On the Bit
The Meaning of The Term
Since you have arrived at this page to learn more about getting your horse on the bit, I would like you to ask yourself what - in your opinion - exactly is 'on the bit'?
For the observer, a horse is on the bit when you can draw a vertical line from his nose to his forelock when viewed from the side. Yet, there is so much more associated with the horse on the bit that many riders are not aware of. The horse is truly on the bit when has rounded his outline (back and neck), engaged his hind quarters, stepped forward with impulsion, and brought his nose to the vertical.
A common fault is the excessive use of hands to bring the horse on the bit. Many riders can quickly bring the horse on the bit through 'bullying' the horse into submission. If you believe that a perfect outline is all about a vertical head position, you will unconsciously focus your efforts on the reins. The more effort you exert on the reins, the more resistance you will receive from the horse.
Since we have agreed that 'on the bit' means more than the horse's head position, I will begin to refer to it as a 'rounded outline'.
Horses that are forced onto the bit are not happy, relaxed horses, and are much less responsive to the aids. The trick is to persuade the horse to round up his outline and engage his hind legs rather than bully him into it. It is not an easy task and it will take a lot of time and practice, but it is definitely achievable with most horses.
Before explaining the methods of rounding up a horse, I would like to stress on the importance of a well developed classical seat. Despite common belief, the essence of a well-rounded, responsive horse is a deep, secure, and independent seat. So if you have not yet read the articles discussing the basics of classical riding, now is the time to do so!
Use of the Seat
Let us consider the effect of a bad seat on a horse. If your weight is on your buttocks, your legs forward, and you are balancing yourself with the reins, the horse's reaction will be as follows: he will hollow his back away from the discomfort your seat is causing, throw his head in the air and arc his neck, hold his breath, and retract his ribcage from contact with your legs (becoming flat-sided). In motion, sitting still in this situation becomes extremely difficult, and the rider will grip with his legs and balance on the reins, which will bring even more tension to the horse.
Now we will consider the effects of a well-developed classical seat. Since the rider has become responsible for his own weight, the horse's back will lift up, his ribcage will expand, he will round his neck and bring his nose to the vertical, and breathe regularly and deeply. This set of reflexes stem from the fact that the horse is seeking contact with the rider, rather than avoiding it. Maintaining your position and sitting to the horse's movement will become an easier task, which will leave you to concentrate on refining your contact (seat, legs, and hands) with the horse, which will lead to an even happier and more responsive horse.
Do you see the comparison between the last two paragraphs? In short, stress causes more stress, and relaxation causes more relaxation! If you take care of your seat, the horse will take care of his head!
When the horse has rounded his outline, he will produce a certain feel to you, which you will register in your mind. When you ride another horse, how will you know -by feel- that he is doing the right thing? All horses feel the almost identical when they have rounded their outline. This is how riders know how well the horse is performing - by comparing the FEEL with previous rides.
Because 'on the bit' is not solely about the horse's head position, you will notice a difference in the way the horse is moving when he is rounded, which will give you a certain feel. Remember this feel and try to produce it every time with every horse. Having someone watch you on the ground is helpful because they can tell when things are looking good.
This picture displays the perfect outline. However, this horse is an advanced schoolmaster and you cannot expect a green horse to achieve this outline almost instantly
So How is it Done?
By sitting classically, you allow the horse to use his body to its full potential, and make it easier for him to round his outline. Never expect the horse to round his outline if your seat is restraining him.
fully understand this, stand up for a minute and hug one knee to your
chest. You will inevitably round your back. Now deliberately hollow your
back and try again. You will be unable to lift your knee so high - and
it would make no difference if someone were kicking you in the ribs to
make you do it!"
Before I proceed, we must remember than it is not right to attempt to round up the horse in rising trot. In rising trot, the seat is almost nonexistent, and you'll have to make it up by over-using the legs and hands. So until you are able to sit tall and still to the trot, do not attempt to round up the horse in trot.
Now follow these steps to supple up your horse and round him up.
Creating Impulsion: While in walk, maintain impulsion by creating energy through your seat (For more information regarding impulsion from the seat, refer to The Seat in Action) The energy you create must be directed to his hind quarters. Try to prevent the energy from escaping to the front. If you feel the horse beginning to get heavy on the forehand, lighten the contact with his mouth to tell him that he is not allowed to lean on your hands. Many trainers would advise the total opposite and would tell the rider to pull sharply at his mouth. This serves as a punishment, and will cause tension. By loosening the contact, you are telling the horse, "You're alone and you better find your balance on your own." This is an example of persuasion versus bullying.
Carry on a conversation: Keeping a light contact through the reins should be carried out, yet do not entirely abandon the horse. Gently 'sponge' the reins with your fingers (meaning squeeze the reins in your fist then relax your fingers) As soon as the horse gives in, lighten the contact again. Sponge each rein alternatively. Use this method only to refine the horse's head carriage, not to put him on the bit. Remember that you should not pull at the reins, squeeze just enough to cause small movement to the bit. This also encourages the horse to mouth the bit and soften his mouth. Again, only use this method as a refinement, not as the means to round up the horse.
Get his attention: Vary your exercise patterns. An easy exercise to generate impulsion would be to make various transitions within the pace and into other paces. For example, trot to halt, then canter, then walk, then trot, then extend the trot, re-balance, and walk. The canter/halt exercise can work miracles on your horse's outline, but don't pressure your horse into it if he is not yet doing walk to canter and canter to walk transitions. Within 5 or 10 minutes of the transition exercise, the horse will naturally land into a perfect rounded outline, provided of course that your seat helps him, not restrain him.
Beware of bringing your horse behind the bit. An over-flexed horse will be heavy on his forehand, tense in his back, and lacking impulsion from behind. Sadly, many judges of dressage give good scores to horses that have gone behind the bit and stuck their noses to the chests. This is a grave mistake and encourages novice riders to continue in this wrong outline. Never, ever, let your horse drop behind the bit. If your horse has a tendency to do so on his own, create impulsion and lighten the contact to urge the horse to reach forward and seek proper contact.
In general, take it lightly and slowly. Do not expect a green horse to instantly jump into a perfect outline. The horse will know what to do if we will just help him. Don't jump into conclusion that your horse is simply stubborn. Refine your seat and contact, and leave the rest to the horse.
Left: Although this horse looks pretty, he is in an outline that must
be avoided at all costs.