What Does it Mean that a Horse is on the Bit?
You might be wondering what does it mean for a horse to be on the bit? It is a very common term used among riders, especially those with dressage background. It means that a horse is fully accepting of the contact and the riders aids and the energy flows through its body. A horse is working and moving its whole body. The dynamics go as follows: a rider uses a ‘forward’ leg, or leg pressure and the horse responds by gently leaning on the contact. Sounds complex but really it all comes back to your horse accepting the bit and maintaining a steady contact throughout the training. Getting to that training level comes with time and experience of the rider. Self teaching is important, but it might be worth asking someone more experienced for help or simply getting a trainer.
Why Get the Horse on the Bit?
Many people feel intimidated by dressage training, find it mildly boring and ask themselves why even bother? I am an advanced medium dressage rider now, but in the past I have done showjumping and eventing. Speaking from my own experience, I can promise you that rider of any discipline can benefit from the basic dressage training. Getting a Horse on the Bit brings multiple benefits
- Quicker reaction time. A horse which is on the bit and through the body is more responsive. The reaction to your aids improves, the transitions become quicker and a rider can manipulate the stride length. For dressage riders, this gives an opportunity to improve ‘in point’ up and down transitions and for show jumpers or eventers it means that you can always get the right distance.
- Improved quality of the movement. A horse which maintains a steady connection, contact on the bit can easily learn self carriage which positively affects the whole image of a horse and rider. With the horse being on the bit, a rider can also introduce a more uphill movement and work on the action of the hind end. The expression of the gaits increases, especially of the trot. It is necessary if you are thinking about competing in elementary dressage and all the classes above it.
- Decreased load on the back. Horses which are round on the bit, work more with their back and thus strengthen and develop their back muscles. As the strength of the back increases, it prepares horses to carry the saddle and rider weight. It might be beneficial for horses that suffer from chronic back pain and sway back.
- More comfortable seat. For most horses, getting them on the bit makes it a lot easier for the rider to find a comfortable and correct seat. The horses learn to use their back in the correct way and amortise the energy of the riders seat. It becomes easier to sit the sitting trot or canter and find the perfect core balance.
How to Get a Horse on the Bit?
If you are looking for specific exercises, see the section below. Before you go ahead with the exercises, make sure you have the right base to perform them correctly and with a satisfactory quality. There is no sense to jump through the levels of training and to skip some important things, as the problems will show up sooner or later in the training. My previous dressage trainer used to say: ‘disagree to agree to a poor quality’ and with this intention I would like to touch upon the topic of getting the horse on the bit. Here I would like you to closely take a look at the pyramid of the dressage training.
You have surely seen it before, but it is important to go back and reflect on it often. Getting a horse on the bit, goes in the category CONNECTION, also referred to as level 3. If you want to get your horse on the bit you need to make sure, you can maintain a good rhythm (regular, rhythmic and energetic gait) and there is suppleness in your riding (with no stiffness or resistance). Only if you have these two elements perfected, you can go ahead to thinking about connection.
Now, as a basic rule, to get any horse on the bit you need to provide your horse with a comfortable contact on the reins. A horse that feels discomfort in its mouth and is not able to find a soft, comfortable hand, will not be willing to get on the bit. To do so you need:
- steady hands: make sure your hands remain in the same position to offer your horse a steady contact
- ‘forward’ hands: you should not force your horse on the contact by moving your hand back. Rather focus on your driving aids and stay patient, the horse should get on the bit by itself.
- relaxed fingers and wrists: think of your joints as shock absorbers or springs. Avoid tensing, stiffness and try to keep your grip as subtle and relaxed as possible.
- correct use of the elbow: think of your elbow as of a hinge. This is where you should feel you are balancing your horse’s head.
When it comes to the horse, your horse should be able to:
- react to forward and backward cues (transitions, stride length change, stopping etc.)
- have a forward tendency and keep an energetic rhythm by itself (do not nag your horse)
- understand how to read the pressure on the reins (understand that reins aren’t used for turning but rather for bending)
- understand the difference between forward leg, supporting leg, leg used for a leg yield or bending leg
Disclaimer! Before you start training your horse always make sure that your horse is provided with comfortable and optimal conditions. You will not be able to get your horse on the bit, through the body or in self carriage if your tack is causing any discomfort. Make sure you have a well fitted saddle (I always suggest checking it annually with a saddle fitter) and make sure your horse has the right type bit of the right size too and a comfortable bridle. Some horses are so fragile and sensitive that they require special anatomic bridles (designed in a way that no nerves are pinched and the blood flow is not disturbed) in order to be willing to cooperate with the rider. It is also a great idea to support your horse with physiotherapy, massage or magnetic therapy, along the process of your training, to eliminate potential discomfort that the rider is causing. Each horse should also have a dental check up yearly, as poor, uncared for teeth are very often the reason a horse avoids contact.
Disclaimer 2! When teaching a young or green horse, how to correctly use its body and respond to the aids, use gentle bits and avoid using draw reins or double bridle curb bit. With such tools many riders force their horses on the bit, which it is mentally damaging to the horses, especially if used by the wrong hands.
Best Exercises for Getting a Horse on the Bit
Transitions are the best exercise for horses and riders of any level and should be done more often. Transitions can be done in a sitting seat, but don’t even have to be. During the transitions focus on maintaining a connection with your horses head through the reins, but don’t force it. If you feel like you need to pull on the reins to keep a contact, contradictory put your your hands more forward, in front of you and ride forward with more leg. It will teach your horse to look for the contact by itself and teach your horses to work round and low. Pay attention not to pull on the reins during downward transitions, but use your core balance, set and support leg to slow down. Also focus on maintaining a good hing end action and make sure the whole process is pretty dynamic. You want the reaction to be quick. For all of the riders which are new to the concept of contact and having a horse on the bit, we suggest to practice transitions on a 20 meter circle. Riding the circle forces the horse to look for a good balance. Start with a walk-trot-walk or canter-trot-canter. As you progress, add walk-canter-walk transitions and don’t be scared to mix it all up, all it does it makes the horse more focused on the rider and the work. For the more advanced, one of my favourite exercises is canter-walk-counter canter-walk transitions and does wonders to the subtleness of the horse.
Extending and Collecting
Playing around with the stride length within one gait helps the horse to look for a stable contact and respond to the leg pressure. As a rider, try to maintain the same position, with your hands in front of you and ride with your leg. Do not look for your own balance by grabbing the rains and holding the horses mouth, but try to find your core balance. This exercise results in increase of the hind strength, a better balance and responsiveness.
Bringing your horse to the inside or outside, helps the horse to understand that reins aren’t a tool for turning. Bending allows for more flexibility in the neck and shoulder and makes it easier for the horse to naturally come on the bit. It also teaches the horses to collect and be round in the neck. When bending your horse make sure you are energetically riding forward too, and do not loose the rhythm.
Shoulder in is yet another secret to getting your horse on the bit within a few moments. Dressage riders use shoulder in on a daily basis. It encourages the horse to seek balance and contact on the outer rein and relax the shoulder. This powerful tool might be a challenge to the beginner rider. It might take a lot of time to learn the correct dynamics of shoulder in and out exercises but it is a secret to riding a perfect dressage test. When getting your horse on the bit, by using the shoulder in, keep your hands in front of you, use your inner leg, ask for a little bit of an inside bend and let the horse fall onto your outside rein.