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.
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.