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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 🙂