What does the horse being “on the bit” mean to you?
For most riders it is to have the horse round, responsive and supple. I believe that most riders achieve a degree of roundness by pushing the horse forwards then puling backwards on the reins. This makes the horse drop his nose, which for most riders is “being on the bit” but this outline can also be achieved by dropping the hands down the horses shoulder, fiddling on the inside rein or jiggling with both hands.
“I could 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 at me, “just because your horse tucks his nose in, it doesn’t mean the horse is either on the bit or accepting the contact”.
Now I would hate to insult any readers by suggesting that most of them ride like monkeys but in my coaching, 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 you 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.
Let’s take a downward transition to halt for example. The first thing most riders do is stiffening the hands and pulling backwards on the reins. This stems from most riders earliest understanding of riding a horse was to kick when they wanted to go forward and pull when they wanted to stop.
I used to do exactly the same thing myself until one instructor explained it in a completely different way. He told me to ride straight towards the wall of the school then without pulling backwards, push forward from my legs into my gently blocking hands until the horse had to halt at the wall without turning. 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.
“All good with the wall of the arena there but it can’t be that simple out in the open” I thought”. “It’s just not logical to push a horse with your legs when you want to slow down”. So after ½ 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. Bugger me, it worked.
Pushing towards the bit from behind rather than pulling the horse’s head back to you is probably one of the single most important concepts that any rider has to come to grips with. Ride your horse up to his head rather than bring his head back to you. Ride him from behind up to the bit holding the reins like his head is an immovable object; pointless to pull back towards yourself, soinstead, push the horse up toit instead.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an off-the-horse exercise so that you can practice not pulling backwards but the following will help your seat position during the downward transition:
- sitting on the fitball, tighten your tummy muscles, brace your back and push your seat bones into the ball without leaning backwards (remember to breathe out)
- standing with your thighs against a benchtop, tighten you tummy muscles again, breathe out and rotate the top of your pelvis backwards, pushing your thighs and the bench slightly forward
Pushing your hips forward in both of these exercises independently of what you do with your hands is the same concept as pushing the horse up to the bit. Understanding this concept and practicing to push towards the bit without pulling backwards can revolutionise your riding and dramatically free up you horse’s movement. Give it a go but be harder on yourself not to pull backwards than on your horse for not understanding your aids straight away.