What does “on the bit” mean?
Well, here’s one of the major points that equestrians can argue hours about.
First, of all – there’s many different styles or disciplines, Western pleasure riders or Dressage riders, who follow Baucher’s theories, like their horses completely off the bit, the young horse gets taught to stay in a certain frame without any contact at all. This practice usually leads to horses that are heavy on the forehand and show little to no engagement of the hindquarters, trailing out behind them. They carry their heads behind the vertical and are practically “avoiding” the bit.
The other extreme would be the “drive and hold” wannabe Dressage riders who hold a ton of weight in their biceps because they think they need to pull their horses into a certain position, usually heavily leaning back and excessively driving their horses into contact.
Then there’s the jumpers, hunters and eventing horses which often tend to be “above the bit” when charging a jump or racing along the track…
So, now we’ve covered what it doesn’t mean to ride your horse “on the bit”.
Let’s hear what Classical Dressage says about riding “on the bit”…
Master Nuno Oliviera defines this as follows: “Putting the horse on the bit means feeling that the poll flexes, the back rises, the haunches become active.”
“A perfect contact is possible only when the horse is in absolute balance, carries himself, and does not seek support from the reins. It may then be said that the horse is <on the bit>.”
Podhajsky, Alois. (1965). The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship
When teaching a new student for the first time, I’ve noticed I usually spend the first lesson adjusting their reign-handling and the way they carry their hands. In 90% of the cases the riders have gotten used to pulling their horses’ heads into the desired position on the inside reign and their first reflex to anything is to use that inside hand, especially when moving on bends or circles.
Noticing this, I was first dismayed. My mantras being “ride your horse from back to front”, “use your seat, leg and voice before touching the reigns”, “contact, engagement, throughness come from the hind-end, not the reigns” – and what do I do first? Talking about reign aids for 45 minutes!
But then I noticed that all subsequent lessons go more and more in the direction of my well-repeated mantras. So, I concluded that it pays to first remove the bad habits, mostly a too strong inside hand, before we can start working a horse back to front.
This particular bad habit of an overly dominant inside reign seems to be not only common in students that haven’t had much training before coming to me, but also – shockingly – in students who’ve had riding lessons for years!
One of my newer students told me that her previous trainers taught her to shorten the reigns, ride with low, broad hands and keep flexing her mares head to the inside, then shorten the reigns some more. All to “get the head down” (this one’s becoming one of my favourite pet-peeves).
Now her particular horse is one of these “giraffe” types, little or no muscles in the neck and back and dealing with balancing out her rider by going frequently over the bit and hollowing out her back. If I try hard at putting myself into her previous trainers’ shoes, I can see the intended result of this approach: rounding the horse.
Well, and here we really get down to the discussion of Contact (on the German Training Scale:”Anlehnung”) or riding your horse “on the bit”.
What is most important to remember with any horse, green, old, rehab, “rollers” or “giraffes”, is that there’s no shortcuts! Pulling your horse into a frame does not mean that you have achieved Contact, because you cannot force real Contact, you can only offer it until one fine day, and this comes gradually, your horse stretches into it willingly and over time the two of you establish a fine but constant Contact.
In my experience, you can congratulate yourself on buying a “giraffe” as opposed to a “roller”, because it is so much easier to teach a horse that holds its head too high (mostly out of a lack of topline muscles) to stretch into contact than a horse that tends to roll itself up and avoids the bit by staying behind it (mostly caused by harsh hands and aprupt training).
Both types of horses can however be “rehabilitated” with the right training and a patient and thinking rider – over time they will learn to trust your hand and accept real Contact.
Don’t get fooled by the pictures we see every day, don’t accept a horse forced into Rollkur positioning as the norm or even an image to strive for. Better to ride your horse way in front of the vertical than only an inch behind it! At least, this way you aren’t harming your horse by overstretching the nuchal ligament (neck-back connector) over the third vertebrae, preventing blood circulation and ensuring nerve damage. Rollkur positioning also prevents a horse from breathing and swallowing correctly, the jaw presses onto the Atlas (first vertebrae) and the gland in charge of saliva production (right under the ear) gets squeezed which can lead to chronic inflammation.
Apart from all these health hazards, this way of riding also robs these beautiful creatures off all glamour and pride, forcing them into a demeaning position in which they can neither move freely nor see very well.
The best way of putting even veteran, established riders and their seemingly together horses to the test is taking away the bit. Put your horse in a Cavesson and see if it stretches into Contact and if it still looks like a well-rounded, together horse under saddle – with many riders who rely too heavily on the mighty bit and fall into the common trap of thinking if the head is down, they have achieved contact, their nice look will completely fall apart when the horse is not forced into a head position by the pain the bit poses.
Here I’d like to mention that a big problem with many riders is about “looks”, they accept shortcuts, make compromises and fall into bad and often harmful habits in order to “look good” – this becomes especially bad with training young horses. Many riders, even accomplished trainers, feel the pressure of onlookers, even if they think they don’t. With a youngster it is paramount to accept the fact: it won’t look pretty for a loooong time.
But luckily for most of us: we have time!
So many of my students have to go through some agonising adjustment time in which their horses wander around the arena with their heads in the air while we concentrate on engaging the hind-legs and only offering contact with a steady and gentle hand or helping to balance out the open circle-line with the outside reign only, but there’s no regulating, no pulling, no adjusting the head/neck frame – only offering contact.
To most students’ surprise it doesn’t take that long at all until our riding “from behind” yields results and the horse lets its neck fall as it relaxes and finds balance in its strides, starts to stretch into Contact – and often for the first time ever, they gain a feeling for what it really means to hold “contact”.
Most are surprised it’s so light, so easy – it just happens.
This is when they’ve understood the second most important thing in achieving true Contact: Contact talks about all aids. The horse must accept contact to your seat and leg aids just as much as to the reign aids. Contact to the mouth is just one aspect.
This light, willing Contact gives us the means to communicate mere thoughts to our horses without having to give strong aids or “fighting” the horse as it often happens.
It gives us the means to ride with our seats and to feel where the horse needs some help, it prevents us from blocking the Schwung to get stuck as a result of a hard inside-hand. This Schwung that our horses offer from behind can now travel through the whole horse, starting from hind-legs stepping under and carrying weight, over an elastic, rounded back, towards a stable and telescoped neck into the contact we feel in our hands. At the same time it allows us to regulate this power coming from behind with the tiniest reign aids, setting in motion the circle of aids.
You will notice how your horse learns to carry itself more, balancing itself out much better, how the shoulder lifts naturally and the croup starts lowering.
This is where riding becomes utter bliss and harmony.
However, I cannot repeat it often enough: There’s no shortcuts to this!
The German Scale of Training might not be perfect, but it goes as follows:
- Schwung (or impulsion)
…leads to: Throughness
Many Classical Dressage (opposed to competitive) trainers maintain that “the Scale” is missing the point of “Balance”, which should be the base of the pyramid or scale. Klaus Balkenhol even says, and I agree with him enthusiastically, that at the base and starting point of any training, there needs to be “Trust” – because a horse without trust in human, surroundings and equipment cannot learn and improve. So, I suppose the scale I like to work with goes as such:
- Schwung (or impulsion)
…leads to: Lightness & Harmony
Whatever scale you train by, it is paramount to climb it step by step and remember both, the interconnections between each of these points as well as the years it takes to master it.
It takes time and patience and a lot of self-control, as well as throwing your ego over board and accepting not looking great yet, maybe also taking a step back in your training every now and then when you run into resistance. But it pays off in the long run!
Not only will you have a true and fine communication in the saddle, your horse will learn to assume a healthy position, grow the right muscles and balance itself out correctly.
This is what gymnasticising, and finally the Art of Dressage, is really about and what will keep your buddy healthy and happy for a long time as the wear and tear of incorrect postures and tense muscles is removed.