More about "On the Bit": Calm, Forward and Straight

I’ve been thinking about the role and responsibility of the seat and leg aids in “on the bit” and whether “on the bit” is dependent on those aids from the rider or simply influenced and/or refined by them at a later stage of training.  I got to wondering about all of this because all of the horses I start are given considerable training from the ground long before they are ever backed, and that ground work continues in addition to ridden work as a part of their training for the rest of their careers.  An important part of that ground work for me is introducing the horse to contact with the bit and the rein effects before riding in hopes of developing the best possible relationship between horse and hand, while also developing the correct form and balance needed for their later ridden work.
Contrary to popular belief, longeing is not just a way to give horses a little exercise when you’re too busy to ride (though that’s not a bad thing) and it shouldn’t be the way to burn off excess energy when they are too nervous or excited to ride.  Longeing can (and imo should :-) be used as part of a complete training program.  In most classically influenced training methods, horses spend a great deal of time training in hand, on the longe and/or in long reins, usually working from a cavesson or bit with some form of rein connected to (or through) a longeing surcingle well before their work under saddle even begins.  And while I also think it is good to longe a horse without tack once in a while, those reins can be an important part of developing a dressage and/or jumping horse.
Why We Start Horses on the Longe
In a way, “dressage” can be summed up as the art of riding a horse straight on a curved line.  A horse's natural balance on a curved line versus what we need from him for dressage and jumping are two very different things.  At liberty, the horse’s natural inclination when turning is to shift the shoulder into the direction of movement while swinging the head and neck to the outside as a counterbalance; in other words, the horse naturally counter-bends through the turn, usually with the topline inverted.  The only time one ever really sees a horse look and bend into the direction of his turn is when he’s circling around an object he’d like to keep his eye on. While western riding often allows a position closer to the horse’s natural movement through neck reining, the inward-facing posture is the one we try to create in our riding horses for dressage and most jumping.  But it doesn’t happen on its own.  It must be taught and developed carefully and gradually over time.
Correct longeing with some kind of a rein - on either a type of a cavesson or a bit connected to a surcingle or saddle - is a great way to teach and develop this without adding the complications of other aids (which the horse may not even know yet) and the rider's weight for the horse to contend with.  In this way it is easier to adhere to the horseman’s mantra of “calm, forward, and straight.”  Sometimes removing unnecessary stress and simplifying the equation to just the basics of positioning and impulsion is enough to teach the horse to carry himself as we’d like and learn to go “on the bit” without over-complicating things with too many aids or overtaxing the horse physically before he’s ready. 
When he can be encouraged to adopt a gentle inside flexion, as with properly used long reins*, he relaxes the muscles bracing his neck and topline in their inverted posture, stretches forward and down, and seeks a light contact, which I would consider the basis of being “on the bit.”  Here he releases and begins rounding up in his back, realigns his shoulders and begins to use them more freely, loosening his whole frame and engaging/tracking up behind.   The same effect is achieved with correct use of the chambon, which opposes only bracing and inversion, and rewards any effort at relaxation, stretching and release through the topline.  This resulting positioning and movement is the foundation upon which all the other movements, including collection and good jumping form, are gradually built.  And, imho, it begins with the horse placing himself willingly “on the bit,” not the other way around; driving into the hand or forcing the position and then expecting the horse to somehow relax and voluntarily accept the contact seems counterintuitive, to say the least.
But is it Good Enough?
Some may wonder whether the horse can still be properly “on the bit” without the support of all the aids, i.e. the legs, seat and hands.   Is this work equally effective, or can the horse only be properly worked with a rider seated on its back employing all of the aids in concert?  Some claim the seat and legs are more important to the horse’s balance, movement and engagement than the hand.  It’s really appealing to think that could be true.  But in a light seat or two-point, the seat is removed from that equation.  When longed, both seat and legs are out of the picture.  Where does that leave us?
As a hunter/jumper rider primarily, I think I’d take offense to anyone suggesting that, whenever I ride in a light seat or two-point, I lose all connection with my horse and it would be impossible to balance, engage, collect or do much of anything else with my horse properly - much less have him “on the bit” - just because I didn’t have my seat deep in the saddle.  I’ve always felt like I could do those things just fine, but maybe I’m a bit biased. ;-)  What about longeing?
A lot of people probably don’t realize how much can actually be achieved on the longe.  Riding of course has certain advantages over work on the longe, but when it’s done properly, longeing can have some advantages over riding as well, particularly when starting or retraining a horse.  Even quite advanced work is possible, as shown in Philippe Karl’s excellent book on long reining.  With this kind of method, the horse is essentially “ridden” through to an advanced level from the ground, all while maintaining a soft connection with the rein - and only the rein.  Instead of the legs, all impulsion is created from a distance through body language, voice and the whip, but nearly all positioning and balance is influenced through the rein aids.  Whether coming from a training aid like side/running reins, an aid like the chambon, or directly from the hand as in long reins - or even the longe line itself to a degree, seat aids never come into play.  While I can see the limitations and how it may eventually be preferable to sit on the horse and use all the aids to really refine this work, I think it shows what can be accomplished without those aids.
At the other end of that spectrum is the Spanish Riding School which also does a great deal of its training from the ground, including in (imho restrictive) side reins, and even going so far as to aggressively drive the horse into the bit between the pillars, which represents a very different relationship between horse and bit that some might consider excessive.  And yet this school is held up as the paragon of classical horsemanship and dressage, and there is no doubt they have impressive results in their own style. 
I can see how either system could be abused, and could be a disaster if executed incorrectly, and the latter may actually be fundamentally flawed if one considers relaxation and sensitivity to the mouth important.  But, to my mind, the fact that correct form and movement can be achieved from the ground proves that a driving seat and leg aren't necessary for the horse to carry himself correctly, as some dressage trainers insist.  Of course, ridden work can be more refined than longe work because a following seat, the turning seat and weight aids as well as proper use of legs for impulsion, positioning and support can work wonders; once the horse is conditioned to respond to these aids in unison, the rein can often be lessened or even, at times, dispensed with completely.  But these aids aren’t mandatory for connection via the rein or balanced positioning and movement – for that one only needs the basics: calm, forward and straight (which I have always interpreted as “relaxed, attentive and balanced.”)  And that can be achieved in a number of ways that don’t necessarily involve all the aids, including the rein at times. 
My feeling is that, if the horse can’t do it without a rider on him, there’s not much hope he’ll be able to do it better with a rider, and it may not be fair to ask.  If it can be done without a rider, then that just means that our aids when we ride can be that much lighter once we do put our butts in the saddle – and the responsibility to use those aids fairly and correctly is even greater!  The rider’s role when mounted is to initiate, guide and shape the movement already present in the horse without interference, not to get on and create it from scratch or try to wrestle it out of the horse every time.
I think we can all agree that NO horse of any discipline should ever be trained solely from the hand/rein.  While the hand is clearly important in the communication between horse and rider, some riders speak of it as inherently evil, others seem to imply it is simply unnecessary – all the communication with the horse happens through the seat or legs or perhaps even some kind of mutual intuition.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who act as if their hands on the reins were some kind of a crane that could lift and pull the horse into whatever position they’d like.
As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Contact and rein aids are neither inherently good or bad – it depends on the quality and sensitivity of that contact and the correct use of the rein aids that determines their virtue or lack thereof.  I guess I wonder how interdependent the aids really are, or if they are actually all independent and their best use is a matter of understanding their individual effects and learning to balance and coordinate them all so they complement rather than oppose one another.

*I like to see the inside rein run from the hand, through the inside bit or cavesson ring to the surcingle which gives a gentle “direct” or “opening/leading” rein effect.  It is frequently seen running the rein from the hand through the surcingle to the bit/cavesson ring, which creates a “direct rein of opposition” effect which is not conducive to good lateral flexion or lengthening of the topline; this effect, however, is suited for the outside rein which is run over the back or behind the quarters, from the hand through the surcingle to the outside bit/cavesson ring or when ground driving from behind where both reins should be set up this way.


  1. Nice - that reminds me that Pie and I could use some ground driving and lungeing work. I know he's never been on a lunge because the man who started him said so.

    I believe a horse that has learned to carry himself with the top line relaxed and engaging the core can be "on the bit" without a bit, or seat and leg aids, and in fact without a rider at all - just loose in the pasture. To me, on the bit is about developing the horse's posture and self-carriage. Then all you have to do as a rider is be "in the horse", part of the horse - then your aids can be barely there and they will be felt by and profoundly influence the horse. All that driving, pushing and pulling so many people do just interferes with the horse's movement, blunts the communication and in fact can prevent proper movement and carriage - and it tends to be a vicious circle - the more they do the more they feel they have to do because the response they want isn't there.

    I don't think of the aids as independent at all - but then I don't think about them much, just do them as needed and all of a piece. For me, it's important not to be too analytical about it and just work more from feel. Don't know if that makes any sense.

  2. Kate - that makes perfect sense! and i think that the ultimate goal of riding is to get to that place where you can just feel and act naturally in the moment without having to think about the aids. when i first began studying the rein aids, for example, more in depth, i realized that i was already using all of them without knowing they had names or were even different aids! so i definitely think that we can learn and use the aids almost intuitively just from experience and feel.

    but for me, i like to know the technical reasoning behind all of the aids, their general and specific effects on the horse, and their interactions with one another as well so that, if i do run into a problem, i can check myself, review what i'm doing and, if i'm crossing my signals or giving the wrong aid, make any corrections. it's especially important if i'm or am training a new movement that i know what i'm asking for and why. but most of the time i don't think about them either.

    but there are so many people out there (i was one for a while) who've been given strict (but often incorrect) instructions about how and when to give aids without understanding their effects. a certain amount of deprogramming might be helpful before just going by feel. i know after i rode briefly with a certain 'dressage expert' who was all about aggressive aids, i got into some bad habits and, when i finally left, i had to really stop and think before i asked until those habits went away.

    and i agree too that a horse doesn't need a bit to be 'on the bit'. it is really more a shorthand for an entire attitude of the horse. i use it more specifically to refer to a relationship to the rein, but what you say about posture and self-carriage is part of the package, and the horse certainly doesn't need a rider for that! one of the most rewarding things about training for me is helping the horse develop that relaxed frame, balanced carriage and full range of motion through training and then seeing the horses, all on their own, actually carrying themselves that way at liberty! makes me feel like i might hopefully be doing something right ;-)

  3. Good post. It gave me some things to think about.

    I know that Dusty's training has been lacking some quality longeing time and I think it would benefit her left-sided crookedness to be longed properly. As you say, if a horse can't do it on a longe then he/she probably can't do it with a rider (although I keep trying). Dusty has come a long way in the short time I've been riding her, but she still needs some longeing exercises to help her with softening,flexion and relaxation.

    You've inspired me to go over the Philippe Karl book again and see how I can help her work the muscles correctly on her left side. She still hasn't willingly put herself on the bit and I won't force a false frame. My thoughts are if a horse can't do it naturally, then what's the sense. You only make them miserable by forcing a position if they are not ready to naturally do it themselves.

    I also like to ride by feel and intuitively use light aids as much as possible, but it's good to know the reasons behind why they work or why they don't.

    If only riding correctly was as easy as a lot of people think it is. (Sigh)

  4. GHM - you're well on your way with dusty.

    i once literally heard a 'trainer' tell as student "you want me to show you how to put a horse on the bit? you just slide the bit back and forth like this until they put their head down."

    voila! forget the months of careful preparation, all you have to do is saw on the mouth! if that's the way most people think it happens, no wonder they think it's easy!

    you're not going to get it overnight with dusty, but you're going to get the real thing by laying the groundwork and being patient until she's ready for it, and that is the kind of time investment that pays off forever with a horse, particularly one as sensitive and strong-willed as dusty. i think if you forced her, not only would it wrong but she'd resent it for life and be a resistant mess to deal with.

    the longing might be a good idea for her too. she's still so green that she doesn't completely understand what you want from her yet, and it would give her a chance to sort a lot of that stuff out on her own. but there's no rush - she's making great progress and she's going to get there :-)

  5. I totally agree with you on this post, but then I guess I pretty much agree with you on all of them. LOL

    While I don't do fences, I do hunter pleasure riding and I do two point at the hand gallop (many riders nowadays on the Arabian circuit do not. I know from that I can keep my horse pushed up underneath himself and traveling quite correctly from that position so poo-poo to those who say otherwise. (Guess I'm in a mood today, lol)

    Also, I really prefer to start my young horses in this fashion. I think it makes it much easier for them to understand and learn how to do what I'm asking without them having to figure out how to carry my weight too. Once they have it on the ground, then I like to get on them.

    For those few horses that were started by someone else, I find myself going back to my basics on the ground. Those poor horses are confused by the way they have been asked to collect and I can't say as I blame them.

    Another great post. Keep 'em coming.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  6. thanks! i also like to start horses in a light seat and i guess i sort of resent all of the dressage world's insistence that you're not really riding unless your butt is glued to the saddle ;-) i think there's a place for both seats in riding.

    nice to hear it works for someone else too (amd btw, i agree that 2-point is correct for hand gallop - in a h/j show you'd never sit! ;-) thanks for stopping by - hope you had a great thanksgiving!

  7. Good post, jme - however, as a dressage rider I must comment!

    I don't believe any dressage rider worth his salt is saying that you have to sit down in the saddle all the time.
    On the contrary, you shouldn't sit down until your horse's back is ready for it - i.e he does not change rythm or posture when you change from a posting or light seat to sitting down.
    Whether it is due to it being a youngster, a horse that needs more eductational work, or warming up.

    To me, sitting down is not about driving aids. As you say, you can just as well do that from the ground.
    It is about communication.
    If I am on the ground, I can see how the horse moves.
    If I am in the saddle, I lose out some of the information about where the horse places his hind legs if I am posting, or in a light seat.
    The more advanced my horse gets in his training, the more I communicate through the seat. Collection, extension and turning/bending. The ultimate goal is to ride for as light and invisible aids as possible.

    I agree with your definition of "on the bit". To me is not about head position but a contact the horse takes by himself, and a connection point from the back and the hind legs.
    If the horse's body doesn't work properly, you'll feel it in the contact.

    To force the head down by aggressive use of the reins is meaningless, and to me only shows bad riding.
    True acceptance of the bit is a consequence of back and hind leg activity.

  8. horse of course - you are absolutely right about sitting in dressage. what i was trying to get at (but not saying very well!) is that dressage demands more and more sitting as the work becomes more advanced, and riders are frequently seen not only sitting but leaning behind the motion and even at times driving with the seat as they do so. for some i think sitting is not so much a means to and end, but the end itself, and they don't see the value in posting or light seat.... but the good dressage riders know it :-)

  9. From our hearts, Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  10. thank you! and a merry christmas to you from all of us! :-)

  11. I love this post- it's very well thought out and kind of confirms what I've felt for a long time- like some of the other comments, I've been doing some of this for awhile only I didn't know the technical terms and more importantly, I didn't realize how it all fits together.

    From my experience, I believe taht all the aids work together and should be used as such. However, at the same time, you also have to be aware of the separate effects of each aid.

    The biggest mistake new riders make (and believe me, I'm guilty of this) is to believe that "it's all in the reins" where you're putting way too much pressure on the bit and using it to "haul the horse" around.

    In my case, using too much pressure is going to start a war with my horse that's not going to end well for either of us.

    Interestingly enough, when I started working my horse in a curb bit, I've actually been more aware of rein effects and it seems that I get better results- it seems that the lighter the touch, the better the result.

    I do a lot of battle reenactments on my horse involving the use of the sword and pistol and sometime it's very easy to get wrapped up into the moment and become heavy on the reins.

    Overall, though, understanding your aids and being able to work them in a coordinated manner is going to deliver the best results and in some situations, it can save you.

    Sorry to have rambled on for so long. :-)

  12. hi adam - go ahead and ramble away! i love to get thoughtful comments on my posts!

    i think we're all guilty of overusing our reins, and not just as beginners. i know for myself, even though i sort of pride myself on having a light hand, when i get in trouble it's easy to forget about tact and fall back into hanging on the reins. it's something that we probably have to be aware of and guard against for life. but as you say, being aware of how the aids interact and practicing good form as much as possible will make the correct response more second nature, hopefully even in those distracting moments and emergencies :-)

    i'm also a fan of the correct, light use of the curb. i know it's become unpopular with some schools these days because they think because everything can be done with a snaffle it should be done with a snaffle. but the curb has its own effects separate from snaffle work, and i think it still has a place in a trained horse's education, depending on what's required of the horse at the moment. there was a time when no trained horse would be ridden without a full bridle, but i think the abuse of the curb by the dressage world and the bad use of pelhams and curbs in the hunter/jumpers has given them a bad name.

    anyway, now i've rambled! glad you enjoyed the post. sorry it has taken so long to respond, but my internet has been down for a day :-\

  13. One other thing I found interesting with my horse since I've stated using a curb bit (well, actually a Pelham) is that where before, my horse had difficulty turning/spinning on the haunches (or I was unable to properly use the aids to get him to do it), with the curb and the reins laid lightly on his nect, I can get some verious tight spins. I use by legs for emphasis but otherwise, NO pulling/force/cranking/anything is requred. :-) Not that you want to use any of that...although sometimes I have to check him from moving forward, thereby creating the "spinning bottle effect".

    I guess the amazing thing is that just a touch will do it. I think someone serious schooled him in this as a youngster. Now what I'm trying to do is make him more responsive to my legs and make him use his hanuches even more.

    This whole thing has been an amazing journey where gradually things are reveled. It may be routine stuff for those who have been at it for years but for me, having stared riding pretty late in life, it's a major revealation. :-)

  14. yeah, the curb's main purpose is to facilitate collected movements. you might already be aware that it was originally developed when riders found they needed more collected precision and maneuverability for up close and personal fighting with swords and lances, as opposed to, say, galloping flat out and firing arrows, etc..

    these days it can be badly overused in dressage and by western riders who do nothing but slide and spin horses for its own sake, but its effects are powerful and can be very useful in setting up a horse for collection and getting that extra maneuverability.

    which is not to say collection can't be achieved with a snaffle; they are just 2 different ways to get 2 different kinds of collected work...

    and i don't think it's ever routine! i've been doing this a long time and each horse is a mini revelation every time i ride. that's what makes it such a challenge and so much fun :-)

  15. For me, the snaffle and curb bits have their place and for me, it was probably best to have trained first with a snaffle bit- my horse is more forgiving and I could focus on my rein work more.

    Last year I had him in a snaffle for the battle reenactments that we went to and whiel it worked fine most of the time, there were moments that I really had to haul off and muscle my horse more (yeah, they say that upper body strength doesn't factor into horseback riding...but...).

    After the last battle for the year, I thought about bits some more and decided that I really needed the precision action of the curb bit, especially with swordworkd (getting up close and personal).

    So I decided to transition starting with a Pelham. It definitely works BUT to paraphraise:

    With great power comes great responsibility. :-)

  16. Just to add, I've gotten good collection off of a snaffle bit but you really have to use all your aids and employ the half-halt. It's probably best that I started this way. :-)

  17. adam - i have to agree the snaffle is the place to start, then when that is mastered the curb can be added if and as needed. i have to commend you on your concern for getting that balance and fairness right, even 'in the heat of battle.' it can't be easy, and we all have moments when we are less-than-ideal riders, especially when we are hanging on for deal life! ;-) we all practice what we can under the best of circumstances, but sometimes all that goes out the window when we're just trying to keep things under control! we just have to hope the good work we do in training serves us well when the time comes. it sounds like the work you've done is serving you well :-)


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