ON THE BIT! ON THE BIT! OK What is the meaning of 'on the bit'anyway? This has got to be one of the most misunderstood and poorly explained expressions used in common horse training today. I think the big problem here is that it’s never been properly defined. In other words, if you’ve been there you understand it’s meaning, but if you’re just learning, you haven’t got a clue. And the ‘interesting’ thing is, many trainers out there can’t properly explain it either.
So, time to clear your head and start thinking along other lines. Your goal should be to get your horse moving freely forward, engaging from his hindquarters rather than pulling them along behind him. When he is doing this properly, you will notice him rounding (raising his back rather than being hollow backed) which naturally results in a more free and relaxed movement with a slightly arched neck, dropping his head to a more vertical position.. Notice PLEASE that I say “more vertical” rather than “vertical”. The degree of position will be determined by the individual horse, depending on his ability to have developed his balance and strength. That is typically increased as his training progresses.. It also depends on that horse’s particular conformation and natural balance. Now believe it or not, horses were made to do this quite naturally. This is “self-carriage”. The importance in stressing this is simple. A horse moving properly is relaxed and balanced. When we ride them with a bit, our contact should be very soft so the horse can feel our most subtle cues and we don’t interfere with his natural balance. This is not an easy task, yet an amateur can do it if shown how to properly communicate with his horse.
Too many people are concerned with what’s going on with the horse’s front end and try to get their horse “on the bit” by doing different things with his head. For example, when they longe their horse: First you use no reins, then when you think he’s ready you add side reins, starting with them loose. When he accepts them and is moving forward to your satisfaction you shorten them to keep him “on the bit” when moving forward. If you don’t think the horse is “quiet” enough with his bit you start adding more gimmicks to his tack, attempting to “teach” him to be quiet and responsive. Many times people aren’t happy until the horse is literally “held” in place, unable to move out of “your” desired frame for him. HOGWASH!!!! PLEASE NOTE - nothing will be correct with the front end if the back end isn’t working properly! If you can concentrate on the back end, you’ll find the front end follows naturally, enabling the horse to be “on the bit”.
Horses of all ages and training can move out rounded, light and “on the bit” with no side reins. They are simply moving as God made them, so beautifully. This all happens within one training session, samples of which will be shown in a video I am now creating. Horses literally love it - so do their people.
Rather than “on the bit” try to think of your horse as “seeking your hand”. I think that explains it much clearer. I enjoy showing people how to start working their horse in hand up close to achieve this. There he learns how to seek a soft contact with your hand. He learns to move with you as a dance partner, matching your body movements with his, always seeking your light contact in the way that maintains his natural balance. He learns from the beginning the need to push off his hindquarters and lighten his front to keep relaxed and balanced. The degree to which he uses all his muscles will depend on how far along he’s come in his training. This kind of work is what (in time) gives you the beautiful high schooled horse who makes every move look so easy and natural, with a loose rein connected to his snaffle bit. Contact between your hand and his mouth is nothing more than the weight of the rein (literally). He has learned how to “fine tune” his sense of balance with you so that the two of you seem as one.
In no way is this a “piece of cake” for the person. Developing this degree of sensitivity with your horse requires dedication, concentration, patience and love for the art of TRUE horsemanship with your partner. In other words, a lot of work. Have you ever wondered why there are no ‘young’ great masters?
I should add here that this type of training is great for any horse, no matter which training discipline you take him. They learn to enjoy training and develop the proper muscles to easily carry their rider. Once they learn proper balance and engagement from the ground, it’s much easier for them to progress smoothly with a rider in any sport. However, when I speak of achieving the great harmony between horse and rider with the ‘ultimate’ lightness, I am referring to the more traditional, classical way of riding horses.
Notice I say “classical” rather than using the term “dressage”. Dressage is no more than the basic schooling of horses, yet it has fallen into it’s own category in sport, often alienating its very principles from other sport enthusiasts. Many people competing in dressage like to think of it as an art (which makes them feel special) yet they ride their horses hard, as in a sport. They’re pounding the sides of their horse with their legs or pulling on the horse’s mouth with their hands. For it to be an art form it has to be treated as such, with delicacy and patience. You can only achieve that by referring back to the traditional, classical ideas about training, those taught by the Masters who spoke of the importance of ‘lightness’.
Our previous editorials are still available: thoughts on classical riding