In last week’s newsletter I explained some of the aspects of the rider’s seat and aids that can prevent the horse from being on the bit. Stiffness in your hips, wrists, and glutes, imbalance, asymmetries in your musculature, lack of core muscle engagement, and poor timing and coordination of the aids can all interfere with the horse’s ability to come on the bit and to use his back properly.
Muscle stiffness in the rider’s body triggers stiffness in those muscles in the horse’s body that are in direct contact with the stiff muscles in the rider’s body.
An unbalanced seat distributes the weight unevenly on the horse’s back, which unbalances the horse. This imbalance forces the horse to brace certain muscles in his neck, shoulder, and hips to stabilize himself in order not to fall down, just as the unbalanced seat forces the rider to grip with her hands and legs in order not to fall off. In some cases, horse and rider are like two drunk people who lean on each other in order not to fall down. The horse then leans on the bit, as the rider is hanging on the reins. Both are unbalanced. Both prevent each other from finding self carriage, but in a strange, unhealthy way they also stabilize each other. It’s a vicious cycle that only the rider can break by balancing herself first and then helping the horse to find self carriage, which may be a topic for a separate newsletter article.
Everything is connected in riding. Rhythm, balance, self carriage, straightness, suppleness/stiffness, back movement, rein contact, impulsion, collection (i.e. flexion of the haunches) are all interrelated and influence each other. Rider balance and horse balance, rider crookedness and horse crookedness, rider stiffness and horse stiffness affect each other in very direct ways. Any improvement in one area leads to improvements in all the other areas.
Unfortunately, it works the other way around, too: a problem in one area will also have negative repercussions throughout the entire system.
In this newsletter, I want to address some factors in the horse’s musculature and conformation that can make it difficult or even impossible to go on the bit. Some of them originate in conformation flaws, some of them were created by former training mistakes, and some of them are created by the present rider’s asymmetries, muscle blockages, imbalances, etc.
Issues that are built into the conformation will always be there to some extent. They will need to be worked on consistently throughout the horse’s life. They will become smaller, but they can and will increase again if you neglect them.
Issues that were caused by former training mistakes can be completely eradicated, but it can take months or even years, if they were ingrained deeply enough, and if the poor training lasted for a long period of time.
Issues that are induced by the current rider’s muscle stiffness, crookedness, or imbalance, will only improve if the rider works on herself. A potential problem with this is that you need to be aware of your own issues first in order to be able to work on them. That’s why it may be quite helpful to invest some time in yoga, pilates, Feldenkrais, or Alexander Technique lessons in order to find the problem areas in your own body and to improve these areas.
List Of Horse Issues:
- hind legs not engaged enough and not flexing enough/stiff hips
- lack of lateral and longitudinal balance
- muscle blockages in the neck and poll
- short, thick neck and poll
- long, weak back
- straight hind legs
- croup high conformation
- hind legs out behind
If the hind legs are not engaged enough and/or not flexing under the weight, the back will drop and the horse will either be inverted or curled up, depending on the neck conformation. A lack of flexion of the haunches is synonymous with lack of balance, which creates stiffness and bracing in certain muscle groups.
Poor lateral balance is a key feature of crookedness. This also leads the horse to brace his legs against the ground in order to avoid falling down. Some horses are extremely sensitive to crookedness. If their shoulders or hips deviates only half a hoof’s breadth from their respective line of travel, they will invert or curl up. The crookedness is so small in these cases, that you won’t even notice it. What you do notice is that the horse’s head and neck are not in the right place or that the rein contact is not what you want it to be. When you investigate the horse’s alignment and weight distribution, you will discover a subtle crookedness and imbalance. When you repair those, the horse’s head and neck will come into the right position. Once you have discovered this connection, you can translate the incorrect head and neck position into: I need to check the alignment and balance.
Muscle blockages in the neck and poll can also make it impossible for the horse to come on the bit. As soon as you stretch those muscles and release the blockages, the horse will at least be much closer to coming on the bit than before.
A short, thick neck and poll limit the horse’s mobility in those areas, which makes it difficult to come on the bit with the degree of elevation that accompanies collected gaits.
A long, weak back doesn’t carry the rider’s weight easily and tends to drop out from underneath the rider, which blocks the hind legs from engaging under the body and leads to compensatory bracing of the neck and poll muscles.
Straight hind legs don’t support the body mass well because they don’t flex easily. As a result, the back doesn’t lift easily, which in turn leads to blockages in the horse’s neck and poll. The same thing applies to croup high conformation.
Horses whose hind legs are conformationally out behind find it difficult to engage and flex under the weight.
You can change the muscling of the horse very significantly, but you can’t change the skeletal structure. That’s why certain structural, conformational features will always cause additional work and require additional time and effort. Other features may only look like they are conformational issues when in reality they are merely poorly developed muscles.
Ultimately, being on the bit and moving through the back is the result of the hind legs engaging and flexing underneath the body mass, balancing the weight of horse and rider on top of themselves. Straightness is a key ingredient in balance. Balance is what allows the horse to relax and to stop bracing against the ground and against the rider. A balanced horse has his core muscles engaged to create this balance and stability, which allows him to use his leg muscles for movement instead of bracing against the rider and the ground. All his muscles are working with each other, instead of against each other.
How Do I Get My Horse On The Bit?
I want to give you three exercises that usually bring the horse on the bit within a relatively short time.
This works especially well on the horse’s stiffer side.
- Ride a 20m circle at the trot.
- Enlarge the circle for 2 strides. The inside aids move the horse into the outside aids and shift the balance towards the outside pair of legs.
- Apply 2 half halts into the outside hind leg in 2 consecutive strides. The half halts shift the weight into the outside hind leg, which allows the horse to relax the muscles on the inside of the bend.
- Enlarge the circle again for 2 strides.
- Bend against the inside front leg for 2 strides. This can release braced muscles in the horse’s poll.
The entire exercise lasts for 8 strides. All the aids are applied when the inside hind leg is in the air. You can count the strides as you apply the aids. This also helps you to keep a steady tempo. Instead of counting, you could say: “En-large - Slow Down - En-large - And Bend.” Each syllable corresponds to one aid and one stride.
You can ride this exercise at the walk as well, but it’s more effective in the trot. You can even ride it in the canter which is more challenging, but can also be very effective. Instead of bending against the inside front leg, you can bend against the inside hind leg.
This exercise works well for the horse’s hollow side.
- Ride a 20m circle at the walk or trot.
- Alternate between a slight shoulder-in and counter shoulder-in position, with a relatively shallow angle between the horse’s body and the circle line, so that the haunches can’t escape.
- Rotate the horse around your seat so that the haunches move in as the shoulders move out and vice versa.
During the transition from one lateral movement to the other there is usually one moment in which the horse feels especially round and light, and everything seems to flow effortlessly. That’s when the horse’s body is aligned on the circle line on a single track, and the horse is balanced and functionally straight. After a few changes between shoulder-in and counter shoulder-in, stay in the position where the horse feels the roundest and softest. When the horse inverts again after a while, return to the shoulder-in - counter shoulder-in exercise.
- Ride a 20m circle at the trot in a slight shoulder-in position.
- C-step into the inside front leg 2 strides: This means that you apply a slight pressure into the inside stirrup and simultaneously half halt on the outside rein when the inside front leg is on the ground.
- Engage the inside hind leg with your inside calf for 2 strides.
- B-step into the outside hind leg 2 strides: This means that you apply a slight pressure into the outside stirrup and simultaneously half halt on the outside rein when the outside hind leg is on the ground.
- Engage the inside hind leg with your inside calf for 2 strides.
- The entire exercise lasts for 8 strides. All the aids are applied when the inside hind leg is in the air.
You can count the strides as you apply the aids. This is a straightening exercise that connects the inside hind leg and outside front leg with each other, which allows the horse to move better through his back and release his poll.