Tag Archives: On the bit

Make Contact, BUT Make It Useful

Developing a clear, non-verbal language with your horse means making a connection and this is where your dressage journey begins.  Without a useful  contact, as a dressage rider you will be unable to communicate with your horse; you will be unable to ‘engage in any type of conversation’ or convey any message effectively.  It’s a really widespread problem.

Establishing the contact, maintaining a contact, making a connection, being above the bit, getting behind the bit, head tilting, head wobbling/shaking, strong contact, soft contact; there are a myriad of issues, so for those of you that need help let’s explore a little further.

What Do I Mean by Useful Contact?

Continue reading Make Contact, BUT Make It Useful

Consistent Contact

How many of you have had the comment “needs a more consistent contact” from the judges?

The dictionary definition of connect is to join, link or fasten together, to unite or to establish a sympathetic harmonious relationship.  In these days of social media we think of connecting as adding friends, or linking profiles, networking, whichever way you look at it making a connection with someone or something is about you putting in some effort so that you can come together.  When that something is a horse and you are thinking about Dressage riding, developing a clear, non-verbal language with your horse means making a connection and is where your dressage journey begins.

Those of you who subscribe to the blog know that one of the first questions I ask you is “What are you struggling with?”  The most frequent answer to this question is something that is absolutely fundamental to the success of your Dressage journey and that is ‘Contact’.  Without a useful and consistent contact you will be unable to communicate with your horse; you will be unable to ‘engage in any type of conversation’ or convey any message effectively.  It’s a really widespread problem.

consistent contact

Establishing the contact, maintaining the contact, making a connection, being above the bit, getting behind the bit, head tilting, head wobbling/shaking, strong contact, soft contact; there are a myriad of issues, so for those of you that need help let’s explore a little further and see if we can get you on track.

Continue reading Consistent Contact


In dressage we want the horse to go ‘on the bit’; to actually seek a contact and accept varying levels of pressure on the bars of the mouth, the tongue and lips, the poll and from this pressure (combined with other pressures and release signals or ‘aids’) we require a specific response in the body of the horse.

  • Dressage Newbie: What?
  • More experienced friend: Well it means you need to have your horse on the bit, seeking a contact and through use of coordinated aids you should get the correct response.
  • Newbie: I’m sorry, in English?
  • Friend: For your horse to be on the bit he needs to accept it and actively seek it forward and if you apply the correct aids, this will happen.
  • Newbie: Errrr, ok but how?
  • Friend: Well, like I said, get him to seek the bit by applying pressure and release of your co-ordinated aids.
  • Newbie: Zzzzzz! Fancy hacking today?

I know this feeling, techie talk, bores me rigid!  This type of talk raises more and more questions which in my experience never get properly answered.  But I do understand that there are occasions when you need to get a little technical to make a point.  Firstly there is the phenomenon that is ‘on the bit’.  What on earth does this actually mean?  Take a quick look at my article ‘6 common on the bit myths’ to help you with that one.

Then there’s ‘seek a contact’

seek a contactAnother dressage phrase that is utilised a great deal and ranks right up there in the ‘rider confuser’ stakes with ‘working through’ and ‘straight on a circle’.  Essentially, misunderstood and the essence of which is rarely explained to riders.  Try to forget the science, you simply cannot and will not be able to understand this until you feel it.  On this basis the very best thing you can do is go and experiment on your horse.  Nevertheless, here I go with my understanding of ‘seeking the contact’ and how to achieve it, in crystal system fashion.

Stretching forward, out and down to seek a contact

There are a number of key elements to ensuring that you are positioning your horse to ‘seek the bit’.  The primary focus needs to be on forwardness, rhythm and relaxation, not forgetting of course a secure and useable contact.  It is through this work that you begin to teach your horse to ‘seek the bit’.


You need to create energy that can be recycled through the contact back to the hind legs so it must be the energy creation that comes first (leg before rein).  Without the forward thrust your horse will arch his neck and make a shape as a result of your hand actions but he won’t be able work in a true outline, he will be offering you a false outline and he will develop a ‘hollow’ way of going.  So, first and foremost check that your horse is happily going forward without constant reminders from your leg.

Rhythm & Relaxation

Rhythm and relaxation go hand-in-hand because it is nearly impossible to have rhythm without relaxation.

Rhythm contributes significantly to work at the upper levels.  No exercise or movement can be considered good if the rhythm falters and to gain relaxation you have to consider your horse’s mental state; calmness, without anxiety or nervousness and his physical state; the absence of muscular tension (other than the contraction needed for optimal posture).  Relaxation of the horse’s emotional and physical state also go hand in hand, you simply can’t have one without the other.

Another essential element in ensuring that your horse remains relaxed is his current level of strength and his range and fluency of movement. Too much too soon will result in muscle and emotional tension.  Your training should be designed to gradually strengthen the horse to be able to do the movements you ask of him because later in the training he will require great physical strength.


Getting the idea of your horse ‘accepting the bit’ in the dressage sense, starts with the ‘long and low’ work where the young (or horse in re-training) learns the balance and rhythm required with the rider on his back.  It’s all about the level of contact you apply.   To initiate contact with your horse, you must shorten the reins (no pulling).  You should aim to achieve a ‘useful rein length’ that allows a secure feel of the bit in the horse’s mouth.  So, when you pick up the reins you need to give a number of aids to help your horse become round.  He can be relatively long and low, but he should always be round when working.

Long and Low

Begin by adjusting your seat. Place the legs in the correct position, and align your pelvis, shoulders and seat-bones.  Never throw the reins away, instead ask your horse to ‘take’ the reins forward and down gently.


Photo Credit : Equestrian How 2 

Clearly, he will not be able to do this if the reins are too long to begin with.  Contact must come first, then the stretch.  When you can see a ‘bulge’ in the middle of both sides of the horse’s neck, with the neck arched on a long rein and the head ideally lower than the wither then you know you’ve produced the correct result.

It is the head and neck that are low.  It is the back that rises up to meet your seat and it is the haunches that are lowered and stepping under the horse’s body.  As your horse’s strength and top line improve, so will his ability to reach down, out and forward.  To ask for the stretch, ride a 20m circle, ask the horse forward and vibrate the outside rein.  Ensure you have a contact with the horse’s mouth, if he softens, as he should, then allow the reins through your fingers, very, very slightly.  This is how you build the stretch, this is how you know that he is reaching out to the contact; this is the ‘seeking of the bit’ that you are looking for.

As indicated earlier in this article the seeking of the bit goes hand in hand with the forwardness.  It is the feeling that everything is moving forward, so no backwards thinking, no stalling, no slowing, no dropping behind the bit.  Once you have achieved this, you can try letting your horse out a little more rein each time.

Throughout this process you need to be able to feel the horse’s mouth in contact with the bit.  If your contact feels ‘light as a feather’ you do not have a contact, or worse you have an ‘on/off’ contact.  It is only in the trained horse that you are able to achieve such lightness.  If you relax your seat and gently give from the elbow (don’t throw the reins away) the horse should follow the rein down and stretch everything out. This will give you the lovely swinging back you are looking for.  The exercise can be done in all 3 paces. So, your horse will learn that his comfort spot is ‘on the bit’, that it is a place of comfort and communication. Consider two people holding hands, no pressure, merely a shared connection.

If the horse does not seek the bit to find the comfort spot or you do not allow the horse to find the comfort spot (which is more often the case) you will find that either

  • the horse will get stuck in front – too much contact
  • he will crash onto the forehand – not enough forward impulsion / contact
  • he will show resistance or worse, disobedience such as rearing or bolting – no comfort offered

Looking for a contactMany riders don’t manage to achieve a good concept of true roundness for a large proportion of their riding careers and it always amuses me how many riders believe that because their reins are long and loopy that they’re being soft and gentle on the mouth.  When I see loopy reins at lower level riding, I generally see a horse with some level of discomfort.  Yes, we see the classical masters working in harmony with their horses with loopy reins, in collection but 90% of you are not at this level, you have not trained the horse for many, many years with patience, understanding and dedication, so you should admire these people for their mastery of the art of dressage, but you should also understand that in the beginning they too had to shorten the reins whilst keeping their hands soft; a far more gentle and sensitive way to progress than loopy reins with an on/off contact.

The horse will only seek contact with the bit when using his hind quarters effectively with a rounded back.  In your horse’s education, now is where you start to take a contact and teach him to round up and encourage him to stretch and work in the longer frame.  This is where he begins to ‘seek’ the bit.

 Patricia – The Dressage Tipster




Those of you who have subscribed to this blog know that one of the first questions I ask you is “What are you struggling with?”  The most frequent answer to this question is something that is absolutely fundamental to the success of your Dressage journey and that is ‘Contact’.

So, having already written a number of posts on the subject I thought I would attempt to help you to dispel those myths that are hindering you in your progress towards understanding the real meaning of what it is to have a contact and as such engage in ‘conversation’ with your horse.

myth#1 – I can put my horse on the bit

Unfortunately, on the bit is a much used and abused term.  The phrase is somewhat misunderstood and many riders are confused as to the correct meaning.

On the bit

A better terminology is ‘on the aids’, because what we are describing is a horse that is listening, willingly going forward, using the energy being created from your forward thrusting aid from the hind quarters; submitting to these aids and comfortable in the mouth and as such is accepting of the bit.

The rider does not put the horse on the bit.  The horse is said to be on the bit – a term that so inadequately describes what you are really putting your effort into training towards – when he seeks and accepts the contact with the bit as offered by you, the rider.

myth#2 – My horse should feel light in the hand when he’s ‘on the bit’

Riders often mistakenly look for lightness at the beginning of their training.  Whilst it is, strictly speaking, very true that we are looking for lightness unfortunately, not all lightness is good, there is such a thing as ‘false’ lightness.

At the training levels, what I have described as ‘false’ lightness should actually be described as a ‘lack of connection’. At the beginning of your training you must ensure that you can feel some weight in your hands, you need to be able to feel the connection of the hind legs.  Think about it … You can have total lightness if you ride around with loops in the reins. But there’s no connection from back to front.

Only really when you start collection does true lightness begin. International Dressage Rider from the USA, Jane Savoie said … “Your horse has to be correctly heavy above before he can be correctly light or in other words your horse has to be connected before he can be collected”.

So how do you know if you have made the connection?

  • You will really feel like you and your horse are one unit.
  • He will be ‘in front of the leg’ (so will not need continual reminders from you to keep going).
  • His back will be up and swinging.
  • You will feel the power as the horse takes you forward, carrying weight on his hindquarters.
  • You will feel like you can work your horse through transitions, smoothly and promptly.
  • There will be no resistance in the mouth and the horse’s entire body
  •  will be submissive.
  • The head will be steady without pulling or leaning.
  • The mouth will be moist and frothy.How many of you are allowing the energy your horse is creating to seep out of the ‘front door’ by giving too much with your hand and body?

myth#3 – My hands are the most important aid when it comes to rein contact

No – your legs and seat are the most important aids when it comes to rein contact.

Your horse must be forward, we all know this, yes?  So it follows that if you only use your hands when trying to make a connection you are simply getting the head down and creating an artificial head-set and this is because you are riding from ‘front to back’ – see “a back to front problem”

Your focus should NOT be on the front end of the horse but it should be on ensuring that he is forward thinking and ‘hot off the leg’.

DrivingYou should always use your driving aids before you use your reins, you are looking to capture the energy of the forward thrust and recycle that power back to the hind legs.  If you use your hands before your horse is moving forward you have nothing to work with.  If your horse is slow to react or reacts half-heartedly to your legs, you need to work hard to get him to give you the right reaction to your subtle aids.  A horse can feel a fly on his side so it’s logical that he can feel a light aid.  So it is the connecting leg aids that you need to work on and they need to be light.

The point is to get a clearly forward, clean off the leg answer to your requests.  Your only goal when you start this process is to get some kind of enthusiastic answer that shows your horse is paying attention to you.

Only then can you give the rein aids to begin recycling the created energy.

myth #4 – When we talk of outline we are referring to the shape made by the head and neck of the horse


Physically, outline is a round silhouette that occurs when you ride your horse from behind, over his back, through his neck, and into your hands.  And at that point the energy can be recycled back to the hind legs.

So a ‘round outline’ is the frame that is seen from hocks to nose.  It is the flexion of the hind limbs that has a direct effect upon the horse’s ability to flex his jaw and lower his nose.  It is the stepping further forward with the hind legs and thus the transference of weight from the forehand to the quarters that ‘lightens’ the forehand.

It is worth noting that the novice or untrained horse (whatever the age) needs time to develop strength and flexibility to execute the desired ‘roundness’.

myth#5 – My hands should be ‘still’

This is what is known as a paradox (a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true!).  Quiet or still hands are something every rider aspires to.  However, it is impossible to attain without a good, independent seat. The problem is that riders often worry that their hands are not steady enough so they stiffen their arms an effort to keep their hands still. For a horse to have complete acceptance of the bit he must have total trust and be relaxed with the rider’s hands (via the reins) in the mouth.

So, what does ‘still hands’ really mean?  Still hands start at the shoulders.  The shoulders should be ‘back and down’.  Elbows should rest against the torso.  Now is the time for you to make a conscious recognition that your horse is moving!  Therefore, if you are in harmony with your horse, you will be moving too.

The horse moves his head forward and back in walk.  In trot the head and neck move up and down and in canter the head moves up and down as well as forward and back.  In all of these paces it is best if the rider ‘allows’ this movement with the hands.  It takes time and practice to synchronise one’s hands to the movement of the horse, but once mastered it is a technique which becomes second nature.

All parts of your body that are in contact with your horse should move. So if your seat and hands are not flexible, supple, and mobile enough to move with your horse, his movement will have to leak out some place.  Usually the movement comes out in your extremities, resulting in unsteady hands or nodding head or rocking body at every stride. Any of that type of motion usually indicates that your lower back is stiff or your hips are not loose and following enough to absorb the movement.  So rather than forcing yourself to keep your hands steady, focus on absorbing the movement through your seat and hips. The more your seat and hips absorb the movement of your horse, the less your extremities will bounce.

The paradox is that for your hands to be still you need to employ a ‘following’ hand, which essentially is a hand that moves.  But it is not the hand that moves it is the elbows, which should open and close in the same rhythm and to the same degree as the hips in order for the rider’s hand to follow the horse’s motion and remain steady. If you use your hands to keep your balance you are essentially tightening your elbow joints.  Tension here makes it impossible for you to follow your horse’s motion correctly.

Your first port of call when trying to correct your hands is your seat!

myth#6 – My horse should be in ‘self carriage’

Just a small point here … Yes, ultimately, the horse should be able to move in self-carriage with minimal touch from the rider’s hands, however, this takes a long time to achieve.  Don’t beat yourself up about it whilst you are on the journey to Dressage success.  Those of us lesser mortals who are training young horses or working at the training levels up to advanced must be practical and give the horse the support he needs.  This means making adjustments when necessary, giving, softening when as well as firmness and sufficient weight in the hand to make a connection.


Ok, I hear you cry, myths dispelled, Thanks! … How do I actually get my horse connected?  There are three key ingredients to this particular recipe.

  1. Firstly, your driving aids … seat and legs
  2. Secondly, your bending aids … inside leg on girth, outside leg behind the girth, seat bone weight to the inside.
  3. Third and final ingredient, your outside rein … the rein that controls the speed; the rein that controls the bend; the rein that stops ‘too much’ happening.

Employ these three ingredients and you have the ‘connecting aids’.  Clearly, given that a key ingredient is the bending aids, the best place to begin the connecting aids is on a circle.

Give it all a go, and chill out about all the myths!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster






Horses have been part of human’s history for centuries.  A system of training was first documented by the Greek writer Xenophon, as horses had to be obedient and manoeuvrable. So in time horsemanship became an art and the first riding school was set up in Naples in 1532 by Federica Grisone.

A little Dressage Trivia : As an Olympic sport it began in 1912 in Stockholm, however, at this point it was more of an obedience test derived from military tests.  By 1936 at the Olympic in Berlin, the standard rose dramatically to include most of the modern movements.  It was not until 1952 that women were allowed to compete in the Olympics!

So, Dressage in its original form was developed as a test of the horse’s obedience and today your training should demonstrate that your horse is obedient to your aids.  But in order for you to expect your horse to be obedient and responsive you will need to understand how the horse can most comfortably carry you.  Ask yourself this question …

WHY should your horse be ‘on the bit?’Obedience

This fundamental question, which you should know the answer to from day one of training is one that many riders cannot answer.

The horse which is round and on the bit is adjusted to take the riders weight easily.  To comfortably carry you and use his body with ease.  When we climb aboard a horse he has to brace his back muscles, so it is important that we make it as easy as we can for him and build the muscles he needs correctly.  We do this with correct training which includes the horse being “on the bit”.


A horse which is not able to carry the rider properly will become tense and uncomfortable and likely to be evasive and disobedient.

What to do? …

Firstly, to assess obedience in the horse you must assess your riding.  Be very clear with your aids.  Before you ride, revisit in your mind the aids you will apply for each movement and check for yourself once on board that you are actually executing them as intended.  Sometimes we do something for so long it becomes ingrained and a little sloppy.  Think about your driving! Is it as accurate as it was the day you took your test?

Secondly, take time to understand the reasons why; the benefits of and the disadvantages to not riding your horse on a contact and in an outline.  To carry you comfortably he needs your help.

Why would you not want to do this for your friend?

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



on the bitHello there Dressage enthusiasts …

I have received a message from a ‘Real Life Rider’ who is “struggling with a green horse curling at any contact and getting anxious and rushy when asked to rebalance and slow the tempo”.

My Advice: 

Maintenance of the contact or for your horse to ‘accept the bit’ she must have total trust and be relaxed with your hands (via the reins) in the mouth.  To truly have a horse on the bit or to have your horse accept the bit will take many months of hard and sometimes frustrating work.

Curling, or over-bending is the lesser of the evils associate with bad contact.  You must keep your horse going forward and as you say work on the tempo. However, don’t be tempted to slow too much with a horse that over-bends; much better that you stay forward, even TOO forward initially until the curling is sorted.  Slowing will just settle the horse into a false sense of security and will be more difficult to deal with.

So, send her forward and give forward slightly with the rein from the elbow.  If she leans or pulls – work on transitions.  You should, as soon as possible, take a light but positive contact with the reins.

You should work on short bursts of hard work.  Take up the contact, send her forward, be real steady in your hands, hold her in position, work the arena to keep her thinking and then, back to walk and drop the contact to the buckle end allowing her to stretch.

If she has worked hard enough her nose will hit the floor!  This will start to build the top line and musculature she needs to hold herself in the contact.

If your horse pulls on the reins in an effort to go faster, then you should do many (and I really mean many) downward transitions and repeatedly give and re-take the reins.  This will encourage balance and rhythm on a lighter contact.

Use the exercise of spiralling in and out of a circle laterally. i.e. Making the circle smaller, say 10 meters, with the outside leg, then make the circle bigger, say 20 meters, from the inside leg and a soft or giving inside rein.

on the bit

Change the rein often.

When you feel your horse has stopped pulling on the inside rein, use your inside hand with the inside rein to stroke your horse’s neck. This has two benefits.

  • Firstly it rewards the horse for not pulling on the inside rein.
  • Secondly it will prove to you that you do not need the inside rein to bend or turn your horse.

If you are struggling with contact issues, enter the word ‘contact’ into the search at the top of the page and you will get all my posts relating to this issue.

Here to help!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster