Theme: Contact / "On the Bit"

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Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

The difference between effective and ineffective contact in horseback riding is immense. You know what "bad" contact looks like:

- horse with mouth open wide

- frantic rider on runaway horse

- disengaged hind end and hollow-backed movement

- above the bit/below the bit/rooting the bit

- rider jerking on the bit

I'm sure we can all conjure up pictures of what we don't want to see or feel in riding.

However, if you're like me, you probably also are well aware of the conundrum of developing a compassionate yet useful contact - one that keeps you first of all, safe on the horse, and second, able to give the horse such good "feels" that every horse you ride is inspired to be their best. 

There is so much to be said about the concepts of contact and "on the bit" in horseback riding. Many of the great riders of the past have elaborated on the idea and even the feel of on the bit, but without educated guidance on the ground while you're riding, true contact can become a long-awaited and distant dream. So although we can benefit greatly from the words below, it falls to ourselves to be forever on the quest of discovering an honest and effective contact with our own horses, making the act of riding pleasurable not only for the human, but also for the horse.

I've tried to pick out the most relevant sections for today's quotes, but please go to the original books to get a much more in-depth analysis. Enjoy!

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The connection between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth is called "contact with the bit." This contact governs the guidance and collection of the horse.... To be correct this contact should be consistent. The rider should have the feeling that he is connected to the horse's mouth by means of an elastic ribbon. As the reins are made of leather and have no spring, this elastic connection can be brought about only by the supple flexion of the horse's jaw combined with the sensitive and light touch of the riders hands, which depends on flexible wrists. A perfect contact is possible only when the horse is in absolute balance, carries himself, and does not seek support from the reins. It may then be said that the horse is "on the bit."

Podhajsky, Alois. (1965). The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship (pp.41-42). New York, NY: Doubleday.

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Unlike popular perception, acceptance of the bit has very little to do with the frame in which we ride the horse. It is more that wherever we place our reins - long, short, or to one side - the horse follows them without evasion. Acceptance of the bit could also be called "the confidence of the horse in the rider's hand."

Riding a horse in a very short and cramped frame in front has nothing to do with being on the bit. Neither does work with draw reins, martingales, curbs, chambons and other artificial aids (based on inflicting pain) help to achieve it. The acceptance of the bit is a demonstration that the horse has been taught to find his balance and to carry himself willingly in front of the rider's leg, accepting the reins and the bit as communication, rather than a threat of pain or support to lean on.

Only when a horse has accepted the bit can he begin to carry himself. And, as the engagement improves, the horse will become lighter and lighter, without the rider having to use any artificial aids or excessive rein action.

Gahwyler, Max. (1989). The Competitive Edge: Improving Your Dressage Scores in the Lower Levels (p. 29). Middletow, MD: Half Halt Press.

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When one drives the horse forward towards the bit, the bit should ever so slightly elude the horse's "arrival" on it, his taking hold. This allows the horse to step forward without fear of hindrance by pulling (and the accompanying pain). The horse's forward (but not running) thinking very much depends on his courage in working towards the bit. The bit must represent to him a suggestive and resilient opening, a yielding and elusive communication, rather than a literal contact. A tense, restraining, pulling rein results in an open jaw, tense neck and back muscles, and ugly, apprehensive, stiff, pussy-footing strides. 

de Kunffy, Charles. (1984). Dressage Questions Answered (p.69). New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press.

What do you think about when you consider contact and having your horse on the bit?

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Riding Goals Defined: At some point, you’re going to find yourself wondering: why am I riding? 

The ‘Art’ of Riding: When does riding transform from being a purely physical endeavour based on skills and technique, to “sculpting while progressing through space?” (de Kunffy, 1992, p.3)

Studying the Circle: The circle is used so frequently, not only in dressage, but in almost all disciplines, that we would be remiss to not include it in our “studies” about riding and training.

The Rider: Although the world around the horse has changed over the years, the horse itself remains essentially the same, and therefore the requirements of riding are essentially unchanged.

4 Comments

  1. With each horse I ride, I have to determine whether that horse has the development and strength to actually go “on the bit”. Some horses need to use it for support until they have created enough balance and strength to accept it as communication rather than something to lean on. My horse, for instance, has physical issues and at the beginning of the ride he wants to know that I’m there to support him physically. Once he’s warmed up and worked through his achy body parts he will carry himself (and me) along with grace and gusto. Another horse I ride is terrified of the moment between a loose rein and picking up a light contact. Anything that changes in his mouth is an excuse for drama. With him I devote a significant part of the ride simply to changing the contact and getting him used to it. “On the bit” isn’t even an option until he learns that a changing contact doesn’t mean someone is going to jerk his mouth. As usual with horses, each is an individual and I personally feel that having “on the bit” as a rider’s holy grail of a goal is counterproductive until all the other necessary developmental pieces are in place. I think that’s why God invented the dressage training pyramid 🙂

  2. I ride a wonderful horse that is very sensitive and requires the lightest of contact — use the same amount on him I do on my daughter’s horse and he will just throw his head all around. As I have only been riding about 1.5 years now, I always ask a trainer or someone who rides a particular horse regularly for tips before getting on. Helps me to find the right contact faster without annoying the horse. Loving horses comes naturally and easily to me; sometimes I wish riding was as simple! So, thanks for another great article to give me some things to “chomp” on too.

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