The idea of getting your horse ‘on the bit’ is often misunderstood. Its name alone places the emphasis on his front end and, as a result, many riders struggle to create a genuine connection. A correct outline and acceptance of the bit actually comes from an engaged hind end, rather than from your rein aids, but until you’ve felt this connection, it can be a difficult concept to grasp.
How does it work?
When your horse engages his quarters, he reaches further forward with his hindlegs and his hocks absorb more weight and create more thrust. The energy that’s created is channelled to his front end over his back, which lifts and forms a strong bridge under the saddle. This rounding and lifting continues through his neck, and the energy travels to the bit, where you can hold and guide it.
When your horse works like this, you won’t need to squeeze or pull your reins to ask him to work in an outline, he’ll do it naturally, and you’ll find that the pressure in your reins stays even and solid. You can then use your contact to temporarily block forward motion, which is useful for riding downwards transitions at the most basic level and crucial for half-halts as you progress.
Don’t be fooled into thinking a featherlight contact is correct. If you lose the feeling of the contact but your horse is round, he may have slipped behind the vertical to avoid the hard work of engaging his hindquarters. Use your arena mirrors or a knowledgeable person on the ground to ensure your contact is correct.
Exercise 1: Forward and back
A series of simple transitions between gaits ensures your horse is responsive to your leg aids, while transferring his weight to his hindquarters. Begin on a 20m circle, as this helps to establish balance and encourages your horse to engage his inside hindleg.
How to do it
- Think of your circle as a clockface with 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock marked out. Establish an active trot, then at each of the clockface points, make a downwards transition and ride two strides of walk before trotting again. Keep your leg on throughout each downwards transition and bring your horse back by stopping the motion of your hips and sitting tall. Let your own forward motion pause for two beats, then ride forward. Maintain an even contact, but don’t worry about where your horse’s head is. Instead, focus on the quality of your transitions – does he transition down and back up easily or do you have to chase him?
- Once you’ve mastered transitions at the clockface points, ask for one stride of walk after every four strides of trot. You’ll really have to plan ahead as the stride of walk will go by quickly.
- Progress to preparing and asking for each downwards transition, then riding forward before your horse breaks to walk. This is a half-halt, which will take even more of his weight back onto his hindquarters and encourage him to work over his topline.
For more easy exercises to help you achieve the perfect contact, pick up the June issue of Horse&Rider, out 3 May.