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On the bit : What does it mean and how to get there?

We hear it all too often: ‘(More)on the bit!’ shouted in the direction of riders by their instructors. This ‘command’ usual results in the student desperately trying to get the horse’s head down by all means possible – usually by fiddling with the hands and doing something with the reins in order to present the desired picture. Let’s make one thing clear from the start:

Simply having a horse with his head down does not mean he is ‘on the bit’ 

If the horse’s head is down in a ‘pretty outline’ but his hind legs are not engaged (read as ‘in another country’), we definitely do not have our horse ‘on the bit’. You have to ride the whole horse – no just the head and neck 😉 A relatively vertical head position is usually a consequence, or a ‘symptom’ if you like, of a horse being ‘on the bit’ but not its cause. We must not mistake those two. Pulling the horse’s head down with the reins only addresses the symptom and not the issue. Horses use their head and neck to balance and the position of head and neck can give you a great deal of information about the horse’s stage of training and balance.

‘Back to front’ riding is key

In order to get the horse ‘on the bit’ you need to ride the whole horse. Hind legs are the engine of the horse and if you are not getting enough energy (push) from behind, the horse will not go ‘on the bit’. Good contact develops when the horse is balanced, straight and supple.

The energy generated by the hindlimb should travel freely through the horses body then through the reins and the horse should feel like he is taking your hand forward without leaning. If the horse is not pushing evenly or is not bending evenly to both sides, you will have uneven contact – the horse might feel heavier in one rein that the other. 

Ok, but how do I create this elusive ‘on the bit’ thing?

You should ride exercises which are designed to help your horse find his balance and improve his suppleness. This will very much depends on each horse’s stage or training, conformation but also his character. He needs to develop physically but also mentally so make sure you break the training down into small steps so that you do not overwhelm the horse – only a relaxed horse can work well.

Straightness, balance and relaxation are all important elements for getting the horse ‘on the bit’. The rider’s ability to balance and send clear signals are of equal importance – we cannot expect the horse to balance themselves and be relaxed if we are not having control over our bodies. We should not be relying on reins to find stability or compensating for the lack of core strength by gripping with legs.

Getting horse ‘on the bit’ is a process, not a magic button 

If only it was as simple as pressing a magic button and, voila, your horse will be ‘on the bit’ 😉 Ultimately, ‘on the bit’ means that the horse is moving through his back (as a result of the hind legs engaging and flexing) and the horse is balancing themselves and the weight of the rider on top. Likewise, the rider should be supple to absorb the horse’s movement and use sufficient muscle tone to maintain stability in the saddle without being too rigid.

On a personal note, I never ask my students to get the horse ‘on the bit’ because it gives the riders no clue about what they should actually be doing. I will guide them though different exercises that will help their horse to get there but I never use it as an instruction.  If you have a coach who only tells you ‘Get your horse on the bit!’ but does not tell you how, maybe you should consider finding someone else – call me controversial 😉

I hope you found this topic interesting and I would love to hear from you if you have any specific training questions. And if you are looking for a riding instructor in Hertfordshire to help you get ‘unstuck’, book your first lesson now and let’s start your journey to success.

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