Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price
One complaint that I hear from students of all levels at clinics around the country is the difficulty in putting horses on the bit. It doesn’t have it to be this way, I tell them and you. I will show you how to get your horse on the bit using a simple system. Once you have “on the bit”, you won’t be satisfied again.
On The Bit–Why Bother?
Why bother putting your horse on the bit when you can do so much else? This is because he’s a joy to ride. He is organized, calm, connected, and easy to manage. He has a natural flow to everything he does. He is more enthusiastic and willing.
When a horse is scared, he will raise his head, stiffen his neck, and hollowen his back. He has one goal: “Save yourself!” However, if he is contented and relaxed, his head will be down, his neck will be long, and his back will be round. This is the mental state of relaxation and willingness that you can see when a rider places a horse on the bits.
An horse that is on his bit but off the bit is not mentally with his rider. He is more likely to be distracted and inclined to run away or shy away from frightening sounds or sights. His body feels disorganized and more like a mess than a well-oiled machine. It’s hard for him to turn and steer, and he is very uncomfortable to sit on.
Your training program will benefit from “on the bits”, which not only makes mental and physical connections but also adds “oomph”. How? Even the most basic horse can move freely and look elegant, balanced, and expressive. Put a saddle on your horse’s back and change your balance. This graceful creature will move like a truck, and steer like a barge.
Training is about restoring the beauty and freedom of movement the horse has at liberty. Training is most effective when the horse carries himself mainly with his topline muscles, rather than his croup and back. What time does he do this? When he’s on his bit. His body is round, his hind legs reach high under him and he develops the muscles along his topline evenly without undue stress. I’ve seen horses’ muscling improve in as little as five days after being ridden on the bits. He enhances all of the wonderful qualities that you want to bring out in your horse, such as suppleness and flexibility.
It’s like putting money in an old mattress to train a horse that isn’t on the bit. Even if the money is still available a year later, it won’t make any difference and will probably be less. Training a horse to on the bits is like investing your money in compound interest at double the rate. You will have more than what you started with at the end of the year.
This article will help you “on the bit” in the same way that I help students at clinics. It uses a simple, step by step, “connecting aid” signaling method that produces almost instant results. In fact, I have never seen it not do any work within the first session. You may not be able to train your horse properly without trainer guidance. Also, things that feel and look right don’t always work. I will show you how to test your horse’s reaction to your aids.
Before you Start
It’s a case where one feeling is worth a thousand words. It’s worth trying to arrange lessons or a few spins around the rings on a “schoolmaster”, an experienced horse who has mastered it. The feeling of the horse’s ability to move on if you do so right after the regular rider has worked him on the bit for several hours, will last. You can memorize the information and know what you are working towards. A friend or an experienced rider can help you, as the horse’s silhouette is important. If that is not possible, or if you are unable to arrange it, or if you find yourself stuck after several sessions, get help from a qualified teacher who can guide you, or even put your horse on a bit.
Your sessions should be no longer than 30 minutes (or 20-30 minutes if you have a young horse), and include a long warm-up. You’ll need to take plenty of time to consider what you’re doing and how it’s working. If your horse paces or gets tense, you can start with the walk. In that case, you might be better off starting at the rising trot.
Start with the Basics
Your warm-up should establish forward movement, straightness and rhythm. For now, don’t worry too much about the rest. These four qualities will make it impossible to do anything. Once you have them, you can put your horse on the bit.
First, make sure your horse is thinking, moving forward on the ground with relaxed, long, unassisted strides and “in front” of your leg. What does this mean? What does that mean? You can try it: Close your eyes and relax your legs. You’re good if he starts moving quickly and excitedly. If he stutters or stands still, you should resist the urge to squeeze harder. He’ll become duller and you’ll be doing all the work. Instead, place him “infront of your leg” and squeeze as gently as you did the previous time. If he does not respond, tap him again with the whip behind his leg (not on your butt or he might kick out), or take off your leg and give several sharp thumps “wham,” “wham”, “wham,” etc. Do not confuse him by raising your heel and saying “jab-jab, jab”, as he will think that you are giving him a stronger aid. He should know that this is not an aid. This is a correction.
Here’s the key. Now here’s the key. You should praise your horse if he moves forward energetically. You can say “Good boy” to him and rub his neck with your fingers. Tap or thump him again if he replies in the OK-to–adequate range. If he does not respond, you can bring him back to do the light squeeze once more. What is your goal? To whisper your assistance and have him shout back.
Straightness indicates that your horse’s spine follows the line he is following. Straightness on the long side and diagonal indicates that his spine is straight. Straightness on circles, corners, and curved lines signifies that his spine is bent. In both cases, his hind feet follow the same path as his front feet.
Rhythm will be the next foundation quality. Every horse has a unique rhythm, but each horse is able to maintain a comfortable balance through a regular rhythm. He should not be too fast or too slow and with equal intervals between steps. Counting your horse’s steps will help you determine the frequency of his rhythm. You should hear four equal beats in the walk: “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 3, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 3, 4, 2, 4, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, 2, 2, 4 and 3 -yied to ask him to a leg-yie
Trot is when two diagonal legs (example: the outside hind or the inside fore) strike each other on the ground. Then comes a moment of suspension, where all four legs are off of the ground. Finally, it’s time to strike the other diagonal pair. The sound of your counting should be like a metronome. You should be able count clearly in canter. To create rhythm in your gait, you should ride your horse forward and almost into a lengthening if you hear “1-2-3-4”.
Contact This is the last quality to consider in your warm up, as “on the bits” requires that your horse move forward into your hands. What makes good contact?
- An straightline from the bit through you hand to your elbow. This allows “the action of your rein to go through the horse’s body.” What does that mean? The energy from the bit is returned full circle through the neck, spine and neck to help him lift his weight and bend his joints better.
- A strong feel in the bit which keeps the horse’s hind legs (his engine), connected to your hands. A solid feeling in each hand of half to one pound. He should seek contact, but if he doesn’t (the reins may be loopy), you can shorten. But make sure to ride him forward from your legs. If he doesn’t feel comfortable, you will back him off. He’ll suddenly think, “Uh-oh! The door’s closed!” “I can’t go anywhere.”
- Consistency means that the reins are not twisted, tightened, and then loopy again. Consistent contact with your horse is more inviting than inconsistent. It never changes. Your horse will always feel the same comfort from you. I prefer to have a firm contact than take too many steps and lose contact with my horse’s mouth.
- Elasticity. Think of your elbows when you think of elastic. You can grease your elbow joints so that they open and close naturally according to the horse’s gaits. When your horse uses his neck and head in a forward-and back motion during the walk or canter, you should follow him by following his elbows. Let them move forward towards his mouth with each stride and then return to their position at our side. His neck remains relatively still during the rising trot. However, his neck and your head move up and down. To keep your hands steady, you need to adjust your elbows. How important is elasticity? Your horse will slow down or stop if you keep your elbows at your sides during the walk. Cantering, he’ll break. Your hands will bounce up, down and back at the trot–and so your contact with him is lost.
- Contact means that you feel the same weight in each hand because your horse doesn’t hang on to either rein. For even contact, hold your hands close around the reins as if you were holding a baby bird that you didn’t want. Keep your thumbs at the highest point of your fingers and your hands mirroring each other. What is the difference between contact and inequal? If one hand is more than the other. If your hands are not at the same distance from each other. If one hand’s angle or position is different than the other.
Is your horse well-heeled? If he is forward, not just over the ground but also in his thinking, if his hind feet follow in the tracks of the front feet, and if you offer and he accepts a friendly, supportive contact that’s firm and consistent, elastic, even, from your elbow to the bit, the answer is yes. If you experience any loss of any of these qualities while you are putting him on, don’t worry about the connecting half-halt. You can reestablish any lost quality while you work on it. Your connecting half-halt should be reapplied only after that.
Connecting Aids Made Simple
Connecting aids are nothing but a clear signal that your horse needs. They can be used to signal him to canter, or to stop and wait until you tell him to go on. You can ride with your horse if he is calm and steady. You’ll use the connecting aids to help him get back on the bit if he attempts to move off it. You’ll give him a lot more connecting aids if he keeps trying to get off the bit every few steps (which he might, this is unfamiliar territory and you’re asking for new muscles while he explores it).
For the connecting aids, you will need to give three seconds of leg, outside and reins. If necessary, use only as much inside rein as is necessary to straighten your horse’s neck. As you walk, close your legs lightly as if you are asking for the hundred percent, fullhearted forward response that you have been practicing. Instead of allowing him to move forward more, you can contain his energy by closing your outside hand into an open fist and holding it for three second. You may feel him bend to the side. If he does so, you can gently vibrate, squeeze/release, or pulse your fingers on the inner rein. Remember that the extent to which his neck is bent outside will tell you how much inside rein to use. (No outside bend? Use no inside rein.) Your aids should be ranked in order of importance. First, the legs to generate the energy. Second, the outside rein to keep the energy contained. Third, the inside rein– as little as is necessary to maintain his neck straight. After three seconds, release your outside hand. (Remember that the relaxation–reward you receive for finishing the connecting tools–is just as important as the aids themselves). Now, return to your maintenance feeling. Your hands should be held firmly, but not crushing the baby birds.
How will you feel when your horse takes the bit? His movements will be more fluid and cohesive than a collection of pieces. His back will swing. His walking will be more fluid and smoother. His walk will be smoother and more comfortable. If you’re doing this exercise at the rising trot, you’ll feel as if you’re being rhythmically thrown out of the saddle as you rise and you’re staying longer in the air (as if you’ve gone from updownupdown to uuuup…dooown…uuuup…dooown). His mouth will feel comfortable in your hands and you’ll be able to communicate with him. Instead of feeling stiff, braced, or holding on to one or both of the reins, he will feel flexible and giving. His stride will be more extended and more frequent because his hind legs will move farther under him and cover more ground.
This is, however, the ideal. It is possible that your horse won’t be able to do the bit perfectly the first time. If your horse’s frame, feel, or strides change in any way beyond what I have described, you can tell him “Good” and rub him neck to encourage him to respond again. You’ll see an improvement in his cooperation, understanding, and ability to handle the bit.
What Could Go Wrong
- You may see your horse stop, slow down or resist. He won’t “through” if your outside hand is close to his fist. He has been taught that reins and legs are “stop”, and that hands and legs can mean “go”. Now he is confused because he is using his legs and hands together. He should explain to you that although your outside hand may be a barrier, it is an invisible one that he can walk through. This can be explained by asking for a lengthening and then closing your outside hand with a fist. He will be able to move forward with the extra momentum from the lengthening, “through” your closed hands. Repeat this process several times and reward him when his neck becomes longer and rounder. It could be as little as a half an inch. Apply the connecting aids again, but without the lengthening. See if he has learned to walk “through” rather than against the hand.
- You are likely to think that sawing on your reins, or alternately squeezing, releasing and repeating each rein with a left, right left, left, left, left, right motion, is putting your horse on a bit. Your horse may appear to be on the bit to the untrained eye. However, you only have control over your horse’s jaw and flexed jaw. You won’t be able to control the entire body of your horse if you ask for a transition.
- If your horse keeps contact with you but shortens his neck it means that he is telling you to bring your arms back, not tighten your fist. This can be fixed by visualizing an invisible wall between your wrists that you can’t pull your hands through. You can send him forward with your legs, and when he reaches your outside hand, make a fist.
- If your horse’s nose approaches vertical, but his hell gets shorter and you have a loop on the reins with no weight in your hand, it’s called “behind” the bit. He probably wasn’t in front of your leg before giving the connecting aids. You’ll notice that he is taking shorter, more relaxed steps than he was with you.
- If your horse swings his hinches, it’s probably pinching unjustly with your legs.
- Your driving aids may cause your horse to speed up, slow down or lose his rhythm. You can experiment until you are able to close your outside hand and legs to the same extent. Close more tightly if your horse is moving faster. If your horse slows down, you can close slightly more.
Tests for Connection
These are some easy tests that will help you confirm that your horse is riding from the back to the front.
After three seconds of connecting aids, open your fingers gently with both hands. Your connecting aids will be “through” if your horse moves his nose forward and to the ground. Your connecting aids worked to some extent if he doesn’t stretch all the way forward or down to the ground. The connecting aids won’t work if he raises his head in the air.
Your connecting aids should be given. Your outside fist should be closed, with your elbow at your side. Create a loop in your inner rein by placing your hand forward, about halfway up the horse’s neck. Your connecting aids “went through” his neck and he is “in” your outer rein. If his neck curves towards the outside, and the outside rein becomes loosening, your connecting aids did not “go through.”
These tests may have shown that your connecting aids are not working. Take a moment to assess. Did your horse move forward, straight and in a good rhythm? Was your contact correct? Was your contact correct? Did you remember to hold the rein for three seconds and then let go for your reward? Did you put your hands behind the wall and bring them back? Once you have assessed what happened, it’s time to try again.
Finish your session by allowing your horse to chew the reins gently through your fingers until he’s trotting or walking in a long, low, stretching-down-to-the-ground frame. I find this cool-down essential. I wouldn’t leave it out if I could finish a jog and then relax in a comfortable chair, allowing my muscles to contract. Certain things will never change: You warm up and you do your exercises. Then you cool down.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
You will see results in the first session of this system. You’ll spend the majority of your ride learning your foundation qualities, losing them, getting them back, and giving the connecting aids. Once you have established a solid connection with your horse on the bit at walk, move to the trot and then the canter. The extra mph’s are going to present new challenges. But if you do have issues, you can always drop down to the slower gait and remind your horse or yourself about the connecting aids.
This isn’t the end of the story. This is just the beginning. Although the connecting aids will always be part of your arsenal, it will become much easier and less frequent to use them. The three seconds will eventually drop to one second. Your horse will begin to come off the bit. You’ll then close your legs with your outside hand and boom! he’ll get back on the bit.
You are I swear. I guarantee you that you will not be one of those riders who feels they have achieved their goal and done their work if they put their horses on a bit before the end of a session. You’ll eventually be able to compress all the information you’ve read in this article into a 10 minute warm-up (unless your horse is very young, in which case putting his horse on the bit should become your entire schooling session). Here’s what I do with my horses for a warm-up.
My foundation qualities are established almost immediately I take the reins. In the next five minutes, I ask my horse, “Are your connecting aids responding?” I ensure that we speak the same language, and he will respond to any request I give him. He listens to me and answers before so I go and do my gymnastics and school figures, my lateral work and obedience exercises. Soon, you will be doing the exact same thing: get your warm-up done so you can move on to the fun stuff. Your horse will be at the bit, so the fun stuff will be more enjoyable (and more productive).
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!