The Three-Second Solution: Putting Your Horse On the Bit

Dressage trainer and competitor Jane Savoie teaches you her simple, no-miss system to help you put your horse on the bit and make all your riding more pleasurable.
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Dressage trainer and competitor Jane Savoie teaches you her simple, no-miss system to help you put your horse on the bit and make all your riding more pleasurable.

At clinics I teach around the country, one complaint I hear over and over, from students at every level, is how hard they find putting a horse on the bit. What I tell them--and what I tell you--is that it doesn't have to be that way. Using a simple system I'll show you, you can put your horse on the bit and keep him there. And once you've experienced "on the bit," you'll never again be satisfied with less.

Jane Savoie | Photo by Rhett Savoie

Jane Savoie | Photo by Rhett Savoie

On the Bit--Why Bother?
Why go to the trouble of putting your horse on the bit? Because, quite simply, this quality makes him wonderful to ride. He feels organized, comfortable, connected and easy to control. Everything he does has a flow and a harmony. He even feels more eager and willing.

In nature, when a horse is frightened, he sticks his head up, his neck stiffens, his back goes hollow and he has a one-item agenda: "Save yourself!" When he's relaxed and contented, however, his head is down, his neck is long and his back is round. The picture of roundness you see when a rider puts a horse on the bit actually creates just such a mental state of willingness and relaxation.

A horse who's not on the bit is mentally not with his rider. He's more easily distracted, inclined to react instinctively to frightening sights or sounds by shying or running off, and he may even resist openly. His body also feels disorganized, like a jumble of disjointed pieces rather than a well-oiled machine. He's difficult to turn and steer--and to my mind he's very uncomfortable to sit on.

Besides making physical and mental connections, "on the bit" gives "oomph" to your training program. How? Moving free, even the most unassuming horse can look graceful, balanced and expressive in his movement. But plop a saddle on his back, climb on, change his balance and suddenly this graceful creature moves like a dump truck and steers like a barge.

Trying to restore under saddle the beauty and ease of movement that the horse possesses at liberty is what training is all about. And training is at its most effective and easiest when the horse carries himself mostly with the topline muscles over his croup, back and neck. When does he do that? When he's on the bit. His body assumes a round frame, his hind legs reach well up under him, and rather than muscling up willy-nilly, he develops those muscles along his topline properly--evenly and without undue stress. (I've seen horses' muscling improve with as little as five days of being ridden on the bit.) As he does, he enhances all the wonderful qualities you're trying to bring out, like suppleness, flexibility, and the beginnings of collection.

Training a horse who's not on the bit is like stuffing money into an old mattress. Even if you still have the cash a year from now, it won't be worth any more and it'll probably be worth less. But training a horse who is on the bit is like putting your money where it earns double-digit compound interest. At year's end, not only do you have what you started with; it's worth much more!

In this article I'll help you achieve "on the bit" the same way I help students at clinics, using a simple, step-by-step, "connecting aid" signaling system that produces almost immediate results--in fact, I've never seen it not work in the very first session. Then, because you may be working without the guidance of a trainer (and because things that look and feel right aren't always OK), I'll give you a few easy "tests" to check the correctness of your aids and your horse's response to them.

Before You Start
"On the bit" is definitely a case of one feel being worth a thousand words. If you've never experienced it, try to arrange a lesson or two, or at least a couple of spins around the ring, on a "schoolmaster": an experienced horse who's got it down pat. If you get on right after his regular rider has been working him on the bit for several minutes, the feeling will linger; try to memorize it, knowing that's what you're working toward. An experienced helper or a friend with a good pair of eyes is another help, since a lot of "on the bit" is the horse's silhouette and frame. If you can't arrange even that, and if, after a session or two, you and your horse find yourselves truly stuck, seek the help of a qualified teacher to guide you or even to put your horse on the bit for you.

Limit your sessions to 30 minutes or less (20-30 if your horse is a youngster), including a lengthy warm-up. Since you'll need plenty of time to think about what you're doing, how you're doing it and how your horse is reacting, start at the walk (unless he paces, gets really tense walking, or just won't stay forward and rhythmical, in which case you're better off at the rising trot).

Begin with the Basics
Use your warm-up to establish forward motion, straightness, rhythm and contact; for the moment, don't worry about the rest of your horse's frame. Without these four qualities, you won't be able to accomplish a thing; once you've got them, you'll have the foundation of putting him on the bit.

First make sure your horse is thinking and moving forward across the ground with relaxed, long, free strides, and is "in front of your leg." What does that mean? He's responding immediately and enthusiastically to the lightest of leg pressure. Try it: Lightly close your legs. If he moves off immediately and eagerly, you're in business. But if he stands there or ambles off, resist the temptation to squeeze harder; he'll just get duller, and you'll end up doing all the work. Instead, put him "in front of your leg" by squeezing as lightly as you did the first time. If, once again, he doesn't respond, tap him with the whip behind your leg (not on his butt, or he may kick out), or take your leg off and give several sharp thumps: "wham, wham, wham." Don't confuse him by lifting your heel and going "jab, jab, jab"; he'll think you're giving a stronger aid to go forward. You want him to know that "No, this is not an aid. This is a correction."

Now here's the key. As soon as you get a response--even a disorganized or startled one--to your whip or your thump, bring your horse back and squeeze lightly again. If he immediately goes energetically forward, praise him generously. Say "Good boy" and rub his neck with your fingers (you don't need to overdo). If he responds in the OK-to-adequate range, but not with 100 percent wholehearted effort, tap sharply or thump again. When he responds, bring him back and do the light squeeze again. Your goal? To whisper your aids and have him shout his response.

Straightness means your horse's spine corresponds to whatever line he's tracking on. Straightness on the long side, centerline and diagonal means his spine is straight; straightness on circles, corners and curved lines means his spine is bent. In either case, his hind feet basically follow the same track as his front feet.

Rhythm is the next foundation quality. Each horse's rhythm is unique, but every horse's rhythm keeps him in comfortable balance by being regular: neither too fast nor too slow, with equal intervals between the steps. To check the regularity of your horse's rhythm, count his steps. In the walk, you should hear four evenly spaced beats--"1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2... 3, 4, 1, 2... 3, 4," improve the rhythm by slowing the walk and/or separating the steps that are too close together--something you can do by asking him to step sideways into a leg-yield.

In trot, two diagonal legs (for example, the outside hind and inside fore) strike the ground together, followed by a moment of suspension when all four legs are off the ground, then the striking of the other diagonal pair. Your counting should sound like a metronome: "1-2-1-2-1-2." In canter, you should be able to count a clear 1-2-3 rhythm. If you hear "1-2-3-4," your horse is "four-beating" and you need to ride him more forward, almost into a lengthening, to create rhythm in the gait.

Contact is the final quality you should think about in your warm-up, since "on the bit" demands that your horse go forward into your sympathetic hands. What creates good contact?

1. A straight line from the bit through your hand, to your elbow, which makes "the action of the rein go through your horse's body." What do those words mean? That the energy coming into the bit returns full circle, back through the neck and spine, to help him carry his weight on his hindquarters and bend his joints more athletically.

2. A firm feel of the bit, which maintains the connection from you horse's hind legs (his engine) into your hands. Take a good, solid half pound to one-pound feel in each hand. Ideally he'll seek the contact; if he doesn't (the reins will be loopy), shorten--but be sure to combine shortening with riding him forward from your legs. Otherwise, you'll back him off, particularly if he's used to no feel. All of a sudden he's going to think, "Uh-oh, the door's slammed. I can't go anywhere."

3. Consistency, meaning the reins don't go loopy, then tight, then loopy again. Consistent contact is inviting because it never changes; your horse always has the same reassuring feel from your hand. I'd rather see you maintain a contact that's a bit too firm than repeatedly take and then lose contact with his mouth--which punishes him with every step he takes.

4. Elasticity. When you think "elastic," think "elbows." Grease up those elbow joints until they naturally open and close according to your horse's gaits. In the walk and canter, when he uses his head and neck in a forward-and-back motion, follow him with your elbows, letting them go forward toward his mouth with every stride, then back to their position by our side. In the rising trot, his neck stays fairly still but you move up and down; to keep your hands steady, your elbows need to compensate. (How important is elasticity? Lock your elbows at your sides at the walk; your horse will slow down or stop. Cantering, he'll break. At the trot, your hands will bounce up and down--and there goes your consistent contact.)

5. Even contact means you feel equal weight in both hands because your horse isn't hanging on either rein. To offer even contact, keep your hands softly closed around the reins (as if each were holding a baby bird you didn't want to crush), your thumbs the highest point and each hand mirroring the other. When is contact uneven? When one hand is higher than the other. When both hands are not the same distance from your body. When the angle or position of one hand is different from the other's.

Now... is your horse warmed up? The answer is "yes" if he's forward--not only over the ground, but in his thinking; if he's straight, with his hind feet following in the tracks of his front feet; if he's maintaining a good rhythm; and if you're offering and he's accepting an inviting, sympathetic contact that's firm, consistent, elastic, even, and straight from your elbow through your hand to the bit. If, at any time while you're working on putting him on the bit, you lose any of these qualities, forget about the connecting half-halt while you reestablish the quality you've temporarily lost. Then and only then, reapply your connecting half-halt.

The Connecting Aids Made Easy
The connecting aids are nothing more than a specific, clear, "as-needed" signal, not unlike the specific signals you use to tell your horse to canter (and keep cantering until you signal him to trot), or to halt and stand until you want him to walk on, except that you're using them to put him on the bit. If he stays there steadily, you stay quietly in harmony with him and enjoy the ride. If he tries to come off the bit, however, by sticking his head up in the air, for example, you'll apply the connecting aids again to put him back onto the bit. If he tries to come off the bit every few strides (he may--this is unfamiliar territory, and you're asking him to use an entirely new set of muscles while he's exploring it), you're going to give a lot of connecting aids.

To apply the connecting aids, give a three-second combination of leg, outside rein, and, if needed, only as much inside rein as necessary to keep your horse's neck straight. At the walk, lightly close both legs as if asking for that hundred-percent, wholehearted forward response you've been practicing. This time, however, rather than allowing him to go more forward, contain his energetic response by closing your outside hand into a firm fist (as if squeezing every drop of water out of a sponge) and holding it for three seconds. He may bend his neck to the outside; if he does, straighten him by lightly vibrating, squeezing/releasing, or pulsing your fingers on the inside rein, remembering always that the degree to which his neck is bent to the outside tells you how much (and no more) inside rein to use. (No outside bend? Use no inside rein.) And rank your aids in this order of importance: first, legs to create the energy; second, outside rein to contain the energy; third, inside rein--only as much as necessary--to keep his neck straight. After three seconds, relax your outside hand (remember, the relaxation--reward for finishing the connecting aids--is as important as the connecting aids themselves) and return to the maintenance feel you had before, your hands firmly but gently holding those two baby birds without crushing them.

When are you going to feel when your horse comes on the bit? He will suddenly seem to move as a unit, instead of a pile of parts. His back will swing. His walk will be smoother and more flowing. He'll feel simultaneously easier to sit on and bouncier. 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). You'll have a comfortable, conversational feel of his mouth in your hand. Rather than being stiff or braced or hanging on one or both reins, he'll feel soft and giving and elastic. And his strides will be longer and less frequent, because his hind legs will be stepping farther under his body and covering more ground.

This is the ideal, of course. Your horse probably isn't going to come perfectly on the bit the first time. But if his frame or feel or strides change even slightly as I've described, tell him "Good" and rub his neck in order to encourage him to repeat his response. With each effort, you'll improve his cooperation, his understanding, and his ability to carry himself on the bit.

What Can Go Wrong

  • Your horse may stop, slow down, or resist by putting his head up when he feels your outside hand close in a fist; he isn't coming "through." He's been taught all his life that legs mean "go" and reins mean "stop"; all of a sudden you're using legs and hands together, and he's stumped. Explain to him that yes, your outside hand is a wall, but it's an invisible wall that he can step through. One way to explain this is to ask for a lengthening, then close your outside hand in a fist. The extra momentum of the lengthening will carry him forward, "through" your closed hand. Do this several times, and reward him as soon as you see his neck get rounder and longer--as little as half an inch longer. Go back and apply the connecting aids without the lengthening, and see if he's learned stepping "through" the hand rather than coming against it.
  • If you think that sawing on the reins--alternately squeezing and releasing on each rein, with a repeated left, right, left, right, left, right--is putting your horse on the bit, you are headed down a dead-end street. To the unschooled eye, your horse might look as if he's on the bit, but you have control over nothing but a flexed jaw. When you ask for a transition, you'll find there's a whole lot of body underneath you that you have no influence over at all.
  • If your horse maintains contact but shortens his neck, he's telling you that you're bringing your arms back rather than tightening your hand into a fist. Fix this tendency by imagining an invisible wall at your wrists, one that you can't draw your hands back through. Send him forward through the wall with your legs; when he arrives at your outside hand, close it into a fist.
  • If your horse's nose approaches the vertical but his heck gets short and you have a loop in the reins and no weight in your hands, he's come "behind the bit." You probably didn't have him in front of your leg before you gave the connecting aids, and he just flexed his jaw; you'll also notice that he's taking short, mincing steps rather than relaxed, longer ones.
  • If you horse swings his haunches, you're probably squeezing unequally with your legs.
  • If your horse speeds up, slows down, or loses his rhythm, the pressure of your driving aids probably isn't the same as your feel of your outside rein. Experiment until you learn to close your legs and outside hand to the same degree. If your horse speeds up, close more firmly. If he slows down, close a little less.

Tests of Connection
Here are some simple tests to give you confidence that the frame and feel you've created with your connecting aids are the correct result of riding your horse from back to front, so that he's truly on the bit.

At the end of a three-second connecting aids, softly open the fingers of both hands. If your horse stretches his nose forward and down to the ground and seeks contact by gently taking the reins and chewing them through your fingers, your connecting aids went "through" one hundred percent. If he stretches but doesn't reach all the way forward and down to the ground, your connecting aids went through to a certain extent. If he sticks his head straight up in the air, the connecting aids didn't go through at all.

Give your connecting aids. Keep your outside fist closed with your elbow by your side, and create a loop in your inside rein by putting your hand forward, halfway up your horse's neck. If his neck stays straight, your connecting aids "went through" and he's "in" your outside rein. If his neck bends to the outside and the outside rein becomes loose, the connecting aids didn't "go through."

If these tests show your connecting aids didn't work, take a moment to evaluate. Was your horse forward, straight, and in good rhythm? Was your contact correct? Did you use too much or not enough outside or inside rein? Did you remember to hold for three seconds, then soften for his reward? Did you bring your hands back "behind" the wall? After you've sized up what happened, 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. This cool-down is essential; I would no sooner leave it out than I would finish up a jog by flopping down in an easy chair and allowing all my muscles to contract. Some things never change: You warm up, you do your exercises, you cool down.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I can almost guarantee that you're going to feel results from this system in your very first session. For the first few sessions after that, you'll probably spend your whole ride establishing your foundation qualities, losing one of them, getting it back again, giving the connecting aids again, and so on. When you and your horse are solidly connected on the bit at the walk, try it at the trot, and finally at the canter. Believe me, the additional mph's will give you new challenges--but any time you have problems, drop down to the slower gait where you can remind your horse and yourself what the connecting aids mean.

This is not the final chapter, of course. It's just the beginning. The connecting aids are always going to be a part of your repertoire, but it will become easier to do, and you'll have to give them less frequently. Eventually the three seconds will get down to one second or less. You'll feel your horse coming off the bit, you'll close your legs and your outside hand, and in a heartbeat, boom!, he'll be back on the bit.

I promise, you are not going to be one of those riders I see who feel they've achieved their goal and done their job if they've put their horses on the bit by the end of a session. Eventually, you'll compress everything you've learned one step at a time in this article into a 10-minute warm-up (unless you have a very young horse, in which case putting him on the bit probably should be your whole schooling session). This is the warm-up I do with my horses, and here's how it goes:

I establish my foundation qualities almost as soon as I pick up the reins. Then, in the first five minutes, I ask my horse the question, "Are you responding to my connecting aids?" I make sure we're speaking the same language and he's going to come on the bit no matter what I ask him to do. My warm-up tells me that he's listening and answering before I go off and do my gymnastics, my school figures, my lateral work, my obedience exercises, my transitions, and my collecting exercises. Soon enough, you'll be doing the same: getting your warm-up out of the way so you can go ahead and do the fun stuff. And the fun stuff is going to be more fun (and more productive) than ever, because your horse will be on the bit.

Updated from the October 1993 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.