Rollkur, draw reins, and bleeding mouths, in second part of undercover documentary at Helgstrand Dressage

  • Rollkur, aggressive riding, and “coerced” horses are the focus of the second part of the Operation X documentary filmed undercover at Helgstrand Dressage.

    Yesterday (23 November) H&H reported on part one of TV2’s Operation X: The Secrets of the Horse Billionaire following its release in Denmark. The programme, hosted by investigative journalist Morten Spiegelhauer, is based on footage filmed on a hidden camera by reporter Rebekka Klubien, who went undercover as a groom at Helgstrand Dressage in January.

    The first episode included footage of conversations between Rebekka and grooms and staff members of Helgstrand Dressage, which focused heavily on spur and whip marks on horses at the premises. Equine experts gave their views of the footage, and former staff spoke out about negative experiences working at Helgstrand Dressage.

    H&H has been granted access to part two of the documentary and has now viewed it in full, ahead of its airing on Danish television on 29 November. (Nb: it is available now to Danish viewers who are paid subscribers of the TV2 app). It is not currently available in the UK.

    The second episode shows Rebekka gaining access to the riding hall at Helgstrand Dressage, where she filmed horses being exercised, on a hidden camera. Throughout the clips, horses can be seen being ridden roughly, and some in rollkur (hyperflexion) with tight draw reins. A number of horses can be seen reacting explosively; lunging forward, evading and going backwards, and rearing. One clip shows a rider aggressively kicking a horse, and although the camera is hidden, the sound of the impact against the horse’s side is still picked up by the microphone.

    As in the first episode, Morten conducts interviews with equine vet Heidi Nielsen, trainer John Randskov, and former team rider Susan Kjaergard, during which he shows them Rebekka’s recordings.

    Hours of footage was captured, but the experts are first shown 25 minutes of uncut recordings, and asked for their initial impressions. Heidi said there is “so much continuous pressure on the horses”, and Susan said she got an “enormous overwhelming feeling” seeing horses going through “this type of coercion” for such a long period of time without breaks.

    Other experts are shown footage. Equine vet Karin Leibrandt described the riding as “animal abuse”, and animal researcher Kathrin Kienapfel said she has never seen so many people “riding so rough” all in one place, at the same time.

    Later the documentary shows a conversation between Rebekka and a blurred-out rider – it is not known if this individual is one of those filmed in the riding hall.

     When Rebekka asks about the training of the horses, the rider responds that it is a “vicious circle”.

    “Many [horses] do not fit in here. It is too stressful – or too much is demanded of them,” they said, adding that the stable is like “a factory” producing so many horses quickly, and this puts pressure on the riders.

    Another conversation takes place between Rebekka and a groom over marks on the mouth of a horse named Devolution. The groom tells Rebekka that Devolution bleeds from the mouth “once in a while”, but that this is a regular occurrence for horses Bonjour, Darwin, Natural Spring, and Naxos.

    When shown this conversation, Susan points out that even though the groom knows this is wrong she is still a part of it and it becomes normal there – which “shows the culture” at Helgstrand Dressage. 

    Discussions around draw reins – and rollkur – feature throughout the programme. In one recording a member of staff tells Rebekka that customers are visiting and so the horses should not be in draw reins when they arrive. When asked why, the staff member states that the stud does not want to be known for using them.

    Other clips show horses being lunged with their heads in a hyperflexion position, and Susan states the force almost seems stronger without a rider, because it becomes clear “exactly how much coercion is involved” – while John describes the frame as “completely unnatural”.

    The Danish Animal Ethics Council (DAEC) states in its ethical guidelines that horses: “must not be subjected to physical or psychological violence, understood as jerking/pulling/see-sawing on the bit in the mouth; the use of the whip beyond what is characters as correction and/or reprimand; unrestrained use of spurs; other violence that has the features of punishment; as well as well as rollkur and hyperflexion”

    Morten interviews Denmark’s national head FEI vet Mette Uldahl and shows her 10 hidden recordings from Helgstrand Dressage to assess whether they comply with the ethical guidelines. Mette agrees that they do not and points out the heavily tightened draw reins, hyperflexion, and whip use.

    Mette prepared a report for the Danish equestrian federation, Dans Ride Forbund (DRF), about Helgstrand Dressage. In this she concluded that there were “serious cases” where horses were being treated in a way that was “not acceptable”, a “systematic and continuous approach with too high a degree of mild to serious discomfort in the horses during training”, and a culture that is not appropriate.

    The second episode concludes with footage of Rebekka confronting Andreas Helgstrand over concerns she has about some of the riding she has witnessed, as well as spur marks and horses bleeding from the mouth.

    Andreas responds to Rebekka that “sometimes you can’t help it” and that horses can bite themselves. He said that draw reins are only used on some horses, and when Rebekka tells him she has taken a picture of a horse, a chestnut, in a hyperflexion position Andreas asks if she is “there to make trouble”, before asking to view the picture. He says that it “doesn’t look good” and that he cannot know what is going on all the time. He then asks if she is recording the conversation and to see her phone.

    A voiceover states that although Andreas became suspicious, he only found out about the hidden camera later when he was informed in the phone call with Morten, shown in the first episode.

    Helgstrand Dressage issued a response on Wednesday evening (22 November) – after the first episode aired (and the second was available for subscribers on the TV2 app) – and said the  footage had made a “big impression” on the stud, and was “not ok”.

    The statement said it was bad riding and treatment of horses, did not live up to Helgstrand Dressage’s guidelines and values, and is “not an expression of our culture”.

    “We can see that some of our training equipment has been used incorrectly during filming. It must guide and correct the horse, but they must never be used as punishment,” read the statement.

    “We would like to state that rollkur and overuse of whips or ‘sliding reins’ [draw reins] are not accepted with us.”

    Helgstrand Dressage’s full statement can be read in H&H’s report on the first episode published yesterday (23 November). The stud has also introduced a “large number of improvements to its business” as reported earlier in the week.

    In response to the Operation X broadcasts, the DRF held a board meeting on Wednesday, resulting in Andreas being excluded as a national team rider. DRF competitions have been withdrawn from Helgstrand Event, and riders of Helgstrand Dressage have been asked to come forward to face the federation’s disciplinary committee.

    A spokesman for Waterland Private Equity which owns the Global Equestrian Group – of which Helgstrand Dressage is part – told H&H:

    “We endorse Helgstrand Dressage’s distancing from the horse training activities shown in the documentary from TV2. Since TV2 obtained the hidden footage in January, Helgstrand Dressage has undergone a thorough review and has implemented various measures and improvements on animal welfare and in its business practices and employee working conditions,” said the spokesman.

    “We note that Helgstrand Dressage has taken the criticism to heart and will learn and evolve from this and we are confident that the company will continue to advance its frontrunner position within the sector and set high standards for the equestrian industry.”

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