Riding the horse towards the bit
“You can train a monkey to pull on the reins and hold the horses head in, but it takes much more than that to ride a horse on the bit”, I can still hear my instructor bark.
Now, I would hate to insult any readers by suggesting that most of them ride like monkeys but in my teaching, I find very few riders understand the concept of how to push the horse onto the bit.
So I would like to explain it in a way that might just help someone to understand the concept better; a way that I was told many years ago and a way that you probably won’t read in any text book.
Most riders aim to have the horse round and supple. I believe that most riders achieve a degree of roundness by getting the horse to go forwards then, pull backwards on the reins. To make the horse artificially drop his nose can be achieved by dropping the hands down the horses shoulder, fiddling on the inside rein or wriggling with both hands. Any monkey can do that but that doesn’t mean the horse is either “on the bit” or accepting the contact.
Then…, when it comes to a downward transition, the first thing many riders think of is stiffening the hands or pulling backwards on the reins, especially when our earliest understanding of riding a horse was to kick when they wanted to go forward and pull when they wanted to slow down. Unfortunately, I would go as far as to say that most riders ride 70-80% with their hands.
I used to do exactly the same thing myself until one instructor took a completely different tack. He told me to ride right up to the wall of the school, keep the horse straight without pulling backwards and push forward from my legs into my gently blocking hands until the horse has to halt at the wall. I did this a few times and although the horse was a little confused about what I wanted, I think I was the one most stunned at how easily I could halt without pulling backwards.
Then I thought, “Yeah right. All good with the wall of the arena there; it can’t be that simple out in the open. It’s just not logical to push a horse with your legs when you want to slow down”. So after half a dozen trial runs into the wall (coupled with a bracing gesture of my back and a deepening of my seat), I attempted a halt in the open by closing my legs, blocking with my hands (and seat) and NOT PULLING BACKWARDS. Goodness me, it worked!
This was probably one of the single most important concepts that I (and SO MANY others) had to understand in my riding journey. Push the horse from behind into the bit, not pull the horse’s head back towards you. Ride as if the horse’s head was the centre of attention, not you the rider.
Ride him from behind up to the bit holding the reins like you had a brick wall attached to the other end. It’s too hard to pull the brick wall back towards you so push the horse up to the wall (the blocking contact) instead.
Now you don’t have to hold the reins like they weigh 2 tonnes. Your contact can be as light as you need it to be; just don’t pull backwards on them. The key is the elasticity of your arms that follow the movement, just like the shock absorbers on the car. You can get soft sedan shock absorbers or rigid 4-wheel-drive versions but they all follow the movement as should your hands.
This concept applies as much in a consistent pace as it does to a half-halt or a transition, even a downward transition.
We are much more likely to get resistance in a transition when we take our legs off and pull backwards with our hands.
Try instead bracing your back, blocking with you seat and hand together, closing your legs to push your horse up to the wall without pulling and see if you get the same resistance. I would expect no resistance once the horse understands the aids.
Understanding this concept of pushing towards the bit without pulling backwards can revolutionise your riding. Give it a go but be harder on yourself not to pull backwards than on your horse for not understanding your aids straight away.