On British Dressage sheets under the collective mark for ‘Submission’, you will see that the directive makes reference to the ‘elasticity of the contact’.
If you receive comments on your dressage test sheets such as ‘against the hand’ or ‘against the bit’, you will also be marked down in the submission collective section, and the judge will underline the ‘elasticity’ reference.
But how do you stop your horse from coming against the bit and why is the contact so important anyway?
Training the young horse to accept the bit
Firstly, the rider should identify how the horse is moving and bending at the moment when they realize that the horse is ‘against the bit’.
This is a good starting point because if the rider does not feel the horse in the exact seconds starting to avoid going into the bridle and bit, it is a problem that is very difficult to put right.
The issue of the horse coming against the bit signals the start of the rider’s career, whereby they must analyze how much of the all-important quality of ‘feel’ that they have.
Correcting, or more importantly, preventing this situation requires good ‘feel’ and timing.
Most horses, particularly the young ones in the early stages of their careers, will try at some stage to avoid staying into the bridle.
Others will simply lose their balance as the exercises become more taxing. Sometimes, as a consequence of this loss of balance, the horse will come against the bit.
This is a very good reason why talented young horses should be ridden only by good riders who understand about being in balance.
These riders are better equipped in their riding strategy and plan for each session to prevent their young horses from being out of balance.
Therefore these young horses learn quickly how to balance and carry themselves, which enables the rider to teach them the finer qualities of subtle rein, leg, and seat aids.
Such riders understand how to ride a horse correctly forwards, then they prioritize teaching the horse to half-halt.
This is how talented young sport horses make seemingly rapid, but not stressful, progress.
Why does the horse come against the bit?
When the horse comes against the bit, it is mostly due to being out of balance and lacking suppleness.
This can be due to:
- The tempo (speed of the rhythm) being either too quick or too slow, depending on the exercise or the requirement.
- The horse may lack enough suppleness to finish the movement or requirement e.g. the first half of a 10m circle is in balance and the second half is out of balance, too quick, and consequently against the bit.
- The horse is behind the leg and seat aids.
- The horse does not know how to interpret the aid to half-halt which is the secret to keeping the horse in balance.
- The hind legs are not active enough to be able to step sufficiently far under the body, which is the moment of relative engagement.
- The horse does not understand good rein aids, therefore in a moment of lack of balance, the horse has to hurry straight past the rein aids, right onto the rider’s hands and consequently the forehand.
- The horse is being asked to do a movement which is simply too difficult which results in the horse losing confidence in the rider and coming off the aids.
Exercises to improve the horse’s acceptance of the contact
The following exercises are useful in teaching the horse to accept a more elastic contact.
- Keep an appropriate rhythm and tempo (speed of the rhythm) – be quick to correct and manage the tempo and do not let it get too quick or too slow.
- Simple and frequent transitions – particularly walk to halt and walk to trot, and vice versa to re-establish the understanding of the aids.
- Simple and frequent trot to canter and canter to trot transitions.
- Changing the length of the canter to encourage the horse to maintain an active forward-thinking tempo.
- Make the horse as reactive as you can to the aids, as only horses that are responsive and quick on the aids enable their riders to build quality in the way of going, which is what brings the higher marks.
Only when the horse has learned to accept a light, elastic contact can he work in self-carriage and a good balance.
The unschooled or young horse initially uses his head and neck to balance himself, and it is only through systematic, thoughtful schooling by an experienced rider that he will become sufficiently strong and confident enough to transfer the balance back onto his hindquarters.
Until this moment, the horse will be inclined to use the rider’s hand for balance, especially during downward transitions.
Use the exercises outlined above to teach your horse to activate his hindquarters and balance himself, ultimately alleviating the problem of coming against the bit.