Left – Right – Left – Right – Left – Right… The horse’s head turning one way and then back the other, every single stride, in a misguided attempt by the rider to achieve ‘on the bit’. Have you ever seen this? The horse looks like he is auditioning for roll of the bobble head in the back window of someone’s car; the rider looks like they are trying to get a ‘swinging’ upper body workout in with their riding… Left – Right – Left – Right – Left – Right…
On the bit is a little like the holy grail of horse riding. It is an ideal that most riders aspire to, however because it is more a result that is achieved through the culmination of hours of consistent riding; many riders will never truly achieve it because they are not willing to put the work in.
Unfortunately, just like most highly desired outcomes, the eagerness to obtain it leaves door wide open for endless counterfeit reproductions being passed off as the real thing, and many riders merrily sawing away at their horses mouths thinking they are indeed ‘on the bit’.
In fact, it almost becomes easier to define ‘on the bit’ by what it is not, rather than what it is, however I think we should always try to see the correct picture first and then hold those above mentioned ‘counterfeits’ against it so we can see the differences.
‘On The Bit’ is when your horse is creating energy with his hind quarters, that is being funnelled along, through his back to the front end of his body, where it is ‘channelled’ into the contact with the reins and bit.
What is vitally important to note is that the reins and bit part can only happen after the energy has been correctly manifested and then connected through the back. It is the final piece of the puzzle rather than the starting point – and this is what generally trips many riders up.
Being ‘On The Bit’ has nothing to do with sawing your horse’s mouth, or pulling his head in (or up, or down, or anywhere for that matter!) and everything to do with your horse using himself to the best of his ability and learning to carry both himself and you.
So before we even begin discussing how to achieve this contact and connection, let’s first begin by making sure all the prerequisites are in place so both you and your horse have the best possible chance of correctly working on the bit. It goes without saying that your horse must be moving forward, however moving forward correctly off your leg, rather than just running aimlessly around the arena is also a vital disparity to make.
Moving off your leg will ensure that your horse is responsive to your aids and travelling with rhythm and balance. You ask, he responds. If you are having to push for every stride, or if your horse has a little ‘think’ about actually doing what you want each time you ask, I would highly suggest working on his responsiveness first, before you begin anything else in your training.
Once you have established forwardness, you can then begin working on allowing that same energy to connect through from the back to the front. Horses should work in rear wheel drive, meaning that they push from behind rather than pull from the front
However, this energy then needs to connect or move through the horse in order to ‘lift’ and carry the front half of his body along with him. What a lot of riders don’t realise is that they are the actual cause or reason that connection or transference of energy is not happening. Simply by sitting heavily in the saddle, or slouching through your shoulders or upper body, is enough to shut down that flow of energy.
To prevent this, I want you to think about sitting up through your waist and ribs. Think of trying to elongate your torso, using your muscles to carry your upper body so it does not collapse on your pelvis and hips. Once you are carrying yourself, I also suggest paying attention to the distance between the point of your shoulders across your chest. Notice how when you draw your shoulders together – and shorten this distance – it affects your whole body. Be aware of keeping your chest open all through your riding. Many instructors will teach this as ‘Shoulders Back’, but I find that simply pushing your shoulders back rather makes your body rigid. Opening your chest is a softer and more flexible movement.
So now we have your horse moving forward in a responsive fashion, and that energy being able to flow underneath you to connect from the hind quarter, over the back and through to the front end of your horse, the final piece of the puzzle is gathering or channelling that energy to where you want it to go and we do this using our contact
Establishing and maintaining a consistent contact with your horse is key to riding on the bit. The contact should be elasticized and ‘stretchy’; your elbows being pliable and supple enough to literally hold your horse’s mouth in your hands. Pulling, forcing, sawing or any other use of physical force will not allow correct use of the contact.
Through working correctly, your horse will begin to become stronger through his body, and assuming you are carrying yourself while in the saddle, he will begin to lift his back as he works. This lifting of his back will allow him greater connection from the back-end through to the front end and will also begin to free up his shoulders a little more. The less the shoulders are ‘pulling’ the more they can begin ‘swinging’ and from here you horse will begin seeking out the connection with your contact.
It will feel like holding a one end of a skipping rope with another person, neither grips or pulls, but due to a mutual understanding, both are willing to do the necessary to maintain the connection and move the rope where they want it to go
Don’t make the mistake of becoming obsessed with your horse’s head carriage. Remember, being on the bit is the result of working correctly over time in order to build and develop the necessary strength and trust with your horse. Where and how he carries his head will be the result of both of you carrying yourselves correctly.
Also remember to use your half halt, both to set up your transitions or different movements, but also to rebalance and regroup when things fall apart, which they will quite often initially. Be consistent with your contact through the outside rein, and soft – almost offering – of your contact through the inside rein.
As your horse begins to spend more time working on the bit, you can use your inside rein to see his he is truly carrying himself. Does he continue to move forward when you soften your inside rein? If so, he is truly moving and working ‘On The Bit’.
I have created 5 audio horse riding programs on this subject, which will take you step by step through working your horse correctly in order to achieve a consistent ‘On the Bit’. If you are interested in listening to these programs (and hundreds more) you can visit https://stridesforsuccess.com/join/ to find out more.
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