"On the Bit" - Getting Started
“ON THE BIT”—FIRST PHASE: LONG AND LOW
FIRST STEPS: LOOSENING
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.
WHAT DOES THIS ACCOMPLISH?
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.
HOW IS THIS ACCOMPLISHED:
• 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.