At its most basic, being ?on the bit? means that a horse is pushing himself from his hind legs into the contact of the bridle, causing him to lift his back, curve and soften his neck, and bring his hind legs more deeply underneath himself. A horse connected from back to front in this way is softer and more comfortable to sit on, more easily controllable with softer aids, and will be less prone to unevenness, body soreness and some kinds of lamenesses.
For these reasons, knowing how to put your horse ?on the bit? can be a valuable tool, even for those who will never set foot inside a dressage arena. ?See On-The-Bit sidebars.
ARE YOUR AIDS WORKING’ For the purposes of this article, we’re going to make some assumptions:
1) You, as a rider, know how to use your basic aids correctly (leg, seat and hand)
2) Your horse has a basic understanding of those aids
3) Your horse knows the difference between a driving leg for forward energy and a lateral leg for moving from side to side, and
4) You can use a minimal amount of aids for basic things like transitions. In other words, you don’t have to pull like a train or saw like a woodsman to go from a trot to a walk or to kick like a madman to go from trot to canter.
This is also the time to mention the standard disclaimer that there are many schools of thought on how best to put a horse ?on the bit.? The methods described here have worked best for us with a variety of horses and riders over the years, but we encourage you to read and consult your instructor to find the methods that work best for you. In fact, we believe that lessons from a qualified dressage instructor are invaluable to help you understand the feeling of truly putting a horse on the bit.
FRAMES. While there is a strict set of parameters for what the horse’s body must look like in the dressage arena, the truth is your horse can be on the bit without necessarily having the shorter, more upright neck most often seen with upper-level dressage horses. Frames can range over a variety of positions, and they can have different purposes. Here are three basic frames:
Long and Low: In which the horse has a raised back and active hind legs, but a long neck and open throat latch with the nose in front of the vertical, and a lower head carriage (where the ears are at or slightly below the level of the withers). This is an excellent warm-up or cool-down position in the ring, can be used as a break or reward for more vigorous workouts, and can be useful anywhere on the trail where the horse needs to have the freedom of his head and neck.
Working: Until the horse is strong enough to work in collection, his outline while on the bit will have a longer neck that is relaxed at the poll and jaw, with the nose clearly in front of the vertical plane.
Collected: In which the horse has a shorter, more raised back, active hind legs reaching under the body, and a shortened, raised neck, with a relatively closed throatlatch (although at no point should the nose be behind the vertical), and the ears and poll as the highest point.
START ON THE CIRCLE.? We like to start on a large circle, approximately 20 to 30 meters in diameter. The rider should have reins that are short enough to use rein aids easily and they should be sitting squarely and evenly in the saddle. While it won?t hurt anything to start at the walk if the rider is more comfortable, it’s actually easier to introduce this concept at the trot, since the horse doesn’t use his neck as part of his locomotion at the trot (unlike to the walk).
While trotting around the circle, start by asking the horse to bend in the direction of travel. Keeping your reins in a straight line from your elbow, about the width of your body (your inside rein can even be slightly wider), apply additional inside leg so that the horse flexes his rib cage outward away from the center of the circle.
As the horse is flexing outward, close your outside leg ever so slightly and make your outside rein a steady ?wall? so that the horse steps from his inside leg in to the outside rein and leg. The outside aids will ?catch and channel? the power from the horse stepping from the inside to the outside, and that channeling will cause the horse to lift his back and lower his head and neck. The outside rein always should be lightly touching the horse’s neck.
Make sure that your leg is driving the horse both forward and ever so slightly sideways with every step, and make sure that you’re sitting straight, tall and square. Make sure your hands do not become narrow, and be very careful to not use an indirect rein (a rein crossed over the neck) to try, incorrectly, to create the bend.
People pay a lot of attention to the position of the head and neck when discussing ?on the bit,? but you must always remember that it is really the push and the power from the horse’s hind legs (as activated by the rider?s legs) that creates the shape of the head and neck, not the other way around.
That is, at once, one of the most fundamental concepts of dressage and the hardest to fully understand.
Your rein contact throughout this process should be steady and consistent?you should lightly but definitely feel the horse’s mouth. You should neither pull backwards nor feel like you’re holding up the front half of the horse in your hands.
If your horse becomes stiff or resistant in his mouth, vibrate the bit lightly with your fingers to keep the horse from grabbing it. Ideally, the vibrating rein should be the inside rein, while the outside rein stays as steadily quiet and consistent as possible. But, if your horse is stiffer on one rein than another, you may have to consistently remind him to not grab that rein, whether it’s the inside or the outside rein.
NOT WHAT YOU?RE LOOKING FOR.? As the horse attempts to comply with your request, he’ll probably try a couple of different responses, not all of which will be what you’re looking for. He may drop his head down, with his neck curled, creating a slack in the reins. If the horse drops behind the bit in this manner, apply your driving leg aids immediately and urge the horse vigorously forward until he lifts his neck back up and out to reach for the contact again.
Should the horse respond to your requests by ?stargazing? or grabbing the bit and sticking his head up in the air, make your hands a steady, unyielding wall and continue to ride to horse forward, while keeping the bit active in his mouth. You can even ask for an extreme amount of bend for a few steps, in order to break up the line of resistance. But don’t ?see-saw? on the horse’s mouth or swing his head from side to side.
When the horse does begin to come into a rounder position, you should feel his back lifting and carrying you. Often a horse with a more jarring gait will suddenly feel more comfortable to sit on, and the gait should also feel more powerful and uphill. He should be soft and steady in the mouth, not pulling or heavy, not disappearing, and his head and neck should be lowered and arched.
NOW GO STRAIGHT.? Once you have a good feeling for this on the circle, start riding some straight lines. Initially You’ll want to keep a slight bend to the inside to help keep the horse in position.
Straightness will eventually be required, but not until the horse can be consistently kept on the bit and the requisite strength has been built.? Remember, even on a straight line in the middle of the arena, you will always have an inside horse and an outside horse. Always be sure to know which is which and ride accordingly.
As you and the horse gain confidence and consistency in your work, you can increase the difficulty by riding straighter lines, smaller figures, and taking things out on the trail. Over time, your horse’s gaits and strength should improve, and he should feel more tuned to your aids. You should even be able to see changes in the muscling of his hindquarters, back and topline.
BOTTOM LINE. Teaching a horse to work consistently on the bit is far more difficult and elusive than we can convey in this brief space. It requires a balanced, dedicated rider who can feel what the horse is doing, and it requires a basically fit and athletic horse.
But the physical benefits of working your horse on the bit can be useful and applicable to any horse and rider, not just those looking to show in dressage or eventing. The fitness created by this kind of work is akin to doing gymnastics or to doing weightlifting with a dash of Pilates thrown in. This kind of overall fitness is what creates an equine athlete of any kind.
Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.