A common problem that’s seen in dressage tests is when the horse comes behind the vertical.
Some horses lean on the rider’s hands, dropping the poll and pulling themselves along on their forehand. Others drop the bit altogether so that the rider feels as though there’s nothing in their hands at all.
In this article, we discuss the second of those two scenarios.
What’s the problem?
Horses that duck behind the contact are basically evading the contact with the rider’s hands.
Generally, the horse “curls up” and brings his head closer to his chest. Some horses drop the bit altogether so that the rider has absolutely nothing in their hands. Although you want a light contact, you don’t want to have no contact at all.
Evading the rider’s contact in that way has a detrimental effect on the horse’s whole way of going.
As with all dressage problems, you need to go back to the basic Scale of Training to see the impact of dropping the contact.
If the horse is not willing to work into the bridle, the tempo and rhythm will most likely be inconsistent or even irregular, especially in the walk.
If the horse isn’t seeking the contact, he won’t work forward from behind through a supple back. Most likely, the horse’s back will be hollow and his hocks will be left trailing out behind him.
Therefore, the horse’s whole outline will be incorrect.
A horse that comes behind the bit is not working into a correct, elastic contact.
If the horse isn’t working forward from behind through his back to the contact, you won’t be able to use half-halts and a forward leg aid to create more impulsion.
If you can’t put the horse into your outside rein, you won’t be able to bend him around circles or ride lateral exercises effectively.
Often, horses that won’t take the contact become very crooked, bringing their quarters in to block the rider’s attempts to push the horse more forward.
If the horse doesn’t work into the contact, you can’t hope to develop true collection, simply because you can’t engage the horse’s hindquarters or develop sufficient impulsion.
So, you can see that dropping the bridle has a massive impact on the horse’s overall way of going, not just on the outline he works in.
Why do some horses curl up behind the bit?
Before you can start fixing the problem, you need to know why the horse is working behind the bridle.
Discomfort in the mouth
The usual reason for a horse not wanting to pick up the bit is some form of discomfort in his mouth. There are several potential common causes of that:
- Dental problems
- Unsteady hands
- Incorrectly fitted bit
- Double bridle or a bit with curb chain
- Draw reins
Let’s look at each one individually.
Potential reason #1 – Dental problems
First of all, have your horse’s teeth checked by an equine dental specialist or an equine vet.
Even if the bit and bridle fit the horse perfectly, he may be trying to escape the discomfort that’s caused by a hook or sharp tooth that could be remedied by some simple dental treatment.
Potential reason #2 – Unsteady hands
Imagine for a moment that you have a piece of metal or plastic in your mouth, pressing on your tongue and on the bars of your mouth. Now, imagine that someone is seesawing, pulling, or constantly bouncing that piece of metal or plastic up and down with every step you take.
So, that’s why poor hands are a major cause of bit evasion in the dressage horse.
How to fix the problem
Some novice riders think that fiddling with the bit in the horse’s mouth is how to persuade their horse to come down on the bit. Unfortunately, that will only irritate the horse and probably lead to bit evasion problems. You must keep your hands soft and still!
Remember that is the horse that seeks the contact, and the rider who grants it.
Why do your hands bounce up and down?
If your hands tend to bounce up and down, that’s usually caused by stiffness in your elbows. Try riding in a sitting trot for a few steps. Are your hands still? How about rising trot versus canter? Most likely, you’ll find that your hands move most in a rising trot.
Hands that move most in rising trot are usually caused by problems with the elbows, not the hands. Focus on your elbow as a hinge and work on making it more supple so that the joint absorbs the horse’s movement.
Potential reason #3 – Incorrectly fitted bit
The next most common reason for the horse dropping the bit is a pain in his mouth caused by a poorly fitting bit or noseband.
Check the bit to make sure that there are no rough or sharp parts that might be pinching or rubbing on the horse’s mouth. Check the corners of the mouth to make sure that there are no obvious injuries.
The bit should be the correct size and shape for the horse’s mouth and for his stage of training. For example, sometimes, a very thin snaffle bit can be quite severe in a horse that has a large mouth and fleshy tongue. Ask an experienced instructor or a bitting specialist to check the bit you’re using to make sure that the horse is not in discomfort.
- How to Choose and Correctly Fit a Bit for Dressage (Single Bit/Bridle)
- How to Fit Your Horse’s Noseband
Potential reason #4 – Double bridle or a bit with curb chain
In dressage, double bridles may be used from the Elementary level, and beyond.
Unfortunately, many less experienced riders put their horses into double bridles when their horses would be much happier in their snaffles. When the double bridle is not used or fitted correctly, the horse may drop the bit altogether to escape the uncomfortable new feeling in his mouth.
The quick fix for that problem is to put the horse back into his old familiar snaffle!
Potential reason #5 – Draw reins
Draw reins and other gadgets that are used to physically force the horse to work in an “outline” have no place in dressage training. These devices are generally used as a shortcut that often does more harm than good.
To escape the uncomfortable pressure placed on the bars of his mouth when the draw reins are shortened, the horse curls up behind the vertical and drops the bridle.
So, take the time to train the horse correctly, and don’t resort to using draw reins.
Once the horse learns that he can evade the discomfort in his mouth by ducking behind the contact, he will continue to do so, sometimes even after the problem itself has been solved.
That’s why it’s crucial to get to the root of the trouble and sort it out before the habit becomes seriously ingrained.
How to encourage your horse to work into the contact properly
Once you are sure that none of the aforementioned problems are causing the horse to curl up behind the contact, you can begin the job of re-schooling him to work forward through his back to seek the contact and work in a more correct open frame.
A good place to start addressing the horse’s habit of dropping the bit is to lunge him with correctly fitted side reins.
Importantly, the side reins are not there to pin the horse’s head in as that will just make the horse want to duck behind the contact even more.
Instead, they should be fitted at a length that does not interfere with the horse unless he chooses to stretch into the contact and connect with the reins.
When you first attach the side reins, the horse probably won’t connect to them and will just trot around with loose side reins. This is ok and to be expected in the beginning. But as you work the horse more forwards and encourage him to engage his hind legs on the circle, he should then start to stretch towards the contact and fill the reins.
The side reins provide the horse with a steady and consistent contact to stretch into.
The overall idea is to encourage the horse to work forward and to reach for the bit. Teaching him that seeking the contact is comfortable after all.
Related Read: How to Lunge Your Horse
Once the horse begins to relax and seek the contact on the lunge, you can begin working on it under saddle.
Step 1 – Working trot 20m circle
Start by taking up a working trot on a 20-meter circle.
To begin with, ride the horse on a long rein. At this stage, all you want is for the horse to work forward from your leg without curling up behind the bit. So, if the horse sticks his neck out, that’s fine.
Relaxation is critical, so work the horse on the circle in a good rhythm without worrying about the contact or an outline at this stage.
Step 2 – Take up the outside rein
Now that the horse has opened his frame, you can gradually begin to take up a contact on the outside rein.
Ride the horse forward into the outside rein from your inside leg and ask him for a little bit of bend to the inside.
Again, don’t worry about an outline; simply keep focused on the rhythm and on riding forward in a swinging, fluent working trot.
Step 3 – Gradually shorten the reins
Once the horse is relaxed and bowling along happily, you should find that he will begin to seek the contact.
However, at this stage, the horse’s neck will probably be carried rather low and he may poke his nose in front of the vertical. Don’t worry! As long as the horse uncurls his neck and begins to stretch toward the bit, that’s fine.
Very gradually, shorten your outside rein, making sure that you continue to ride forward. It’s crucial that you don’t restrict the horse in any way.
Keep your hands steady and still. If you feel the horse begin to back off your leg and curl up behind the contact, lengthen your reins and ride him forward again.
Slowly shorten your inside rein, keeping the inside flexion.
Step 4 – Use half-halts to correct the frame
Once the horse is working consistently into the bridle, you can use half-halts to engage his hindquarters, taking care to use plenty of leg and seat and minimal pressure from the reins.
If your horse tends to curl up and completely drop the contact, it’s possible that he is experiencing some discomfort in his mouth.
Check that the horse’s teeth don’t need attention and make sure that his bit fits properly and is not causing him discomfort. Next, ask your trainer to take a look at your hands. Your hand should be light, consistent, and soft, not bobbing up and down or niggling at the horse’s mouth.
Encourage the horse to work forward without restriction and in a good rhythm. Eventually, he should begin to seek the contact and uncurl his neck. However, if the problem is a longstanding one, you must prepare to be patient. Unfortunately, contact issues can’t generally be fixed overnight.