Left – Right – Left – Right – Left – Right… The horse’s head turning one way and then back the other. Every single stride. A misguided attempt by the rider to achieve ‘on the bit’. Have you ever seen this? The horse looks like he is auditioning for the role of the bobblehead 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 the door wide open for endless counterfeit reproductions being passed off as the real thing. One of those being that many riders are merrily sawing away at their horse’s mouths thinking they are indeed ‘on the bit’.
What is ‘On The Bit’?
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. After it has been connected through the back. Reins and bit are the final pieces of the puzzle rather than the starting points. This is what generally trips many riders up.
No Sawing Required!
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!).
It has everything to do with your horse using himself to the best of his ability and learning to carry both himself and you.
The Pre-Requisites for ‘On the Bit’
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. This will ensure 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 traveling 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.
Connecting the Energy
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 realize is that they are the actual cause or reason that connection or transference of energy is not happening. Simply sitting heavily in the saddle, or slouching through your shoulders or upper body, is enough to shut down that flow of energy.
Self Carriage for Riders First…
To prevent this, I want you to think about sitting up through your waist and ribs. Think of trying to elongate your torso. Use 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.
The Final Piece of ‘On the Bit’
Once you have your horse moving forward in a responsive fashion, and the energy flowing underneath you connecting the hindquarters to the front end of your horse, you’re ready.
The final piece of the puzzle is gathering or channelling that energy to where you want it to go. You do this using your contact
Establishing and maintaining 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 the correct use of the contact.
Developing Over Time
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.
It 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 your 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. Not gripping or pulling. There is 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.
Reestablishing On the Bit when Necessary
Also remember to use your half-halt, both to set up your transitions or different movements. And 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’.
Connection for Equestrians
I have created 5 audio horse riding programs on this subject. They 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.