot is ethically and morally wrong. On top, I believe he provoked the horse into rearing. He jerks the inside rein several times in a row in the opening for no reason, then the horse rears.

          He shows a before and after picture of this horse on his website and wants us to believe the after picture is a significant improvement over the before picture. No, it’s not. It’s simply a picture of different wrongness. The horse is hollow, on his forehand, hocks trailing and carrying a boatload of lumpy, unhealthy and incorrect musculature.

          What he’s teaching this horse in this video is that the horse has no choice but to ‘grin and bare’ his situation and the pain.

          • Wish I’d left this one on the back burner….I believe this whole rear event could and should have been avoided and was possibly prompted to rear; perhaps the camera was there knowing full well it would happen? This horse to me acts more like he’s responding to a predator than being in extreme pain, though he is stiff and certainly not ready to ride. Subsequent videos showed a more relaxed animal willing in his movements with minimal rein/leg/whip contact. I think you need to blog at some point on muscle development. I don’t recognize all the ‘lumpy unhealthy muscle’?

          • Don’t be silly, nothing wrong with bringing it to a front burner for discussion.

            Yes, I have plans to address muscle health in our regular conformation articles with our 6 candidates when the time comes. 🙂

        • BTW, you didn’t ask me, but I did go to his website, and look at a few more videos, and read some of his background informtion. He is long on short out of quote references to vets and other experts, but he doesn’t have a cohesive explanation of how to directly the affect the spine, doesn’t explain how one activates the back muscle above the spine to work to create his positive results, etc. Further he makes a fundamental error in saying the people that are wrong (which would include Deb Bennett) because they argue for the elongation of the top line muscles. Muscles have normal resting length and contraction, they don’t stretch or elongate of their own volition. So he fundamentally misunderstands what muscles do. He also says that anyone that refers to that ‘false anatomy’ as he perceives anyone who advocates stretching the topline and that the bottom line contraction affects motion, will be silenced with the push of the delete button. Very different than someone who offers scientific theory and is generally open to and welcomes ideas. As I said elsewhere, I watch horse video on mute, I don’t care what people say they are doing, I watch what they do and what the horse says. I willl read their narratives to see what they say is their philosophy, etc. and for explanations that wouldn’t work in the middle of working on the horse. Nothing I’ve seen on video on his site supports his claim that he does not wish to affect the ends but only the middle. Why work a horse in hand in a double bridle if you aren’t affecting an end? On a ridden horse, he showed it throwing its head every stride being driven into the bit, then miraculously, it is very steady in the bridle, and he is still using his spur. I think he is a snake oil salesman at first glance, but I will read and watch more.

        • Let me also say, totally not cool to be riding without a helmet and thusly promoting such a stupid idea all over the Internet, particularly when retraining horses with troubled backgrounds.

    • Mo, there is a lot of good in the video you linked, but also some things we can all work on. Believe me, I am not a good or great rider, my riding is full of clumsy moves, things that don’t work, bad position, etc. It is through my failures that I become aware of what I need to improve.

      The narrative and intent of what is being done to get this horse to stretch is good, give him room, work at the horse’s level, when he reverts to curling, stretch him down again. But now let’s be hypercritical to look at some things that could be better. First and foremost, no one is trying for something bad here, no where near hyperflexion, but also please note, how much time does this horse really spend with his nose in front of the vertical? Because this is a horse in retraining, never has learned to do it right, do a working trot, why is his nose almost always on vertical or behind it, why isn’t this a true stretchy circle into forward down and out, why doesn’t the length of the rein change to almost on the buckle for true stretch?

      I have some more points to make later, but rewatch the video with those questions in mind, if your horse were curling, would you try to hold him to the vertical or push for FDO?

    • I’ve seen this video before and have this overwhelming urge to whack the rider’s hands down every time she rises and lifts them, while walking beside her and stabbing her sides with a spur every time she gets ahead or behind the horse’s motion…so like pretty much every stride.

      I understand what’s trying to be done, it’s not wrong. What I don’t like is the sole focus on the head by rider and commentator. If she’d just ride his hind legs forward by changing her leg cue to the proper timing (she kicks him with spur every time the inside leg is planted – at the precise time the horse can do nothing about it) and quit fiddling with her hands (and blocking the horse back after she sends him forward (incorrectly) with the spur), all would be right in the world. You don’t bring the horse’s head back up by lifting the hand up abruptly.

      Stepping away from the keyboard…

    • and in case anyone thinks I only pick on english riders, here is posting trot on a hyperflexed western horse, and the rider has terrible hands in that she is moving them deliberately, way out to the side or up and down and riding two handed with a curb bit moving the reins independently, does she not know how a curb bit is supposed to operate?

      She does not over rise, but does at times lose her balance and lower leg position, of course the heavy fenders of the western saddle don’t usually have as much swing as an english stirrup leather. Mostly though, she is not using her bit as it was meant to be used and that horse is horribly curled up much of the time. But it is understandable.

      • Comment from the western world…loose jaw. The bit in the video is a fixed shank curb bit and isn’t intended to be ridden with two hands. It’s a cowboy or reining bit, designed for one handed riding so the opposite hand is free to rope…etc. A loose jaw bit (shanks swivel at their connection to the mouthpiece) can be used 2 handed and is my bit of choice for the next step after a plain snaffle. The mouthpiece is decided by the horse and I find most prefer a long/low port to a broken mouth. Used correctly, you can direct rein the horse when teaching neck rein; first allowing the shank to swivel and then applying pressure softly out and back. The joint should be long and smooth to avoid pinching the lips and the cheap Tom Thumb types are crap. I have a custom sweet iron broken mouth with a 5″ shank. It can ride 1 or 2 handed but like any leverage bit with a curb chain, needs to be introduced slowly. That said, a horse that is ‘broke’ should not be pulled around like this mare is. She should turn off a push (neck rein, outside leg) and only use the inside rein if the horse doesn’t respond. It should never be a crutch like this rider is using it. Big shanks, big spurs and baby reining. Really? If this horse doesn’t neck rein well, it shouldn’t be wearing a big girl bit.

  8. Another link to a video, no rising trot in this one, all sitting trot, the horse is always, I mean always held in and pretty much falling behind the vertical, and this is a horse with more training. But I want everyone to be able to compare the sitting trot. Note first, the rider’s seat bones are in the saddle, able to sit, in the new video. Go back and look at the rider on Art2Ride and notice she is almost always, in sitting or in the sitting phase of the riding trot, landing on the cantle, and her seat bones rarely come to rest in the deep part of the saddle, and look at the effect on her ability to absorb the bounce or her motion and to sit quietly as the rider in the UK video is doing. If your saddle is too small, or you are not keeping your torso sufficiently erect/hollowing you back so that you can’t get your seatbones into the deep/flat part of the saddle, you will not have a quiet seat, you will not be able to absorb the motion of a big trot, and you will pound the rearmost portion of the horses back at the vertebra not supported by ribs attached to the sternum. Men tend naturally to curl under in the pelvis, to form a C with their backs, so women are going to have to work a little bit against nature to tuck the pelvis. And you will continually fight a hollow backed horse that is trailing its hind legs if you can’t find your seat bones and ride in the saddle where you were meant to ride. Watch the riders and evaluate position, and how much shock they are able to absorb rather than transmit it to the horse’s back. I am not recommending trainer’s styles here, just compare the rider’s seats.

  9. another video with some rising and sitting trot. Nice warmblood horse with good training on it, note that is always steps up and toward the midline, and is in shoulderfore down the long lines of the track most of the time, but is always way behind the vertical, this horse lives hyperflexion. Nevertheless, note the rider has more room to bring her pelvis under and down into the flat part of the saddle, has a quieter torso and seat as she rises, and uses her core muscles to bring her pelvis up and forward on the rise more than using her legs to rise. Many people use too much leg to rise, trying to stand to post rather than do the hard work of using those core muscles.

    Note for this rider, her sitting trot is no where near as quiet as her rising trot, nor as quiet as the rider in the UK video. She tries to absorb the shock of the sitting trot by stiffening through her spine, making her loose contact with the saddle and allowing too much bounce in her legs. Her horse is a trooper, he just keeps going, but it can’t be as nice for him as it would be if she could relax her shoulders and let her weight sink and balance or her seat bones. It isn’t bad, but not as good as it could be.

  10. Perusing YT for a pretty trot ride…. Gorgeous horse with no release acting out his frustration. The other end of the spectrum. I am still searching…. Head vertical, gait hurried, stiff and short. Better

    • that first video is the problem Mercedes set out to address, that is a horse that can do the work correctly, the rider is on the upper end of competency, she has a knowledgeable instructor, and they are using all their assets, the money, the time, the ability, to destroy that horse. Because they have to do it to win in a show ring presided over by highly educated and qualified people in pursuit of a faddish look instead of the well being of the horse.

      • It’s hard to hear the instructor but she states (to the effect) “keep holding him there until he gives in to it”. This is exactly what is taught by ‘leading’ instructors so the students know nothing else and go along with it to follow the blues. It’s even sadder that this horse has the talent to be so much more. This is rollkur at its extreme, intentional and forceful.

  11. Interesting article in this month’s Equus magazine- in an experiment, horses learned that on one side of a Y-shaped maze, they would be ridden with “a more natural headset,” and if they chose the other side, they would be ridden in “a rollkur posture-forced hyperflexion of the neck.” According to the article, each of the 15 horses in the study had the opportunity to make the choice at least eight and as many as 35 times. “On the whole, the horses chose normal poll flexion over rollkur 93 percent of the time, with 14 of them expressing a clear preference. Only one horse tended to choose rollkur.” A masochist?

    It would seem to be a no-brainer that a horse would want to avoid work that is painful or difficult for him. But from reading the articles and discussions on how the neck works on this blog, we know that hyperflexion is, indeed, painful to the horse. And causing a horse pain crosses the line between hard work and abuse.

  12. My mare is, I believe, a classic example of what training like this, reliance on over flexion in a bitting rig can cause. I bought her, my first horse, just under two years ago (two years in November!) from the stable I still ride at and board her at. She is an older half Arabian half Saddlebred mare who turned 17 this past January. When I first started riding her, she used to wring her tail at the canter, enough so that she use to get me in the back of the head (helmet) and shoulders with it. She was also very heavy in the mouth and forehand, hollow through her back, though, at the time, I had no feel really and could not tell the difference. The tail thing was just Sophie being Sophie, right? Of course, I also had no clue about the head and she tended to go around with that head straight up in the air. As I rode her more, I began to fall off as she would take off with me. My balance was not good, my hands would come up, she would motorcycle around a turn, and bam, I was a goner (and it always happened on the right lead). So, I took some lounge (I;m sure I’m spelling that wrong!) lessons and learned how to balance and use my seat to slow her, and then I stopped falling off. As I progressed as I rider, looking back, I have come to see her progressing as well. While I’m sure she still gets on her forehand, and she still gets heavy and lays on my hands for support, and I’m no where near an expert, not by a long shot. She has stopped throwing her tail around. She no longer resembles a giraffe and has started relaxing down. I’ve started really working on just letting her move around with a droopy rein, and surprise, her head stays low and relaxed. I’m sure we are a long way from a pretty picture – the ideal collected horse, moving with impulsion, but sometimes, I’d swear we’re partway there sometimes. I can feel it when she’s using her back and that round soft feeling in her stride that comes from it, but I can also feel it when her back drops out, and she hollows out. Most often, I notice this happening in her right lead (surprise, surprise, the one she used to take off with me most often!). My question is, now what? What can I do to improve my riding and help improve her? How can I help her when she falls out and hollows out? Keep in mind I still take weekly lessons on her, as well as taking a jumping lesson a different horse. I guess what I’m looking for is something for us when I’m riding her outside a lesson, when we’re just relaxing and working on simple things.

    Also, just want to say thanks to all the knowledgeably posts and comments on here! It’s helped me learn a lot. Really, I’m an amateur looking to love my horse, help her improve, and have a good time when riding. We do some local flat shows in hunter pleasure – I have no grand ambitions and am just happy with her going around happy.

    • This comment-question rules, I really identify with it. I’ve noticed a similar tendency on the right lead in my horse, as well.

    • To get the most accurate advice we’d really need to see video (or at least pictures) of you riding her with your thoughts about what you feel/think is going on at those moments. Clearly if things feel different and your sense is that things are improving (and it sure sounds like it), then obviously you’re on the right path. If I had to guess, you’re probably dealing with some residual physical issues with her, as well she is very likely crooked and carrying her haunch to one side and thusly not bearing weight equally on her hinds as evidenced by the right rein issue.

      So, if you don’t want to be a guinea pig on the Internet (although if you look in the archives – April – Haley was kind and brave enough to put herself out there for us and got great advice and support – Article, you can either send me some pictures/video privately ( or take my guess of crookedness and run with it.

      Thanks for posting and sharing.

      • Let’s try putting this in the correct spot….

        She has had some hind end issues recently – some twisting and definitely out of balance. With the Youth Nationals in town, our stable was able to get a lovely equine acupuncturist/chiropractor to come in and I had her done. Her hips, stifles, and I believe hocks and poll got adjusted and she’s been going much better since. She also had her stifles injected at the beginning of the summer and we just changed her back shoes some, so she is going much better. But, I agree that she was going crooked and compensating, and I’m sure I wasn’t helping it. I notice now that her right side is definitely weaker – she really needs my leg support to keep her pushed up that way, much more so than the left lead. It’s also why I think she wants to rush in the right lead – going more slowly and correct is more difficult.

        I’ll see if I can get someone to film us, take some pictures (though I worry about my terrible riding, haha!) and send it to you. It’d be great to have some input. Sometimes, it’s harder helping an older horse fix and learn new things than a young one. I notice it more now that I’ve ridden some of the younger, greener ones.

        • Okay, so you’ve had work done on her, which is awesome. The problem is all that stuff you fixed isn’t really ‘fixed’. What took (likely) years to develop can’t be resolved overnight. If she held all her adjustments, then you’d still have a bunch of soft tissue that needed to heal and then reworked and remodelled – that’s months of work. It’s highly unlikely, though, that all that work held. I suggest a recheck and then a rather aggressive rehab approach with massage, stretching and specific ground and undersaddle exercises. In the end, she may likely always be weaker on the right rein, but it shouldn’t be a huge difference unless you have residual damage (like arthritis) that can’t be reversed, but rather just maintained.

  13. Good for you for speaking up and where are all you folks in the actual world…lol…I always feel that I am alone out there saying ‘ach that’s terrible etc’. I actually think most people should not ride with a bit and definitely no spurs. Most people do not have the physical control to use either bits or spurs. Less is more!

    If your instructor is not able to show you how to compress and lengthen a horse without spurs or bit maybe find someone else – just sayin.

    • You are definitely not alone, Maria. If no one else is speaking it out loud, rest assured there are several who are thinking it. Sometimes it just takes a brave soul to start the tide of change.

  14. Jrga or Mercedes.. Would you be able to provide a few examples of some truly exemplary riders? I so often find myself lost in the slew of videos and pictures and I am not experienced enough to tell what I should be in awe of and what I should be disgusted at.

    • Arthur Kottas has some videos and he is a superb rider and teacher. I remember seeing one video where he was doing tempi changes and they were just flawless, no swinging his legs and seat all over the place and as a result the horse didn’t swing its haunch all over the place either.

      Of course Reiner Klimke, but perhaps you’re wanting a more modern competitve example? Um…um…

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