The term ‘on the bit’ is often wrongly simplified to a horse that has its head tucked in with a rounded neck, i.e., as long as the horse does not have its nose poking out and isn’t looking at the stars, then it’s ‘on the bit.’ This is incorrect.
‘On the bit’ is about much more than your horse’s head position.
So, in this article, we will clarify what ‘on the bit’ is, why you want your horse ‘on the bit,’ and how to put your horse ‘on the bit.’
What is ‘on the bit’?
When a horse is described as being ‘on the bit,’ it means that a connection has been formed from the horse’s hindlegs to the contact.
The horse is relaxed and moving rhythmically forward. He tips his pelvis under, engages his core muscles, and lifts his back as he steps further underneath his center of gravity with his hind legs. He stretches up and forward through the base of his neck while, at the same time, propelling the energy created by his hindquarters over his back toward the end of the reins, thus creating a connection to the contact.
When done correctly, your horse will create a beautiful arch over his back and neck as he stretches toward the bit. He will flex softly at his poll and bring his nose closer towards the vertical, only coming onto the vertical in high degrees of collection.
As you can see, ‘on the bit’ involves your horse’s whole body, and it is only possible through correct training.
Why do you want your horse ‘on the bit’?
The most important reason for riding your horse ‘on the bit’ is that it encourages your horse to move in a biomechanically friendly posture, thereby reducing the risk of injury and promoting a long working life.
Your horse’s posture can also influence his mental state. If your horse is startled or in an alert state, his head is up, and he is stiff and tense with a hollow back. When your horse is relaxed, his head is lowered, his neck is long, and his back is round. Therefore, the correct ‘on the bit’ posture helps to encourage your horse into a natural state of relaxation, promoting a willing and harmonious partnership.
On top of the points mentioned above, a horse that works ‘on the bit’ will:
- be easier to bend and turn
- have better balance
- be more responsive
- be easier to position for lateral movements
- be more comfortable to sit on
- have greater focus and attention
- have improved paces
- have greater acceptance of the aids
- have smoother, cleaner, and more direct transitions
- be less likely to spook
Overall, putting your horse ‘on the bit’ is the first step to you being able to positively influence your horse’s way of going, rather than just being a passenger on his back.
How NOT to put your horse ‘on the bit’
As mentioned in the introduction, many people wrongly believe that ‘on the bit’ simply means having their horse’s nose tucked in. This leads riders to commit many training faults, including:
- Constantly fiddling with the rein contact.
- Swinging their horse’s head from side to side.
- See-sawing on their horse’s mouth.
- Using draw reins, bungees, and other gadgets.
- Cramming their horse between strong leg and rein aids.
All of the above methods will encourage (force!) the horse to lower his head, bring his nose closer to his chest, and hold it there.
To the untrained eye, the horse may look like he’s ‘on the bit,’ but he will be hollow through his back, his hind legs will be trailing, and he will be moving in a very uncomfortable posture. Over time, this can lead to injury, lameness, deterioration of the horse’s natural paces, and incorrect muscle development.
How to put your horse ‘on the bit’
Before you start
If you have never ridden a horse ‘on the bit’ before, and your horse has never been asked to work in this way, one of the best places to start would be to get a lesson on a dressage schoolmaster with a qualified and experienced instructor.
Of course, this option is not available to everyone, but if you do have this opportunity, take it! It will be much easier for you to teach your own horse how to work ‘on the bit’ when you have experienced what it feels like, not just in the contact but also underneath your seat. (Remember that ‘on the bit’ involves the horse’s whole body.)
Step 1 – Relaxation, rhythm, and the desire to go forward
When you get on your horse, your first step is to establish your horse’s relaxation. But relaxation does not mean that your horse should be dawdling along half-asleep! Your horse should still respond promptly to your leg aids and move forward with long, smooth, and rhythmical steps.
Your horse should continue under his own steam. You should not have to constantly squeeze your horse with your legs just to get him to maintain the pace. If this happens, you need to work on getting your horse more forward and in front of your leg.
- How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
- How to Get Your Horse Working Forwards, Not Faster
- How (And Why) To Get Your Horse Thinking Forwards
Step 2 – Suppleness and alignment
Once you have a relaxed horse moving forward in the correct rhythm and at a suitable tempo, your next step is to ensure that your horse is supple over his back and is correctly aligned, i.e., with his hind feet following in the tracks of his forefeet.
As mentioned earlier, you want your horse to raise his back and tuck his pelvis under, which he can only do if he is soft and supple over his back. If he is tight and stiff, his top line muscles won’t be able to stretch.
We also mentioned that the energy created by your horse’s hindquarters needs to be propelled over his back and into the contact. For this to happen, your horse must be aligned correctly on straight lines as well as around circles, turns, and corners. If your horse is crooked, the energy created by your horse’s hind legs will be misdirected, for example, into his outside shoulder, causing him to fall out.
Step 3 – Provide a contact
At this stage, you should have a horse that is relaxed, rhymical, in front of your leg, supple over his back, and correctly aligned. You now need to provide your horse with a contact to work into.
There should be a straight line from your horse’s bit up through your wrists to your elbows. You should not have loopy washing-line reins, but at the same time, you should not strangle your horse with a tight and restrictive contact. Your hands should be ready to politely receive the energy that is coming over your horse’s back.
The feel you are trying to achieve should be elastic and stretchy, not fixed and hard. It should be relatively consistent (not harsh one moment and non-existent the next) and level with an even weight.
If your horse resists or ducks behind the contact (going behind the vertical), softly allow with the reins and ride your horse forward. You want to ride your horse to the contact but don’t forcefully push him through it.
When all the above components are correctly in place, your horse should be happy to stretch forward and form the ‘on the bit’ connection.
Steps 1, 2, and 3 working together
You may have noticed that those three steps are the first training scales: rhythm, suppleness, and contact. And although we talked about them in steps, they actually work together simultaneously to create the energy circle.
For the circle to be complete, energy should flow from:
- your horse’s active hind legs
- over his supple and swinging back
- arriving in the mouth as your horse seeks the bit
- traveling along the reins to your hands (where it may be modified to create movements, transitions, half-halts, etc.)
- through your supple body and seat to
- your driving aids (legs)
…and then back into the activity of your horse’s hind legs. And so on it continues, round and round.
The energy circle is created by a combination of the scales of training working together. They benefit each other and are what enables your horse to go ‘on the bit.’
Importantly, for this to work, all your aids must be balanced. Too much hand or too much leg and the correct ‘on the bit’ posture you are searching for will not be possible.
Lastly, to demonstrate true dressage riding and harmony, your aids need to be not only balanced but as quiet as you can make them while still getting the desired result. Rather than having to shout your aids at level 10, your goal is to be able to whisper them at level 1.
How to test if you have your horse ‘on the bit’
A simple way to test whether your horse is correctly ‘on the bit’ is to allow your reins to slowly slip through your fingers. If your horse is working correctly into the contact, he should follow the bit forward and down, staying in front of the vertical and stretching over his whole top line as he does so, while still propelling himself along rhythmically with his hind legs.
If your horse is not correctly ‘on the bit,’ when you allow the reins to slip through your fingers, your horse will simply come off the bit and lift his head, leaving you with no contact in your hands.
Do NOT fixate on your horse’s head position
When trying to put your horse ‘on the bit,’ it is very easy to get fixated on your horse’s head position. This can lead to you applying too much rein pressure, fiddling with the contact, or any other negatives we listed above.
Think ‘OUT to the bit‘ instead of ‘ON the bit’ and focus on how your horse feels underneath your seat and in your hands.
Riding young horses ‘on the bit’
If you have a young horse, it’s important to be aware that he won’t have the strength to work ‘on the bit’ for long periods, so you must give him frequent stretching and walking breaks and keep sessions short.
Demanding that a young horse works ‘on the bit’ for long periods will only lead to muscle fatigue, stiffness, injury, and resistance.
The term ‘on the bit’ is often misunderstood, with many riders believing it refers only to their horse’s head position. When, in fact, the term describes an overall way of going that involves your horse’s whole body.
Through the application of breathable leg aids combined with elastic rein aids, you can influence your horse to tip his pelvis under and for his hind legs to step under and through. This activates your horse’s abdominal muscles and assists in the raising of his back and shoulders, allowing him to stretch upward and forward through the base of his neck toward the end of the rein.
Lastly, the correct ‘on the bit’ posture is not achievable through the use of gadgets or shortcuts. It is only possible through correct riding and training.