I vividly remember one riding lesson that I had in my early days. My teacher told me: “Your horse needs to be more on the bit.” I was painfully aware of this because on the one hand it was hard to overlook, and on the other hand it was the one problem I was struggling with more than anything else. I would have loved to ride the horse more on the bit. But I didn’t know how. I wasn’t riding the horse inverted on purpose. I needed more practical, actionable information in order to be able to do a better job.
Over the years I researched this subject in depth because it was so difficult for me for a long time and discovered many factors that are involved in riding the horse on the bit.
What Does “On The Bit” Mean?
Or what does it NOT mean?
First of all: Being on the bit does NOT simply mean “head down”. Although a relatively vertical head position is usually a result, a byproduct of being on the bit, it’s not its cause, and it’s not exactly the same thing, either. A horse can have his head down without being on the bit in a functional sense.
Neither is being on the bit limited to the relationship between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse can give the rider a light or soft feeling in her hand by flexing only at the base of the neck or by avoiding the contact with the bit, which would be incorrect. He would not be on the bit in that case.
Rather than thinking of being on the bit as a specific superficial form that looks the same for all horses, it’s better to think of it in terms of its function. The superficial visual impression varies depending on the horse’s conformation and training level.
For me, the essence of being “on the bit” means that there is an energy connection from the hind legs that travels through the horse’s spine to the bit (or the bridge of the nose if you are riding bitless) and back again through the rider’s core muscles to the hind legs. The impulses that the hind legs send out are passed on from vertebra to vertebra, until the rider feels them in her hands. From there, they travel through the reins and the rider’s midsection back to the hind legs where they can be used to flex the hind leg more under the weight.
This energy circuit can only be established when there are no muscle blockages and no false bends in the way that would interrupt the energy flow. Both hind legs need to step underneath the weight and flex in their upper joints to achieve this connection, and the horse needs to be balanced, straight, and supple so that all muscles can work together and do their job without interference.
Sounds easy enough, right? So why do so many people have so much trouble with riding their horse’s on the bit? What is preventing them from doing it?
There are several factors that can make it impossible for the horse to go on the bit. Some of them are rooted in the rider’s seat, while others are rooted in the horse’s conformation, balance, straightness, and musculature. In this article I will briefly discuss the issues involving the rider’s seat. They are all very closely linked to insufficient core muscle tone. In the next article I will discuss those problems that involve the conformation, balance, straightness, and musculature of the horse, and I will give you some relatively simple, yet effective exercises that will help you to put your horse on the aids.
List Of Rider Seat Issues:
- stiff hips
- contracted glutes
- stiff hands/wrists
- heavy or unbalanced seat
- not enough connection between seat and reins
- poor timing and coordination of the aids
Many seat issues are the direct consequence of insufficient core muscle engagement. The job of the core muscles is to balance and stabilize the rider’s body, even or especially in the trot and canter and in the extensions where the movement of the horse’s back is the most vigorous. If the core muscles keep the rider’s pelvis and spine stacked on top of each other like a tower of children’s building blocks, the rider is able to relax their arm and leg muscles, which enables them to feel the horse and to communicate with the horse.
If the core muscles are not sufficiently engaged, the rider is basically forced to hold on to the horse with their hands and legs in order not to fall off. Stiff muscles can’t feel anything. They can’t really communicate effectively, either. But that’s where every beginner starts. As we learn to ride, we discover our core muscles and start engaging them more while relaxing our arm and leg muscles at the same time. By the way, this is not so much an issue of core strength, although it helps to have a strong core. It’s more a matter of coordination, of being able to engage one set of muscles while keeping others relaxed. This is a skill that is learned over time. It’s not something we are born with or that comes easily in a weekend.
As I mentioned, a lack of core strength leads to a lack of balance. A lack of balance leads to compensatory muscle tightness in other areas. Muscle tightness in the rider leads to muscle tightness in the horse, usually in the body part that is in direct contact with the rider’s stiff muscle groups.
For instance, stiff wrists, elbows, and shoulders in the rider create muscle blockages in the horse’s poll and underneck muscles. A stiff hip in the rider’s seat will result in the horse’s hip on the same side locking up as well. Clenched gluteal muscles in the rider make the horse hollow his back. A tight, gripping rider leg makes the horse brace his rib cage muscles and even hold his breath.
And all of these muscle blockages in the horse will interrupt the energy flow from the hind legs to the bit and back. They will prevent the horse from being able to go on the bit and through the back.
If the rider is crooked and laterally unbalanced, the horse will become crooked and unbalanced as well, which results in braced muscles on one side of the body. This can also make it impossible for the horse to go on the bit.
Poor timing and coordination of the aids will also prevent the horse from coming on the bit. For instance, if the rider half halts when the hind leg is behind the vertical and pushing the load forward, the horse won’t be able to carry out the request for deeper flexion of the hind leg. Or if the driving leg aid is applied during the weight bearing and flexion phase of the hind leg, the horse is unable to comply with the aid and lift his hind leg off the ground at that moment. These situations will make the horse brace against the rider or tune the aids out because they don’t make sense to him.
Aids that last too long or that are too strong will also provoke resistance and prevent the horse from coming on the bit.
If you recognize some of these seat issues, you can maximize the effectiveness of your time in the saddle by doing yoga, pilates, Feldenkrais, or Alexander Technique to improve your flexibility, core strength, body awareness, and balance. In the next issue of our newsletter, I will explain some of the most important horse related reasons why you may have trouble riding your horse on the bit, and I will give you some relatively simple exercises and strategies that will help you to ride your horse on the bit.