Putting the Horse on the Bit
6
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Putting the Horse on the Bit


Gregorio Billikopf
A Passion for Dressage

In this chapter we shall consider the progression of putting the horse on the bit, from the first steps to more advanced ones. For the horse to be on the bit there must be (1) position and (2) acceptance of the bit. By position we talk about the horse having his head onóor a little in front ofóthe vertical position (Figure 6-1). By acceptance, we speak that the action of the reins can act on the horse. That is, the horse is light and supple enough to accept the hands of the rider. The horse might appear to be on the bit, yet if he does not stretch his head to meet a giving rein or if a horse can evade a half-halt, he is not truly on the bit. As the horse's training progresses, the rider obtains (3) elevation, with the horseís neck being able to be lifted higher for collected movements. The neck may never be lifted higher than the horse's training permits, of course, without loosing the lightness and acceptance we have spoken about.

At the trot, the horse on the bit is engaged, shows good suspension with correct engagement of the hindquarters. The tail of the horse is an indication of not only a quiet correct position of the head and engagement of the hindquarters, but also of the calmness and quietness of the aids. If the horse is not moving freely forward, the position of the head and neck are of no importance and useless. Even at the halt there must be a feeling of impulsion, a readiness to spring into action.

For the purpose of simplicity, this topic is put together in one chapter, but it should be understood, as with so many of the other subjects, that the progression of the horse will take a long time from the easiest to the most advanced levels. Putting the horse on the bit, like that of making the horse straight, is a task that is never totally finished or completed.

Figure 6-1: Position of the horse on the bit.
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We have said earlier, that a rider should post rather than sit the trot until the horse is on the bit. Figure 6-2 shows how a horse on the bit can take the added weight on the back (the muscles of the back become taut as the neck goes on the bit), while one who is not will react by making the back more hollow.

Figure 6-2: When the horse is on the bit, his back can accept the weight of the rider; when the horse is not on the bit, adding the weight of the rider at the trot causes the horse to hollow his back.

The horse can be on the bit within the vertical and "something" in front of thatódepending on the amount of collection. Further in front of that point the horse will be above the bit, and the action of the reins will not be able to go through because of stiffness. Neither will the action of the reins function properly if the horse is behind the vertical, or behind the bit. In this case, instead of stiffness, there will be hollowness, or lack of contact.

When the horse is on the bit there are different degrees of elevation, from the ramener to the rassembler (Figure 6-3).

Figure 6-3: Ramener versus Rasembler

A good exercise to help the horse achieve further balance, is to work on hills on loose reins (Figure 6-4). Field work really helps develop the horse's cadence, and also is an aid to collection and extension and even lateral work. We have dedicated a complete chapter to field work. At this point, however, work on the hills should be limited to slopes that are not overly steep, and to work on free or loose reins.

Figure 6-4: Work on the open to increase balance

Obtaining Position

There must be impulsion from behind or the horse cannot be put on the bit properly. The horse can be taught at a standstill some of the principles of yielding the head, as we saw in Chapter 5. The advantage of flexions at the halt to introduce the subject is that the horse and rider can concentrate on one thing at a time. The work at a standstill should be of short duration, however, because there must be impulsion. This is why the work at the posting trot is so critical. Again, this is because the horse must be worked from back to front. The following seven steps can occur when the horse is at a standstill. If the horse becomes resistant at any point, the rider should go back to step one and begin over. Much of this discussion will be familiar, as we covered some of these points in the previous chapter. Riders who have done a careful job of flexions on the ground will find these steps will progress easily and with little resistance.

1. Start with loose reins. Before starting with the flexions at a standstill, it is important to have both reins totally loose (Figure 6-5).

Figure 6-5: Start with loose reins

2. Obtain equal contact with both reins. To do this the rider will have to have worked the horse well on circles and figure eights on both directions. Ability to maintain equal tension with both hands on the rein is a key skill whether at the halt, walk, trot, or canter or on two tracks. This contact obtained is light but the reins should not droop (Figure 6-6).

Figure 6-6: Obtain even and taut contact with both reins

3. Drive the horse into the reins. Even though the horse is at the halt the rider must try to work the horse from the back to the front. With both legs drive the horse forward onto the pressure of the holding hands. In other words, the hands do not increase or decrease the light pressure required to keep contact with the horse's mouth and a straight rein from the bit to the hand. However, the pressure provided by the action of the legs increases the amount of pressure between the hands and the reins. It is not the hands moving back toward the rider that increase this pressure. The added pressure created by the legs should be slight and should not create forward movement or excessive tension on the horse. In fact, the rider should be content to ask for a little increased pressure on the rein through the legs and then just sit and wait for a moment. This moment should not be longer than 20 seconds if the horse does not start mouthing the bit. The rider should just start again after having released the reins totally and started from step one again (Figure 6-5).

4. More drive when horse mouths the bit. When the horse starts mouthing the bit it means that the horse is starting to convert the slight tension into a giving and relaxation through mouthing of the bit. Mouthing of the bit usually precedes yielding of the neck. When the horse starts mouthing the bit the rider can continue with the same pressure of the legs or can increase, carefully, the tension of the reins through the legs. If properly done the horse should not get overly tense or move forward and yield (Figure 6-7). This yielding should be ever so slight to be recognized and rewarded. The horse may take several steps to yield into full position.

Figure 6-7: The horse yields to the hand

5. Bilateral yielding of the rein. The horse must learn to yield to pressure from both reins (Figure 6-7) at which point he should be rewarded by a release of the rein (Figure 6-8) and a subsequent retaking of the pressure (return to step 4). The horse will learn to give at the slightest pressure. Some horses react negatively to this pressure and the rider can brace the elbows against his hips to prevent the horse's head from being thrown up in the airóto brace, not to pull back. Having taken this measure the rider is in a position to yield to the horse as a reward to the horse for appropriate behavior rather than because the horse yanks the reins off the rider's hands. The horse has to learn to become totally supple to these aids, which are given with equal pressure with both hands, until the horse responds to the slightest pressure of both reins applied at the same time.

Figure 6-8: Rewarding the horse through release of the reins

6. Unilateral softening. This consists of reducing the pressure with one rein only, and yet not ever loosing contact. This is called a "softening" of the mouth (Figure 6-9).

Figure 6-9: Rewarding the horse through release of pressure on one rein while keeping contact and softening the mouth

7. Unilateral yielding of the rein. Now the rider is ready to maintain position while yielding with one rein (Figure 6-10) and then picking it up. The contact is regained gently until the rider feels the pressure equally on both reins. This is repeated two or three times on one rein and then the same procedure can be used on the other rein. Once the horse understands lessons 1 through 7 it would be a mistake to continue to work at the halt. Next, the rider repeats these steps at the walk, and then at the trot, where we will spend the bulk of time. In fact, the rider should discontinue work at the halt and at the walk until the horse is much more advanced! Otherwise, the rider can easily ruin a horse and teach the horse to go behind the bit. Once a rider has enough tact, he should be able to spend very little time or no time at all with a horse at the halt and walk and go to the trot. Unilateral dropping of the rein is especially effective with the inside rein when the horse moves through corners. The horse is in the best position to balance properly and become light on his own, and not lose balance. Through unilateral dropping of the rein, while the other rein supports the horse on the bit, the process of fixing the neck of the horse on the shoulders begins. This means the horse does not lean on the rein but maintains position through his own effort. The way a rein is dropped is by yielding the rein with a smooth action with the movement of the horse and slowly picking up the rein and equalizing the pressure as has already been mentioned, again, with the rhythm of the horse. Finally, the rider learns to drop the inside rein even on the straight line. When the dropping is correct, the mouth softens considerably on the riderís hand.

Figure 6-10: Dropping the inside rein; dropping the inside rein while passing corners is especially effective

Once the drop of the inside rein has been established, we can differentiate between several shades of the exercise, which are especially effective in trot work: (1) basic drop of the inside rein, (2) long and deep, and (3) drop forward. The drop of the inside rein and the long and deep are essentially the same, except that in the latter, the length of time the rein is dropped increases. In the drop forward, during the very time the rein is dropped with the inside hand, the rider also applies the whip with the same hand. The whip is applied on the riderís own leg so the end of the whip will curve and gently tap the horse behind the girth. The amount of whip, of course, depends on the nature and responsiveness of your horse. While the effect of the first two exercises are suppling, the effect of the drop forward also introduces impulsion. The horse learns to move into your hand. And just as with the drop of the inside rein, the rider drops the rein losing contact instantly, applies the whip once during the dropped phase, and gently re-gains contact with the rein. These exercises are extremely powerful in their effects. The horse will move forward with vigor and increase engagement of the hindquarter. Soon, the horse will move into your hand with a normal long and deep drop, without the use of the whip.

8. Lateral flexion. When the horse remains on the bit at a halt, with the direct flexion, then you can ask for the lateral flexion (Figure 6-11). Only brief moments should be asked for at first. In the lateral flexion the horse is asked for a slight position to the inside. This may or may not be accompanied by a bend in the rest of the body.

Figure 6-11: Lateral flexion

9. Elevation. The height of the position occurs as added collection is driven into the horse. From the ramener (Figure 6-3) at the low end, to the rassembler (Figure 6-3 & 6-12) at the high.

Figure 6-12: Ramener is the lower position; rassembler the higher

10. Short and deep (or extension of the head). The horse should be willing to take the reins and gently push forward to maintain contact with the reins, in full suppleness. I use the word "short" here to indicate contact as compared to no contact in a related exercise called "long and deep." In other words, the horse seeks the reins (Figure 6-13). In fact, this is an important warming up exercise at the walk and trot. Instead of warming up with the horse's head up in the air, the horse maintains a good curvature and yet is relaxed.

Figure 6-13: Short and deep: Horse neck stretch

At the canter, the horse does not keep a vertical position, but a position in front of the vertical. All the exercises should be repeated at the canter.

When the horse gets behind the bit (Figure 6-14) you can increase the impulsion, raise one rein or perform a half-halt in connection with increased impulsion. Even better, the rider may want to let go of the reins and go back to trotting with loose reins.

Figure 6-14: Horse behind the vertical, or "behind the bit"

When the horse leans on the bit (Figure 6-15), the rider can drop the reins. Dropping the rein is an excellent exercise to help horses balance on their own rather than on a riderís hands.

Figure 6-15: Horse in front of the vertical or "above the bit"

Another serious fault is when the horse's poll is not the highest point (6-16) in the neck for here the position is an artificial one. When the reins are applied they do not go through the horse's body.

Figure 6-16: It is a fault when the poll is not the highest point of the neck

Summary

For the horse to be on the bit there must be (1) vertical position, (2) acceptance of the bit, and with increased training, (3) ability to obtain elevation. At the trot, the horse on the bit is engaged, shows good suspension with correct engagement of the hindquarters. The tail of the horse is an indication of not only a quiet correct position of the head and engagement of the hindquarters, but also of the calmness and quietness of the aids. There must be impulsion from behind or the horse cannot be put on the bit properly. The horse must be worked from back to front, even at the standstill. It is not the hands moving back toward the rider that increase this pressure. The added pressure is created by the legs. When the horse starts mouthing the bit it means that the horse is starting to convert the slight tension into a giving and relaxation through mouthing of the bit. Mouthing of the bit usually precedes yielding of the neck.

An important exercise is the yielding of the inside rein. The rider releases the inside rein and then picks it back up. The contact is regained gently until the rider feels the pressure equally on both reins. This exercise is especially effective while passing the corners, as the rider drops the inside rein.

One of the objectives, is the process of fixing the neck of the horse on the shoulders. This means the horse is able to maintain this position of balance without leaning on the riderís hand. The height of the position occurs as added collection is driven into the horse. From the ramener at the low end, to the rassembler at the high.


© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf

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A Passion for Dressage
Table of Contents

19 May 2010