Quote ‘on the bit’ is not solely about the horse’s head position
‘On the bit’ is a term that is heard a lot in the horse world. But what, exactly does it mean?
For the observer, a horse is on the bit when you can draw a vertical line from his nose to his forelock when viewed from the side. The horse is truly on the bit when he has rounded his outline (back and neck), engaged his hind quarters, stepped forward with impulsion, and brought his nose to the vertical. The hocks should be coming through under the horse’s body, with a round supple back, taking more weight into his hindquarters. His neck is arched; the degree of arch will be commensurate with the horses training, with the poll being the highest point. He accepts the bit without resistance, with a light and soft contact with a relaxed jaw and is submissive through his body.
When the horse has rounded his outline, he will produce a certain feel. All horses feel almost identical when they have rounded their outline. Because ‘on the bit’ is not solely about the horse’s head position, you will notice a difference in the way the horse is moving when he is rounded. Remember this feeling and try to produce it every time with every horse.
So what goes wrong?
Above the Bit
The horse is above the bit if his head is held high, the angle of the head is too far in front of the vertical thus his back will tend to hollow. The hindquarters are not pushing the horse forward but being left behind and the front legs are pulling the horse forward. A horse which is above the bit could be caused by rider stiffness and tension and also too much use of the rider’s hands whilst lacking in enough leg. Make sure your horse has a regular checkup with an equine dentist. Problems can also occur when a rider puts pressure on the reins and the horse is experiencing tooth pain.
Behind the Bit
When a horse is behind the bit his head is raised quite high with an arched neck. The front of his face is behind the vertical, so not perpendicular to the ground, so the horse is avoiding the bit. The horse can behave this way to avoid pressure from the bit due to a sensitive mouth and may need a kinder bit. It could also be that the rider has heavy hands and also could be using the reins for balance.
This problem is usually caused by the horse rider training with a strong rein contact. The horse becomes over bent as he tries to avoid the discomfort and will also lean on the hands. A common fault is the excessive use of hands to bring the horse on the bit. Many riders can quickly bring the horse on the bit through ‘bullying’ the horse into submission. If you believe that a perfect outline is all about a vertical head position, you will unconsciously focus your efforts on the reins. The more effort you exert on the reins, the more resistance you will receive from the horse.
Horses that are forced onto the bit are not happy, relaxed horses, and are much less responsive to the aids. The trick is to persuade the horse to round up his outline and engage his hind legs rather than bully him into it. It is not an easy task and it will take a lot of time and practice, but it is definitely achievable with most horses.
But what happens if the horse is being ridden badly? If your weight is on your buttocks, your legs forward, and you are balancing yourself with the reins, the horse’s reaction will be to hollow his back away from the discomfort your seat is causing, throw his head in the air and arc his neck, hold his breath, and retract his ribcage from contact with your legs (becoming flat-sided). In motion, sitting still in this situation becomes extremely difficult, and the rider will grip with his legs and balance on the reins, which will bring even more tension to the horse.
A good rider has become responsible for his own weight and balance, the horse’s back will lift up, his ribcage will expand, he will round his neck and bring his nose to the vertical, and breathe regularly and deeply. This set of reflexes stem from the fact that the horse is seeking contact with the rider, rather than avoiding it. Maintaining your position and sitting to the horse’s movement will become an easier task, which will leave you to concentrate on refining your contact (seat, legs, and hands) with the horse, which will lead to an even happier and more responsive horse.