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’
Another 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.
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 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.
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.
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
Many 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