"On the Bit" - Getting Started

·      Flexing
·      Loosening
·      Lengthening

In this fist phase, the main priority will be to release any tension in the jaw, neck and poll, and thereby relax the topline, which will encourage the horse to naturally adopt a long and low frame on his own as opposed to an inverted and braced one.

To accomplish this, one uses a single, simple rein aid: the “Direct (Leading) Rein.” The basic theory behind using the leading rein to get the horse stretching and relaxed in his topline is based on a technique advocated by Boucher.  He understood that, in order to raise the head and invert the topline, the horse has to brace the muscles on both sides of the neck as a pair.  Bringing the head to one side with a gentle leading rein (he employed a lifting hand for this) disengages those paired, braced muscles and allows the head to lower, which in turn allows the rest of the topline to begin to relax. Only then can the muscles that lift and carry the topline can begin to engage, which is why this must be your first step.
So this is where you will want to start when schooling a green horse, relaxing a stiff or inverted horse, rehabilitating a “difficult” horse, or simply teaching a horse to accept contact and to carry himself in a low frame: with this simple—yet essential—leading rein. Because this is done without force or submission, it helps to establish a trust and working relationship between horse and rider, and develops a positive association with the aids.
“Long and low” means a lot of different things to different people.  I define it, not as a horse with his head between his knees (stretching,) but one who is relaxed and round (not inverted) in his topline while maintaining a “long” frame, i.e., there is no collection.  Typically, in this frame the horse’s nose does not drop much below his elbow at the lowest point, and there is no loss of balance, rhythm or impulsion.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s counterproductive to begin with a horse in a high, round carriage and then work on gradually lowering the frame to get “long and low.” Sure, long and low is a great reward after an intense training session, but if your horse isn’t already capable of a high, round carriage, is long and low somehow also out of your grasp then? I think not. It is the starting and ending place for every relaxed training session, and green and seasoned horses alike will benefit from it.
Begin with the long, low, relaxed frame offered naturally by the horse once this loosening work begins, and build up very gradually to greater collection and weight-bearing by the hind end, which will eventually raise the frame.  This longer, lower frame becomes “home base,” and you will want to go to it at the beginning and end of rides, between more advanced exercises, and anytime something isn’t going to plan as a kind of relax-and-reset button.
So it’s well worth it to take the time developing the horse’s comfort with this way of going early on. Most horses enjoy it and take it as a reward.

              Begin at the halt. With hands light on the reins, take the inside hand to the side out away from the neck, lifting the bit into the corner of the horse’s mouth (this will work also in a bitless bridle, cavesson or halter as well.) Give with the outside hand to allow the head and neck to bend.
              The horse will bend in front of the wither only. Do not try to “create” lateral bend in the body with legs or by any other means.
              As the horse flexes his neck to the inside, the bracing muscles relax, and the horse will tend to lower his head, even if only a little. Bend the horse only as much as is necessary to achieve this response.
              It is important to release the rein aid as soon as the horse responds and reward him.

Once that has been practiced and established at the halt, try it at the walk.  It may be easiest to start on large circles.  It’s important to remember that the “Direct (Leading) Rein” aid has the effect of pulling the horse a little onto his inside shoulder; so this aid, when used alone, can cause the horse to gradually spiral in.  This is nothing to worry about at this phase, and it’s not necessary or wise to confuse the horse with corrective rein aids or opposing leg aids.
A brief bit of inside leg just as you ask for the inside neck flexion, however, can be a good support during the exercise, but 90% of the aid should come from the hand. 

Direction changes can help work both sides of the neck/flexion and avoid complicating the issue of staying out on the circle if you find the horse falling in too much.
When riding on straight lines, keep the contact even until you want to relax the topline or lower/lengthen the outline—then flex the head and neck inward briefly until the horse responds; release; and continue riding as before.  Now you will begin to use the leading rein flexion only as a means to an end or a correction, not a sustained position.  This is also how this aid will be applied as the training advances; a subtler version of this exercise will serve you throughout your horse’s future training.
Once established at the walk, try at an easy trot, and so on. Remember that the tendency of this rein is to weight the inside shoulder, so avoid too much speed and abrupt turns. Keep an easy, natural pace, do not push your horse, and keep to wide, gentle, turns and you should be fine.
Also, at this early stage, don’t think about the horse being round from nose to tail.  This is initially just about correcting inversion and teaching the horse to relax, lower and lengthen the frame with basic lateral flexion in front of the wither.  Let his nose poke out and let him be crooked if he wants. This is about loosening and lengthening the horse from top to bottom, and developing trust in the aids. As I said before, from there the rest is built, moving on to true lateral flexion in the body and then various degrees of longitudinal flexion (roundness, collection.)  But this is where it all begins.

A nice introduction to this kind of work, or a good complement to it, is work on the longe or in long lines.  A subtle version of this lateral flexion of the neck can be done with just an ordinary halter/cavesson and longe line, simply asking for a brief inward flexion of the neck every few strides, keeping the pace forward to prevent the horse falling in on the circle. This has the effect of loosening and lengthening the frame and stride without the use of other tack.
One of my favorite ways to help the horse learn the long, low position is in the chambon.  Used properly, this is one of the mildest, clearest and most humane tools of training.  It is the only auxiliary or training rein I use; though they are considered “classical” I never use side reins, but I love the chambon and the horses seem to appreciate it, too.
If using long reins, have the inside long rein run from the hand, through the cavesson/bit, to the surcingle—this creates a “Direct (Leading) Rein” effect.  This is different than the more common attachment, which runs from the hand, through the surcingle, to the cavesson/bit, giving a “Direct Rein of Opposition,” which is incompatible with both the long frame and any kind of inside flexion. I understand this is traditional, but not all traditions (few, in fact), when subjected to critical thinking and scientific reason, deserve their place in an enlightened and humane world; this is one more that fails the test. Attachment of the outside rein should pass from the hand, through the surcingle, to the cavesson/bit.  This rein will give a “direct rein of opposition” aid, so keep it soft and use it very sparingly (or not at all), being sure to give generously when bending with the inside rein.


  1. Nice explanation - thanks! I use a lot of direct opening rein when I'm looking for long and low and relaxation - relaxation is critical to softening work, I think. And in the early stages, I use no outside rein, or very little - there is some bulging and lack of correct bend, but as you point out, at this stage that's not important. I also think that giving the horse time to redevelop correct musculature, instead of the muscles used for inversion and bracing, is very important before asking for much more in the way of collection.

    Do go on with your next steps in this - it's very useful, I think as you explain so well.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. My horse and I both were new to dressage a year ago and the trainer I was under started us immediately on the "dressage frame". Not knowing any better at the time I have since learned more left that trainer(long ago) and now want better for me and my horse but still don't know all the right ways to get it. He is doing well in what we have worked on but we need to do the 'long and low' work. Which is what I now wish we could have started with but I now feel like we are kind of having to work backwards but he is so smart and willing I know we can do it. We just need to know how. I will defintely be trying to add these exercises into our routine.

  3. hi kate,
    thanks! i'm glad it made sense. and i totally agree about the loose outside rein and allowing the bulge, as well as taking the time to (re)develop the horse before asking for the more advanced stuff - it's one of the reasons i love working the horses lightly in the chambon a few times a week in addition to this kind of work u/s :-)

  4. hi amy,
    i think we've all been there with the 'dressage frame' trainer, but you live and learn. it's great your looking for alternatives! and i think i'm in a similar position to you now with my 'new' horse grady - he came from a show barn where he was ridden in the forced-frame, rollkur-type dressage school until he had a meltdown and refused to work anymore, so i've been working backwards with him to establish this kind of relaxed foundation work. he already knows the advanced stuff, he's just tense and hollow when he does it, so i've started back at the beginning with this and the change in him has been dramatic. and he seems much happier.... so i hope if you try this it works for you and your guy too :-) good luck!

  5. I loved reading your post. First because it's well written and clearly explained but even more so because it reaffirms for me that my coach has us on the right track. Many people find her (our) approach slow. And it is, relatively speaking. But what we end up with is a better quality by far, in all respects.

    I, too, would like to see you continue along this theme.

  6. hi ruckusbutt (awesome id! :-)
    thanks, i'm glad you enjoyed it. it's so great to hear you and your trainer work this way too - trainers like yours are far too rare, as are thoughtful riders like yourself! i hope it continues to work out well for you.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'm going to try this out today- starting at the halt.

  8. hi smazourek,
    great! let us know how it goes :-)

  9. Great informative post. I can attest to the fact that this absolutely works. When we started training Dusty we used these exact methods and working very slowly with her she is not running around like a giraffe anymore.

    Everything takes time but it was worth the wait to have a horse that carries herself properly. Thanks again for a great training aid.

  10. ghm - yeah, this made the most dramatic difference for dusty of probably any horse i've seen! and of course she'd let us know if she didn't appreciate any of it, so i guess you could say this technique comes with the dusty seal of approval ;-)

  11. We worked on it yesterday at the halt, it took a little while- maybe 10-15 bends to each side- but he did start to drop with the stretch. Not a lot, but enough that it seemed he was getting the idea. I didn't get to ride him tonight but I'm hoping to get on tomorrow and see if he remembers it so we can build on it.

  12. sounds good :-) sometimes it makes more sense to them at the walk than the halt. i usually just walk a big 20m circle using just the leading inside rein and maybe a mild reinforcement with inside leg.... thanks for the update - good luck :-)

  13. I wrote my typical long response that then disappeared - so in a nutshell - this is what we did with Cody when he came to us - he carried himself in a very WP frame and when invited to move up and out he would invert - he got so anxious b/c he had been trained to do the extreme low head/shuffle.

    This technique worked wonders and he became very responsive to it.

    With Cody we had to bring him up, then teach him to go long and low properly.

    I have to add that with Keil Bay "stretch down please" said out loud gets the very best long and low ever. :)

  14. billie - that's where i've found it has the most dramatic effect - with horses already trained in another frame or anxious about the contact... it's great for 'do-overs.'

    like cody, with blue we had to bring him up first, then teach him to relax and round. with grady, who was so used to curling under, if i tried this, he'd get confused, freak out and curl more; the poor guy must have felt like he was doing something wrong after that other frame had been beaten into him for so many years :-\ so i had to let him go completely on a loose rein, let him invert, and then add this very gradually. he's like a different horse now, but it did feel like we were working backwards...

    i love that keil bay needs nothing more than a polite suggestion to get perfectly long and low :-)

  15. Keil is one of those horses that just wants to be asked nicely, in actual human language. If you do a bunch of aids he will comply but usually does the false bend kind of thing that looks sort of right but if you know what you're looking at you know it's false.

    I do not know why he is like this - for all I know he does it to be helpful to ME! 'Just sit up there and say what you want and let me do it - stop with all the rein and leg and seat aids which you are getting all mixed up anyway...' LOL.

    So happy you are doing this series. Can't wait for the next part!

  16. he sounds like a very cool guy :-) reminds me of my horse lifeguard. he was the telepathic horse - if you used your aids to ask, he'd get annoyed or insulted or something, but if you just thought about or pictured what you wanted, he'd magically do it... and perfectly!

    and, thanks! i'm so out of sync with blogging lately, i'll have to really get my act together to finish this 'series.' :-\

  17. Lifeguard does sound like the Big Bay. He does that telepathic thing too, esp. when I get very tuned in and balanced - then he goes into power mode which feels like total impulsion/schwung w/ the power and lightness combined so you almost don't even know you/he are moving. It's like floating with some oomph behind it.

    I almost never do actual half halts - I was taught to think them and that's what works with both Keil and Cody (and did with Salina).

    I meant to say that I am always intrigued when you talk about using the chambon. I just don't trust my ability to do it correctly. Wish there were a clinic focusing on in hand work and using this as a tool. (hint hint) :)

  18. billie - see, now i know what to write for my next post. thanks! ;-) might not be as good as an actual clinic, but maybe i'll do something about using the chambon... i'd like to get some of my guys out this weekend, so i might even be able to get some pics to go with it.

    and i'm right there with you - when you have a tuned-in horse, thinking the half halts works better than any aid you could ever give. i don't know if they just pick up on subtle, unconscious movements we make, or if they really can read our minds, but hey, whatever works!

  19. I can't believe that I just now found your blog! This is terrific information! I've moved myself and my horses to a new state (after I got married) and am trying to keep up with the retraining of my retired racehorse. He can get so stiff in his jaw and neck! I've looked at several of your posts (thanks to Smazourek) and it has helped my understanding a ton.

    Right now, we've begun working with James Houston who comes into town once a month. The inbetween time I've got to do things on my own where I pray I don't screw things up. LOL! But I want to be able to figure things out and work them out on my own as this will make me a much better horseman - which is, afterall, my goal.

    At any rate, thanks so much for your great explanations and I plan on applying these ideas when I work my gray wonder.

  20. hi wendy - thanks, and welcome :-) believe me, i know how nerve-wracking working on your own can be at times, but it can be so rewarding as well, as i'm sure you know. good luck! hope the info here helps :-) let us know how it goes, and if you have any questions or topics you'd like to see discussed more, let us know that too!

  21. When I rode today, even my trainer could see a HUGE difference in my riding. So it's not just my imagination. I rode my hot, stiff, little QH mare, she was begging me to let her head down. Amazing results, and extremely easy to understand the theory and the how to part. Please, please, please continue with the theme.

    1. Mindy - hi! and thanks for your comment. i haven't posted anything in so long here, but your comment has been a great reminder for me that i did want to finish this theme. it so nice to know that it has been appreciated. i have been busy but will get to work on something as soon as i can. good luck with your mare and please keep us posted :-)


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