Tips from Train­ers Who Teach

Dressage Today - - Content - By Dolly Han­non with An­nie Mor­ris

Dolly Han­non un­cov­ers the mys­tery of the phrase “on the bit.”

When rid­den, horses can truly for­get their in­stinc­tive be­hav­ior to fight or flee. One el­e­ment that makes this pos­si­ble is teach­ing the horse to ac­cept the aids so he can be rid­den on the bit.

The Aids and Con­tact

The rider must be in a bal­anced, se­cure and ver­ti­cal po­si­tion with in­de­pen­dent aids be­fore she can ask the horse to be on the bit. The seat and leg should be the rider’s dom­i­nant aids. The rider has the most weight and strength in these aids and the horse hears them best. How­ever, the hands are the in­vi­ta­tional aids. You should feel that you al­low your hands to play more of an or­ches­trat­ing role than a dom­i­nat­ing role. In other words, the horse first re­sponds to the leg and is en­er­getic and mov­ing through the back so he wants to stretch to the con­tact, then the rein can in­vite him to the con­tact cor­rectly.

The con­tact is as unique to every horse and rider as a hand­shake. I have no­ticed a huge vari­a­tion in the way peo­ple shake hands in terms of the strength of grip and the feel. The rider must of­fer the horse a friendly, invit­ing con­tact so the horse wants to go to it and stay there. For cor­rect con­tact, the rider must of­fer the reins and give the horse a nice feel­ing to look for. Some­times the reins are too tight or too stiff, some­times they are too loose or un­steady. The rider must make the rein come alive with en­ergy from her body to­ward the horse’s mouth. Oth­er­wise, the con­tact can be a lim­it­ing fac­tor in whether the horse can be on the bit.

A com­mon prob­lem with the rein aids is that they can be­come back­ward. Some­times, the rider doesn’t un­der­stand how to keep the elas­tic con­tact with the reins and in­cor­rectly brings her hands back­ward to in­flu­ence the horse. Some­times the reins get too long and the hands come back to feel the horse’s mouth. Some­times, the rider isn’t bal­anced enough in her seat so she pulls back to bal­ance on the reins. In any case, the horse can­not be in­vited onto the bit with back­ward con­tact be­cause it pre­vents the en­ergy in the con­nec­tion from mov­ing from back to front.

On the Bit

A horse who is on the bit trusts the rider’s aids and ac­cepts the con­tact with the bit. He does not lean and pull on the bit nor does he hide from it; he seeks it. The horse reaches for the con­tact with the poll as the high­est point and the front of his face on or in front of the ver­ti­cal. To see the po­si­tion of the head and neck, you may want to ride in an arena with mir­rors or be video­taped. You can al­ways see what the horse’s head looks like from the top but that is of­ten not enough in­for­ma­tion un­til you have fine-tuned your feel.

To the rider, when the horse is on the bit you feel like you are sit­ting on a wave that flows for­ward un­der your seat and through the con­tact to the bit then is re­cy­cled back through the horse’s body in a con­tin­u­ous and fluid cy­cle. I feel the horse is bal­anced be­tween my seat, legs and hands, ac­cepts the in­flu­ence of my

aids both lat­er­ally and lon­gi­tu­di­nally and ac­cepts the con­tact in an elas­tic way with re­lax­ation and trust. It is a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence once you feel it and know it.

In the horse’s mind, when he’s on the bit, he ac­cepts your di­rec­tions and fo­cuses on you no mat­ter what is go­ing on around him. A round and through horse—when the rider’s aids can pass through the horse with­out re­stric­tion from back to front and front to back— for­gets his in­stinc­tive na­ture to raise his head and in­stead fo­cuses on the rider. Putting the horse cor­rectly on the bit de­vel­ops a part­ner­ship with him. He gives you that feel­ing that he wants to work with you and wants to be rid­den. He can give you his mind and body, which is emo­tion­ally ful­fill­ing and a re­quire­ment to de­vel­op­ing har­mony.

Some rid­ers per­ceive that the horse should be over­con­trolled in front. This

re­sults in a short neck and the horse’s face be­hind the ver­ti­cal. The prob­lem some­times re­sults from a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the con­tact or fear of a strong horse, but a horse be­ing rid­den too tightly or over­flexed in front can also suf­fer some pos­si­ble neck dam­age and back is­sues. The po­si­tion lim­its the horse’s abil­ity to use his back and neck cor­rectly and there­fore be through.

To be on the bit, the horse must ac­cept the con­nec­tion. The fol­low­ing ex­er­cise helps achieve this as you con­nect your horse from your in­side leg to your out­side rein (re­fer to the il­lus­tra­tion on p. 26). Try this: Ride a leg yield in the walk on a 20-me­ter cir­cle start­ing at A. Track left at the medium walk from A around the first quar­ter of the cir­cle. As you leave the long-side wall, ask the horse to leg yield from the left leg along the line of the cir­cle so the front legs stay on the cir­cle line and the hind legs are pushed to the right with the in­side legs cross­ing slightly over the out­side legs. Keep your weight cen­tered, bring your left leg slightly back to ini­ti­ate the leg yield while the left rein asks only for slight flex­ion left and the right rein con­trols the shoul­der to keep the horse’s body straight and cre­ate the leg yield. As you re­turn to the wall, al­low the horse to fol­low the bend of the cir­cle line to A for the last quar­ter of the cir­cle. The ex­er­cise should be done in both di­rec­tions and at the medium walk and work­ing trot.

The leg yield on the cir­cle con­nects the horse from the in­side leg to the out­side rein to put him on the bit. You can mon­i­tor the con­nec­tion by an­swer­ing these five ques­tions:

1. Can you main­tain the rhythm and tempo of the gait dur­ing the ex­er­cise?

2. Does the horse have a stiffer side or is he sup­ple in both di­rec­tions? 3. Does the horse ac­cept the leg aid? 4. Does he ac­cept the rein aids? 5. Do you have shoul­der con­trol? If these re­quire­ments are met and the rider has an elas­tic qual­ity in her con­tact, she is likely to keep the horse truly con­nected in both di­rec­tions.

A horse who is on the bit trusts the rider’s aids and ac­cepts the con­tact with the bit. The horse reaches for the con­tact with the poll as the high­est point and the front of his face on or in front of the ver­ti­cal.

To be on the bit, the horse must ac­cept the con­nec­tion. This ex­er­cise—a leg yield in the walk on a 20-me­ter cir­cle start­ing at A—helps achieve this as you con­nect your horse from your in­side leg to your out­side rein. To prop­erly ride this ex­er­cise, fol­low the steps found on p. 27.

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