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Develop the Quality of Submission in Your Horse

A rising star in Germany's dressage community explains the training quality of submission and tells how you can develop it in your horse.

© Kiki Beelitz
Helen Langehanenberg
© Kiki Beelitz

To me, a submissive horse is one that is supple, loose, happy and reacting on my dressage training aids. The whole horse swings, so it's easy to get into his rhythm. The horse's paces go from the hind legs toward the bit, and he carries me. Mentally, my horse is relaxed, but he concentrates on me and waits to see what I want him to do. He enjoys the work so he is willing. When my horse is submissive, he is not separate from me. We are one being, however, riding isn't always that easy. There are times when I start a new horse or get one that has been ridden in another way. The horse might not directly understand what I want and he might be stiff, which makes the work hard. The first problem is usually that the hind legs aren't working. As a result the horse doesn't react on my first aid, and he becomes stiff in the mouth. I have to ask again and again, and the horse may get anxious when I use aids that ask even in an encouraging way. My leg aids say, Come on! You can do it!

When the horse finally takes the contact, three things happen:
1. For a moment, he may get strong,
2. Then, the contact balances the horse more on the hind legs, and
3. Finally, he becomes soft in the hand.

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Once this happens, the horse learns that working with me is comfortable. He reacts on my aids, and then we can do movements. Even when the horse doesn't do movements perfectly, he tries to understand what I want. A dressage horse's ability to learn movements is much easier when the horse is submissive. But how does the rider make his horse submissive?

Rider Position
A horse's response can never be better than the rider's aids, and the rider's aids can only be as good as her seat. The correct position of the rider is what makes the aids clear. If you want to have a supple and loose horse, you must have a supple and loose body without stiffening or sitting against the rhythm or the motion. Even when you ask your horse for more energy, you must stay loose. And when you need to have more contact for a moment, you still must stay loose. Then all the aids, including the weight aids, work together. Otherwise, it's impossible for the horse to balance.

The FEI definition describes submission as "obedience, but not subordination." It means that although I'm the leader, I am a benevolent leader, not a forceful or violent one. That said, when my aids are precise and kind, I am quite persistent that my horse obey them. That is, my aids are "consequent."

Clear and Consequent Aids
When the horse is free in a herd, he always has a trustworthy leader he can rely on. Now, under saddle, the rider must be the leader. When a horse clearly understands what the rider wants, he is happier. He trusts a rider who is "consequent," meaning a rider who expects a consequence from her aids is easiest for the horse to understand; she becomes trustworthy because she is consistent.

If the rider is uncertain, the horse doesn't experience a clear consequence for ignoring the aids, and as a result, the horse's understanding suffers, and he can't fully trust the rider. There can only be harmony when the horse has a clear leader that he responds to without question. The horse needs to know precisely what you want, so it's best to be clear. For example, if I want to canter from walk, I give one aid, and the horse has to react on the first aid with consequence, rather than deciding for himself when the canter will begin. My horses have confidence in me, which is why they pay attention to me.

Exercises for Submission
One of the reasons why my horses have confidence in me is they know what to expect. The warm-up and work sessions have interesting variations, but the general routine is always the same. I always start by loosening my horse in a free walk for at least 10 minutes but usually longer.

Warming up. The warm-up is the same for horses of all ages. I start with a normal trot rising in a comfortable tempo so my horse can get warm. I don't go too fast because that would create tension, but within my horse's normal trot, I ride invisible half halts--only to feel my horse's reaction, so if I want a moment of collection, I know my horse will come back. Also, I ask for slightly more within this normal trot. I close my leg a bit to confirm that he is in front of my leg and that he wants to go forward from his hind legs.

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