The equitation of submission is practiced everywhere, from basic riding school “aids” to the highest level of riding internationally. It is written into our language as equestrians and even into how we are judged – the score on every dressage test in the UK includes points for “submission”. I have no personal experience competing outside of the UK but a quick google search reveals the same terms repeated all over the world – the concept is endemic.
“Submission: Attention and confidence, harmony, lightness and ease of movements; acceptance of the bridle and lightness of the forehand”
One dictionary definition of submission is as follows: “an act or instance of submitting, yielding control to a more powerful or authoritative entity” or another version “the action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person”, and another “the act of allowing someone or something to have power over you”. In all definitions, and within the general consciousness of the equestrian world, “submission” is about control, force and authority.
Harmony on the other hand holds the following definitions “the state of being in agreement or concord” or “agreement of ideas, feelings, or actions, or a pleasing combination of different parts”
The idea that “harmony” is a subset term of “submission” is simply ludicrous. The two concepts are in fact the complete opposite. As equestrians we need to decide if we are to follow the equitation of force and submission or the equitation of harmony and lightness – because you can not have both.
On a practical level the difficulty with “submission” is that in order for a horse to perform precise movements he needs to be prepared for the athletic demand and ready at the precise moment the movement is demanded on the letter of the test. This level of obedience causes the horse to compromise his level of preparedness. An error of co-ordination and balance not only costs you a point but, in all likelihood, has just cost you your horse’s long term soundness.
In the mindset of harmony and lightness, a twenty-meter circle becomes a culmination of balance, bending and co-ordination not a progressive drill until the horse mindlessly switches off and goes on “auto-pilot” until forced into the next movement by an active hand gesture and precise application of spur.
Force cannot create ease of movement; it is biomechanically impossible. Any contact forcing the horse outside of his natural head and neck position (behind the vertical, poll lower than C2/C3) will submit the base of the neck to backward forces and the horse’s only recourse is to fix his back muscles and move his legs to produce the movement. It is, therefore, impossible to create lightness from submission through contact and pulling actions.
Equally, the tactile sensitivity of the horse’s side, where we place our legs has greater perception than the tip of your finger. We do not have the capacity to understand that, because we can not feel that level of perception. For the horse, ridden with an active leg from the rider, the only way to cope is to shutdown such perception and to learn not to feel. Therefore, ever greater pressure must be applied to the horse’s sides in order to cause the appropriate response – “submission to the aids”.
The “seat” which is always a point of great discussion in the equestrian world, is often developed into the “driving-seat” as a way to cause the horse to move forward. “Drive from behind, hold in front to shape and collect the horse”. This heavy, hard application of the rider’s weight creates force, force that the horse moves away from, and naturally will hollow and fall away from the force.
None of these traditional aids that we are taught to use create harmony; all are acts of force, control and authority over the horse. The trouble is the other way – working with the horse, developing their understanding slowly and careful – is slow. It requires commitment and knowledge, and it does not win prizes, at least no more often than the “normal” way of doing things. It is not superior in the eye of the judge, because by the time you get to a show and perform the required movements the “finished article” does not look spectacular, but it feels amazing.
As a rider and trainer of alternative equitation, the pursuit of harmony and lightness is more interesting to me than my horse’s ability to piaffe on command. In fact, I am not convinced that it is ethical to demand that a horse performs any movement that he is not completely prepared for at that moment in time. In essence, we have to sacrifice the horse on the alter of submission to achieve success.
Sadly, at this time I have no bright ideas how to change this within the mainstream equestrian and competition worlds. However, awareness must be our greatest asset as human-beings, as a highly evolved and intelligent species we have the ability to understand our actions and how they affect others. Lack of knowledge is not an excuse in our modern world of open access and knowledge sharing. These ideas are there and available to all who want them, all who are prepared to put ego aside, put winning aside and train for soundness and longevity not for points and prizes.
(Note photos are from Shutterstock and not of any particular person or organisation, search term used "Dressage")