Getting the Horse’s Cooperation

Should we be asking for submission or cooperation?

Let’s talk for a moment about semantics and, yes, the pun is intended. A discussion is starting in dressage circles about the word “submission.” The concept of submission goes to the heart of horse training no matter what the discipline. You can download a PDF of the above graphic here.

At the bottom of a U.S. Equestrian Federation dressage test score sheet there are six additional boxes for collective marks: gaits, impulsion and submission plus three more for the rider’s position and aids. (The FEI uses only four boxes on international tests: gaits, impulsion, submission and rider). There has been some talk about whether it might be a good idea to substitute “cooperation” for the box under “submission.”

In other words, do we want our horses to work with us or simply submit to our will?

The submission score is defined as: “Attention and confidence, lightness and ease of movements, acceptance of the bridle, lightness of the forehand.” Actually, to me that sounds a lot more like cooperation than it does submission.

Does such a semantic distinction really matter all that much? Is it worth our time and effort to discuss, or even a much greater amount of time and money to make such a dramatic change to widely distributed dressage tests? As a journalist, I believe in the power of words, and there are plenty of instances where the use of certain words in the horse world can confuse people. Start with the basic word “collection,” which means something very different to a dressage rider than it does to a hunter rider.

“Submission” has a rather harsh connotation, as in being compliant to authority. “Cooperation” sounds more like a horse and rider are working with each other. I like the sound of that. I keep telling my non-horse friends that there can be only one alpha mare in a relationship and for my own good it better not be the one that weighs 1,200 pounds. But things are a lot more fun when I ride (not to mention when I’m on the ground) if my mare does what I ask her, not what I tell her, even though once in a while I do need to insist with some emphasis. After all, I weigh a lot less and I break more easily.

Several years ago, there was another semantic discussion in the dressage world that resulted in some changes to the Training Scale. I am not sure under whose authority the change was made, and there are a bunch of different versions of the Training Scale out there now. For non-dressage folks, the Training Scale is a sort of food pyramid where the nutrition blocks are replaced by the building blocks of training. The Training Scale is also the basis for determining scores on a dressage tests – if all the elements are fulfilled the score is high, while if one or two elements are mission the score is low – an over-simplified explanation but basically how it works. At the base of the Training scale is Regularity (three clean gaits) followed in ascending order by relaxation, contact, impulsion straightness and finally collection under the point at the top.

The discussion was over the heading of relaxation vs. suppleness, which had been the previous heading for the second box in the table. The argument – a good one I feel – was that a horse can be relaxed without being supple, but that a horse can’t be supple without being relaxed. Picture a horse lying in his stall. That horse is pretty relaxed, but you wouldn’t describe him as supple. The “relaxation” advocates, however, won out on that one.

Okay, so this all a lot of talk. Does it matter? Judges discuss shadings of performance and rules all the time, but this gets closer to black and white than to gray. Even if the heading for the submission score isn’t eventually changed, the discussion is still worthwhile.

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