What it Means to be "On the Bit"



I love getting my www.thehorse.com e-mails, as they are usually filled with interesting news and information for concerned horse owners/trainers like me. So I was a bit dumbfounded by this recent article title:

Study: Horses Prefer Less Rein Tension


It stated:

“According to a new study by European equitation scientists, horses might prefer to avoid rein tension rather than just get used to it. And beyond a certain force threshold, rein tension can cause conflict behavior. To make the most of training and to keep the horse's mouth sensitive, riders need to know when to apply less rein tension, generally when the horse displays conflict behavior.”
When I read the title of this study I thought to myself, “uh, no shit, Sherlock.” Like a previous study stating, “Study: Shelter-Seeking Behavior Most Common in Poor Weather Conditions” this was not a major newsflash. But it was a topic near and dear to my training, so I read on and, to my great unsurprise, the study confirmed what I already knew logically and intuitively for years.

But sometimes the obvious needs to be stated and restated before it really sinks in for some people. And sometimes scientific proof can persuade where common sense fails (though in the case of climate change and evolution, even science doesn’t always satisfy them all, but that’s a rant for another forum ;-) This may be one of those cases.

The more I think about it, the more I realize this isn’t such common knowledge after all. There are plenty of people out there, including some very accomplished and respected riders and trainers, who genuinely believe strong contact and pulling on the bit either doesn’t bother the horse or is actually good for him. There is much talk of “taking” contact and “driving the horse onto the bit” which clearly implies he would otherwise not be there without force. So many trainers and schools of riding advocate fixing a rigid hand and, when the horse tries to evade the strong pressure of this, to drive him forward with the legs, spurs, whip, etc. which will only increase the pressure, until he eventually succumbs and either accepts the pressure or drops behind it but maintains a pretty bend in his neck to fool uneducated onlookers. So it is apparently not obvious, or at least not important, to some that horses are averse to strong pressure on their mouths.

I can just hear the German vs French school crowds complaining that this study was conducted in France and so was designed to vindicate French riding philosophy which is opposed to such forceful riding. After all, the rest of the world seems to defer to a more heavy-handed style of dressage and the sort of riders who employ rollkur or methods like it, so why should some silly French study change their minds?

It’s sad to me we need an entire study to come to this conclusion. To me it seems self-evident.

But there was also some information gained by the researchers which they hadn’t expected and I’d like to delve into a little further, as it relates directly to what, imho, constitutes being “on the bit.”



“On the Bit”
In this recent study on horses’ tolerance for bit pressure, the results were pretty predictable. But there was one conclusion found in the study that may not be as obvious, though it is one I’ve also noted for years and led to my refining my definition of what it means for a horse to be “on the bit.” The article said:

“While they expected the fillies to refuse the rein tension the first day of the study and then gradually increase their tolerance over the following days, they were surprised to find that the opposite was true. 'The horses applied a surprisingly high level of tension on the first day and apparently learned how to avoid the tension, rather than habituate to it,' Christensen said"
I have observed in every single horse I have started in the chambon on the longe the very behavior noted in the study: namely that the horse will begin with too much pressure and gradually learn to lighten that pressure when he is faced with a predictable boundary, i.e. a rein of a consistent length and position or, later, a sensitive, sympathetic hand.

I don’t use the typical training aids when longing such as running reins or side reins because I have seen them encourage evasive behaviors and postures in the horses I’ve worked with (and I won’t touch that Pessoa contraption which is a nightmare of forced, incorrect positioning and conflicting aids!) The horse will generally contort himself in any way possible to avoid or lessen pressure from the bit, and this tends to lead to a horse who is habitually behind the bit, something which too often is remedied by stronger driving aids rather than more yielding rein aids. For many horses it becomes a lesser of two evils kind of struggle where the horse will choose the least painful option – depending on which is more difficult to bear, he will choose either an avoidance posture or accept strong pressure from the bit.

Of course, the horse can’t be blamed for this because he’s been presented with an immovable object in his mouth which prevents the natural movement of his head and neck and punishes rather than rewards any attempt at relaxation (which sets off a chain reaction down the shoulder, back, etc….) I’m not saying all use of side reins is evil; they have been used by great horsemen for ages and at least they do offer a release when the horse gives to their pressure, unlike a restrictive hand which a horse cannot escape no matter how far he contorts himself in order to yield to it (rollkur being an extreme example.) Under special circumstances I might even use side reins if attached to a cavesson rather than a bit. But I think there are better ways to influence a horse’s positioning when longeing and encourage correct development without restriction or force. My aid of choice is the chambon/de gogue.

How this relates to the study:
When I first attach the chambon I teach each horse repeatedly at the halt and leading at the walk how to release the pressure of the device by holding a treat below its point of contact. Each time the horse reaches down and out for the treat, pressure is released (and he is rewarded with a treat!) And yet I find the first time I longe the horse with the chambon attached, he will put significant pressure on the bit and poll-piece, even though the rein is fitted very loosely and he knows perfectly well how to relieve the pressure.

The next time I will leave the rein the same length as the first time, and yet the horse will put considerably less pressure on the rein. This release of pressure continues to a certain point until, no matter where the rein is adjusted, the horse will seek that level of pressure.

The interesting thing is that, when done correctly, this release of pressure goes only so far and no further.

What I have not seen is a horse who seeks to relieve the pressure completely and make the rein slack. Whether it is adjusted loosely or shortened for a more advanced frame (after progressive conditioning, of course,) the horses all seem to seek a basic equilibrium with the rein where there is a particular level of contact specific to that individual horse. It is always a light pressure, but it is a pressure nonetheless. And it is the horse who seeks it. Even when the horse has been physically conditioned to go easily in a more advanced carriage, when the rein is lengthened, he will adjust his positioning accordingly in order to maintain a certain amount of pressure.

It is this pressure, I would argue, that is the essence of being “on the bit.” To be truly “on the bit,” the horse seeks the gentle, reliable, predictable guidance of the rein through the bit.

In other words, no matter where the hand goes, the horse will follow and seek a soft contact with it when truly “on the bit.”

Unless, of course, the rider abuses this connection and increases the pressure without release; then the horse will begin to resist, setting in motion a vicious cycle of increased pressure and increased resistance. This is the reason for the existence of strong bits and abusive methods like rollkur – it is a failure on the part of the rider to find and maintain that equilibrium.

When one goes in search of definitions for the term “on the bit,” one encounters vague descriptions of a position of the head and neck, or talk of “putting” a horse on the bit through aggressive rein and leg aids, all of which are either a misunderstanding of this fact or a nice way to cover up this failure of the rider.

Such definitions and methods make “on the bit” about externals rather than what it truly is: the unspoken contract between horse and rider about fairness and respect from the rider and trust and willingness from the horse. To be truly “on the bit,” horse and rider must meet each other halfway.

When the horse has placed himself “on the bit” he has signaled to the rider that he is open for communication, and light contact from both parties means the communication is two-way. The contact between the hand and mouth is like the string stretched between two cups to make a crude telephone line, with the reins being the string. The string must not be completely slack, but too much pressure will cause that line of communication to break. It is up to the rider not only to issue requests over this line, but to receive feedback from the horse along them as well.

Rather than the rider demanding the horse both yield to pressure while paradoxically accepting a strong contact, the rider offers a gentle contact and the horse, once he knows he can trust the consistency and fairness of the hand, will seek that gentle contact wherever the hand may lead, and allow the hand to shape his entire carriage and movement (the action of the rein through the body) with that same light feel. This, to me, is what it means to be “on the bit.”

21 comments:

  1. To me it means there's a live, very soft connection - a conversation - between rider and horse where the bit is a communication device, with no leaning or pulling by either party.

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  2. Very insightful post. So many riders and trainers have absolutely no clue as to what truly being "on the bit" means. Or more disturbing, how to attain that connection with the horse. This post makes it very easy to understand the real meaning of "on the bit" and shows how it can be achieved.

    Dusty and I have been working on rein aids and the give and take. The hardest part for me is keeping the slack out of my reins while following her mouth. By trying to be gentle I'm too gentle, she needs the light contact and goes much better when she feels a supporting following hand. She has occasionally gone "on the bit" of her own accord and is beginning to work through her topline,but it doesn't last for long, then again she's still learning.

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  3. hi kate - well said! that's a perfect summary of my post :-)

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  4. ghm - thanks! developing a good hand (and a good mouth at the other end) takes time and patience. it generally happens in baby steps as horse and rider get a feel for one another. and i always think it's better to err on the side of too little contact than too much! :-)

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  5. Very interesting. Like GHM, I tend to give out slack to reward my horse, but that is wrong, because I lose the connection. But when the horse seeks the contact without pulling, it's a great feeling.

    I wonder how this applies to western riding, with reins hanging? Or do we not speak of horses being on the bit with western riding? I really don't know.

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  6. hi lytha,

    i admit that's my tendency too - i'd much rather be too soft than too harsh and let my contact get away from me at times! but it is such a great feeling when you let the rein out and the horse reaches forward to find the contact again :-)

    that's a really good question about western riding and i hope someone with more western experience than me weighs in on it. i don't know much about western but i have never heard any mention of 'on the bit'. loose rein riding with a curb is a whole different story so i'm not sure how it would work without contact and feel of the horse's mouth. when we used a curb it is usually paired with a snaffle/bradoon or some hybrid like a pelham where you still have snaffle action.

    i think i posted a little bit about that a long time ago. if you're interested (but i warn you my posts tend to be wordy and ramble on forever, kind of like this comment ;-) you can look under 'loose rein' in my tags or try this:

    http://glenshee.blogspot.com/search/label/loose%20rein

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  7. I am struggling to learn to ride dressage. I have an Off-track Thoroughbred that raced several times and won a little. He was retrained before I got him. My first dressage teacher used the term "drive" meaning apply pressure with the legs. Her expression was, "drive him with your legs into a soft and receiving hand." Too many riders "drive" into a hand that traps, giving the horse nowhere to go.

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  8. I wrote a comment that got so incredibly long I felt it was better to post it on my blog - didn't want to make your comment strong a mile long!

    Love the stimulation to think on this today - Keil Bay had 3 days on and his day off yesterday, so it's back to the saddle I go later this afternoon and I am going to take all this into the arena with me.

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  9. Very nice post, and very timely... My new guy was very much "driven into the hand" before I got him and as a result he was ring-sour and backsore. He is now learning to do it my way and his attitude is already much improved!

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  10. It has been my understanding too, that the horse will seek and reach for a soft, yielding, elastic contact. By the same token, they need something to reach to.

    What I am working on at the moment (and probably will be forever) is keeping the elastic contact even, but not giving it away, which is just as bad as being rigid I think, because then my horse may anticipate being hit in the mouth... will the return of the contact be too sudden!? If the contact is consistent, he learns that in reaching for it he is safe. Quite a responsibility...

    And as my trainer is always telling me... "if he ain't reachin', you ain't drivin" lol. Thanks for this post :)

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  11. My mistake is always giving too much rein as a reward for softness, then I need to pull it in to get any contact. I must work on that. I love the feeling of the connection between my hands and the light contact on the horse's mouth. It reminds me of the Avatar movie and their plug in tentacles.

    I believe that with a well trained fully bitted western Arabian horse there is a lot of weight on the silver curb bit and silver romal reins so that there is continuous light contact through the reins to the mouth even with the "loose" reins appearance. This is a similar style of riding to the old Spanish Conquistadors and their high port spade bits. The bits were intended to lay in the mouth and not really be used much except for guidance. Otherwise you'd tear the poor horses mouth up.

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  12. I agree the feeling of a horse seeking light contact is an awesome one.

    I have been thinking a lot about bits lately and whether you really need one at all for dressage, so I would love to know what you think the function of having a horse "on the bit" as you described is? Knowing the function is just as important as knowing the mechanisms behind it. I loved your post!

    as an aside:
    I was taught to use side reins as a young rider though I agree they are just a devise that will most likely teach a horse to avoid contact not seek it. I have used side reins on my current horse and he has never been a horse to go behind the bit because of it luckily. It could be the type of horse he is so anecdotal. Also I use side reins on a very loose setting where he would have to stretch down himself to feel them and I do not attach them to the bit.

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  13. To be on the bit can even happen when riding a horse bitless I've been told and it's magic when it happens because you know there is a direct and accepting line of communication going on between rider and equine.
    Excellent article!

    I had to go do some more research because I had never heard of the chambon/de gogue and wanted to learn more. I discovered a wonderful blog with lots of helpful diagrams and photos showing all the artificial aids used to 'create a softer horse' that will be 'on the bit'. It's amazing to me how people will fall back on using heavier and more severe 'tools' to forcea horse into softness and obedience, when they seem to forget that patience, understanding and time are the most important tools in training a horse.

    Anyway, here is a link to that article if you're interested, like I was.

    http://hingelineekshibitsionism.blogspot.com/2009/09/triggering-hollowing-reflex.html

    ~Lisa

    ps I trotted over here from Kate's blog. (A Year with Horses)

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  14. thanks for all the great comments! i've got to run out to do some stuff in the barn, but i'll get back to you all later :-)

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  15. Hi TBDancer - i couldn't agree more. of course the legs should be there to create impulsion, but too often hand and rein are in opposition to one another or working at cross purposes, causing the horse to become frustrated, tense or behind the aids. and i can't imagine trying to ride a TB like that! "a soft and receiving hand" is a perfect goal :-)

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  16. billie - yay! can't wait to read it :-)

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  17. hi 'now that's a trot' - thanks! i know exactly what you mean. the horse grady i've recently taken on is one of those horses ridden into a fixed hand and forced into a frame. the road to recovery has been long but he's finally beginning to understand he can be soft and stretch without fear of a restrictive hand.

    so glad your horse found you and is improving so well! good luck with him :-)

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  18. hi valentino - oh, i have the same problem, if you can call it that. i think sometimes i release it too often as a reward, and then i have to be really careful about how i reestablish contact. it is a big responsibility :-\ but being too soft is definitely the lesser of two evils and i think it's great you're so sensitive to your horse's needs and the effect your hands have on him. :-)

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  19. hi fantastyk voyager - i love the avatar image! will have to picture that on my next ride :-)

    that's really interesting about the western/spanish curbs. i have always thought the weight of the rein did influence the effect of the curb without needing actual pressure, but it makes sense that with the right gear you'd never need any pressure. very cool!

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  20. hi golden the pony girl - i know it's kind of an oxymoron, but i don't think the bit itself is necessary for a horse to be 'on the bit' in the general sense. i have a bitless bridle for my horse nate (and sometimes just ride him in a halter) and he will behave the very same way as he would 'on the bit' with an actual bit in his mouth.

    for me, 'on the bit' is more of a shorthand for a state or connection between the horse and rider via the hand and whatever happens to be at the other end of the reins, bit or otherwise...

    as far as function, i think the reason many still prefer the bit (not including those who use it just for control and dominance) is that, because it interacts with such a sensitive and mobile part of the horse's head (vs the nose, etc.) that the feedback about the horse's state of mind, etc. to the rider along the rein is much more detailed.

    but not every horse and rider needs all that detail, and some do better without it. when i am riding into a situation where i know nate is going to be tense or spooky, i opt for the bitless instead of the bit so i don't accidentally add to his tension with too strong bit pressure, and in a way that gives me more control than a bit might and helps him relax into my hand easier.

    i'm not sure that answered your question, but i hope that made some sense ;-)

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  21. Hi LOR - thanks! it's absolutely true that you can be 'on the bit' in a bitless and it is a great feeling. i also think it's a great way to test whether your horse is truly connected or just 'faking' because of bit pressure or accidental force :-)

    thanks for the link! that's an interesting and detailed site with some good information. i agree with the criticisms about the other 'training aids' but i wasn't sure if the post was for or against the chambon? i happen to love it for the reason that it does not impede the horse's relaxation, stretching and natural movement in any way, and it rewards the horse when he adopts a correct, balanced posture without force. it's not designed to 'lower the head' as many think, but to encourage the horse to release the bracing, inverting muscles on the underside of his neck which then release the back and allow him to work his topline freely and correctly. it also allows and encourages a full range of motion in the shoulders and hindquarters, all without force - all of this happens as a result of the pressure releasing!

    of course, with time and patience this can be done from the horse's back without the chambon, but i find this is a great tool to use before the horse is started and for groundwork between u/s work... but it takes some practice and a good eye to know how to adjust it and work the horse in it correctly, so it's not for every situation. i've just had really good results with it for my horses :-)

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