One of the most often repeated terms that you’ll hear mention around horse people and other masochists is “on the bit”. Usually this is posed as a question; “is your horse on the bit?” Or worse, as a demand; “get your horse on the bit!”
So, what exactly does this mean?
The term “on the bit” is something of a misnomer. You don’t actually need a bit or bridle in order to achieve it. When a horse works on the bit, they travel with their head and neck in a particular position, reflecting a peaceful acceptance of the rider’s hands, other aids, and requests.
“On the bit” has two alternatives: above the bit and behind the bit, both of which should be avoided:
Here is a horse working superbly on the bit:
The poll, which is the top part of the horse’s vertebrae, is the highest point of his body. His neck is smoothly arched, and his nose is not cranked back onto his chest, but slightly forward and in balance. His ears are listening to his rider, his eye and nostrils are relaxed. The rein between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth has a soft, sustained pressure, but isn’t strained, and there is room for minute adjustments if the horse needs it. This is a perfect example of being “on the bit”. The horse’s back end is also engaged and well under him, so he is using his hind muscles most effectively and freeing up his front end, so that his knees and shoulders can lift and do some wonderfully expressive steps. Look as well at his fetlock (ankle) joint – the back fetlock is bearing more weight than the front, which is an immediate indicator that the horse has risen onto the bit, rounded his back, and come up under himself: all of which are needed to do dressage, as well as travel more effectively.
However, many riders do not achieve this kind of harmony and biomechanical efficiency. Some will settle for what they believe is the horse travelling “on the bit”, but is in fact a pulling competition with the horse’s face. Other riders seek different travelling outcomes and never need to ask the horse to adopt this kind of pose. The worst cases are “false frames”, in which the horse is pulled into an uncomfortable and inefficient approximation of being on the bit.
These horses are not being asked to work on the bit, but their poses are good examples of why the above picture is desirable.
The first horse here is above the bit, with a hollow back, strained lower neck muscle, and open mouth. He is clearly not interested in accepting the rider’s hands (and is trying to avoid them as much as possible). The rein is tight and the rider has lowered their hands in an effort to physically bring the horse’s head lower. The horse looks to be pretty excited, which explains his pose: he’s distracted, not interested in his rider, and therefore especially not interested in using his spine effectively. It’s quite likely that the poor rider is trying to avoid an accident from happening.
In this picture, both horse and rider are in a relaxed frame and the horse has adopted a “cruising” head and neck position. The long reins give the horse room to stretch, but the horse isn’t going for the stretch. Instead, the neck and head are extended for balance. It is possible that the rider is not 100% confident in her balance, and as a result the horse is compensating. Based on his neck and back muscling, this horse is probably very happy to carry himself on the bit if asked, but is here working to accommodate for this rider. The horse’s overall position is on the forehand, meaning that more weight is being carried on the front than the back.
So, how do you “get the horse on the bit”? The first thing you do is do not touch the bit. Assess the fitness of the horse. A horse must have good muscle fitness across their neck and back and be able to flex easily to left and right. They need to understand the brakes, accelerator and turning signals. They need to be able to track up (land their hind feet in the hoofprints of their front feet) and stretch under their body. If you don’t have the basics controls and a good level of physical fitness in the horse, don’t ask for the bit. Ask for calm acceptance of rein contact instead. In addition, the rider needs to be aware of their own body and well balanced.
Next, use your legs. The horse needs energy from behind, using his back muscles and stepping well under his body. A horse working on the bit correctly starts from behind. Keep your hands still and ask the horse to move into the outline that you’re making with the length of the rein. Ask for contact: the horse should step actively at your request, and move straight and even into your rein contact. There should be no mouth opening, weird flexing or bulging away. If that happens, the horse isn’t accepting the contact and you need to stop the exercise for now. If the horse takes the contact, they will move their head and neck to look for the bit, and will maintain a light pressure on your fingers with their tongue/lips when they find the length of rein you’ve offered. Practice transitions: ask the horse to step lightly and lively into different paces. They will become lighter on the front, if all goes according to plan, and the neck will be able to rise and arch with the back engaged. Ask for flexion: do not pull on the reins. Pulse them gently, as though you were ringing out a sponge, to coax the horse’s nose inwards (not too far!) and release as soon as the horse comes in a little. This will show the horse where their face should be pointed, and should only require the smallest amount of pressure as a cue.
DO NOT see-saw the reins. Any idiot can jerk a horse in the face and make them round up their neck to avoid the pain. This is a false frame and makes me want to commit murder.
DO NOT keep the horse on the bit for long periods of time. If they’re not used to the position, it’s pretty strenuous. Give lots of long-rein stretches and rewards.
If your horse looks like this, STOP. Alternatively, ask for medals in Olympic Dressage. I’m still waiting for judges to pull their heads out of their collective arses and stop giving golds and silvers to riders who use “rollkür” positions.
Never forget that horses travel on the bit to make their lives physically easier. They’ll tell you when they can do it. It’s never a race to see who gets there first. And the instant you forget that it’s a living, thinking entity on the other end of the string is the day that you should go buy a bicycle instead.