Simple exercise for the rider to “put the horse on the bit”

By Wiola Grabowska

There are so many ways to describe what riding “on the bit” is, so many techniques to achieve it with and many ways to explain what takes place in the horse’s and rider’s body when it does happen.

This short post is not a comprehensive description of any complicated processes but it is rather aimed at those who already know what the concept is about in theory but perhaps struggle with execution and like to experiment with a simple idea to see what they can learn from it…

How I feel it

If I was to describe in the simplest way what it feels to me to ride a horse “on the bit” I would say it’s a way of moving where I find most comfortable position for the horse to be in between his left and right bend in the body and flexion at the poll and most appropriate pace for whatever we are doing that feels like he is always between the ‘go’ and ‘whoa’.

The Simple “on the bit” Exercise

Here is one simple (not always easy, depending on how focused the rider is able to be) exercise to experience ALL ingredients of riding “on the bit”.

  1. Set up a square with poles that gives you about 12m circle inside of the square and has enough space on the outside to ride a 15m circle around the square.
  1. Walk your horse into the square and take an even connection on both reins. Feel like you are just carrying the bit for the horse as if the cheekpieces broke, don’t ask for anything, just be a neutral “handshake” at the end of each rein.
  2. Start walking around inside the square as close to the poles as possible while asking the horse to follow a shape of a 12m circle.
  3. Your first focus is on the rhythm of the steps. You can say to yourself ‘left,right, left,right’ each time you feel the hind legs stepping or shoulders of the horse moving. Repetitive, clock-like rhythm will help with relaxation which in turn will help with suppleness. If your horse is on a slow/lazy side, maintaining the rhythm can help with awareness of hind leg activity.
  4. Alongside the rhythm focus, pay attention to the position of the horse’s neck. Direct the neck with both reins so it always stays in the middle of the horse’s chest (be careful not to overbend it either way).
  5. Focus on your upper body staying directly above the horse. No leaning in. No leaning out. No leaning back or forwards. You walk each of your shoulders directly above each of your hips as much as you can. Your spine joins your horse’s spine at the right angle and stays so.
  6. Once you have the even footfalls (rhythm), neck in the middle of the shoulders and your own body stacked well and vertically balanced, ask for inside bend in the body by asking your horse to step deeper underneath his belly with his inside hind leg. Your outside leg stays a little back, your inside hip leads the movement. Feel like you are asking for a series of tiny, mini leg-yields so the horse shifts his weight a little from inside foreleg (which he is likely to be leaning on) to the outside hind leg. Let your hips follow the walking motion of the horse’s back. Be careful not to brace against your horse’s bracing/tension/reluctance to bend.
  7. Ask for flexion at the poll with your inside rein. Avoid any backwards pulling or repeated shuffling of the bit. Use simple opening rein if needed. Stabilise your horse’s neck with outside rein so only poll flexion happens, not more of a neck bend.
  8. Constantly keep checking if you are allowing the horse to use his neck in movement. In walk, it will need to move a little forward and back, in trot in will be static but still needs to be able to relax. Avoid the feeling of “holding the horse’s neck in round position”. You want the feeling of directing the neck and poll in front of the rest of the spine so it curves left or right slightly depending on which rein you are on. Keep the neck in the middle of the chest (if you are not sure, ask someone to film you and watch the video frame by frame. Most riders tend to keep the neck of the horse too much to the inside so it is almost in line with inside point of shoulder rather than the middle of the chest. This “breaks” the line of communication between the rein and the hind leg on that side.
  9. Repeat every stride – position check, rhythm, bend, flexion. It all happens almost simultaneously but you can focus on one element at a time if that’s easier.
  10. Work on both reins and build your feel for finding the posture your horse is happy to maintain.


What you are doing via this exercise is laterally bending the horse. Lateral bending helps develop straightness aka evenness through the body. Lateral bending encourages the horse to engage (aka flex in all joints and increase pushing power) of his inside hind leg.

All this encourages prouder, rounder posture through the back, longer top line and shorter bottom line, more definite feel in your outside rein and softer feel in your inside rein – all this is otherwise known as the horse being on the bit.

You might find you are only able to keep such posture in the horse for several strides. Then maybe only on a 12-15m circle. Take your time. Your feel will improve. You will start feeling how much ‘go’ to add to repair lost rhythm, how much ‘whoa’ to ask for to stop the horse from running away from inside leg aid, how much left bend to ask for so your inside flexion happens almost by itself etc etc

Many a time, the rider’s position or inability to keep the horse “in front of the leg” when riding “straight” or in gaits other than trot (often easiest as the horse’s neck remains still and rhythm can be defined via rising to the trot) is what causes the horse to lose rhythm, suppleness, engagement and connection needed to remain “on the bit”.

You might say that one could simply ride a smaller circle in walk and larger in trot and think of the same elements as above. Maybe. I have, however, tested the square exercise on variety of riders from children to more advanced riders with green horses and the discipline of the square, the fact that they need to focus on exactness of the shape seems to make it work every single time.

Happy practicing 🙂







Question of the weekend: what good few top dressage horses have in common with Elena Mukhina? (answer at the bottom of the post)

By Wiola Grabowska

There was once a brilliant young girl who could do what others wouldn’t dream of trying. She had a coach and an ambitious management team and was going to the Olympics. Do take 6 minutes  to get to know her if you haven’t heard of her before, meet Elena

I’ve heard of Elena because, for better or worse, and despite the fact I purposefully focus on grassroots vs professional sport, I still like to follow the “top” in many different disciplines. Many non-sport-specific coaching methods are not that dissimilar across all sports and I find it interesting to learn beyond equestrianism.

This weekend, a dressage rider well known for using rollkur, won the third leg of the World Cup Dressage 2017/2018 Western European League.

There have been so many outcries, social media posts and online actions against rollkur and other abusive training methods yet riders who use them still win at the top of the game. The pursuit of impossible is so ingrained in our human nature that it overlooks everything on the way. If a body is able to do it, or we think it is, we will try to make it do – whether animal or human. Limits seemingly do not exists.

Considering a horse and rider in a competition are a sports team, even though riders of all levels have coaches, the rider is effectively a unique type of a coach to their horse. They are also a performance manager to the horse. They are actually, everything training related to that horse.

And that horse might as well be called Elena.

For refreshingly different communication and possibilities, you might want to watch these Olympic riders: Karen & David O’Connor – another level of communication

*Answer: They have the same kind of coach

Jasmine shares her thoughts on “Pony Racer” – one of the many fabulous equestrian stories published by Forelock Books

By Jasmine O’Brien


Jasmine Pony Racer 1

I enjoyed this book because you never knew what was going to happen next and it ended in a positive way. My favourite character was Leo the pony because he understood how to make Tom happy and he always tried his best to please everyone. My favourite section of the book was when Tom and Leo won the race as the way it was written made you feel like you were there. I would recommend this book to others who like horses and ponies because it shows if you are patient and you practice you could reach your goal. I would rate this book five stars!

Jasmine Pony Racer 3
Jasmine and her loan pony, Gryffindor Amber Flame 


If you are on a hunt for Christmas gifts already as I know many of you are (!) and you have some pony/horse loving book enthusiasts among your family and friends, check out Forelock Books 🙂 I have ordered from Michelle before and the books are beautifully published, always arrive nicely packaged and make a wonderful gift 🙂

This is not a sponsored post. Just a genuine appreciation shout out to a lovely book publisher!