If you have been taking riding lessons for any length of time, odds are good that you have heard the phrase “on the bit” by now. Instructors will often tell students to put their horse on the bit. Or, you might hear students saying they are having trouble getting their horse on the bit. If you are unfamiliar with this phrase, you are probably wondering what it actually means.
What Does It Mean to be “on the Bit?”
The term “on the bit” is another way to say that a horse is collected up. When a horse is on the bit, their back and neck will be rounded, and they will be using their hindquarters to send themselves forward. As they are driven forward, the reins will be held steady to contain the impulsion, instead of speeding up. When a horse is on the bit, they will be more responsive to the rider’s aids, and the horse will feel as though they are softly carrying the bit, not resisting it.
What Does A Collected Horse Look Like?
Horses that are on the bit are often described as being “round.” This refers to the shape of their neck, as well as their back. A collected horse will have a curve to their neck, and their head will lower at their poll. It is a bit tricky at first to find the correct balance here. Their back will be raised slightly. Their hind legs will drive further up underneath them, so they will look like they are reaching farther with their legs.
Signs Your Horse is Not Actually “On the Bit”
Just because a horse is carrying their head down, and their neck seems rounded does not mean they are actually on the bit. Sometimes they will have their nose pointed back toward their chest (“behind the bit”), or possibly straight out in front of them (“above the bit”). For this reason, it is important to be able to tell when they are properly collected, and when they are not. When a horse is described as being “above the bit,” it means that their head is raised too high and it might feel like they are bracing against the bit.
When a horse has their nose tucked too close to their chest. It may seem like they are on the bit because their neck is rounded, but they are actually “behind” it. This can be because the rider is pulling on them too much, or they may be trying to escape the pressure. Regardless of the reason, this is not proper collection, and it will cause their back to hollow out, over time developing muscles that create an ewe neck.
If you diligently watch videos of riders, audit clinics, and sit in on riding lessons, you will begin to develop an eye for seeing when a horse is or is not on the bit.
How to Feel when Your Hors is Collected and On the Bit
When your horse is on the bit, they should feel more comfortable to ride. When they are collected, they are carrying themselves and their rider differently than normal. Their gaits become smoother. They become lighter on your hands and do not pull on the reins. Since the hindquarters are driving the impulsion, their gaits may become a bit bouncier, or it might feel like you are floating. Overall, they will have a feeling of lightness and responsiveness. It takes some practice to feel the nuances of this change, but once you do, it really makes a difference.
Three Methods to Get Your Horse on the Bit
Every trainer will probably have their own preferred method of teaching riders how to get their horse on the bit. Below you will find a few suggestions to help you out if this is something you are trying to learn on your own, or you are looking for a different approach.
Method 1: Half-Halt
The key to getting your horse on the bit is forward momentum. You will need to get your horse moving forward at a steady gait. For some horses and riders, starting at a walk will be best. For other horses, sometimes a sitting trot is easier to get them collected. Whichever gait you choose, you will need to use leg pressure to push them forward. Once they are moving at a forward pace, close your fingers around your reins and hold steady pressure.
Do not pull on the reins, as this will just slow down or stop your horse. You can use the pommel of your saddle as an anchor to help keep your hands still. Keep the pressure even and continue to drive your horse forward with your legs. When your horse gives to the bit, then soften your hands, or release the reins completely if they are just learning to be on the bit. This action of driving the horse forward and closing your hands around the reins is often called a half-halt.
“A half halt has been described as a “the momentary collection of the horse in motion”. It is a brief passing moment of bringing a horse together, shortening his stride, slowing the tempo without losing the liveliness and rhythm, restoring the balance, or sharpening a horse’s attention in preparation for something to come (i.e. a transition, halt or new movement)” 1
Method 2: Lateral Flexion
If you are having a hard time getting your horse on the bit while going around the arena, you can try working with them on lateral flexion while riding on a circle. This method involves getting your horse going forward on a circle, and holding your outside rein steady. You will then ask your horse to bend around your inside leg and rein by tipping their nose to the inside and applying just enough leg pressure to keep them from falling into the circle. When they give to the bit, release your inside rein and soften your outside rein. This method helps to improve their suppleness, which is necessary for them to be on the bit.
Method 3: Transitions
Work with your horse on transitions and suppleness. Transitioning between different gaits, such as a walk to a trot, or a canter to a walk, will help to keep your horse engaged with you and driving forward. You can also work on transitions within a gait, like going from a sitting trot to a rising trot, and back to sitting. Some horses will stay on the bit easily as long as they are going at a steady pace, but when asked to change gaits they raise their head or go behind the bit. Working on transitions regularly will help them to stay on the bit better when changing gaits.
The concept of getting your horse on the bit is going to be a bit tricky at first. It takes some practice to be able to see the difference, both on the ground and from the saddle. Once you have felt it a few times, it should get easier to know when your horse is collected just based on the feel alone. Remember that the goal is to drive them forward onto the bit, not pull them there. Leave a note in the comments if you have any other tips for getting a horse on the bit!
Research sources used for this article:
- Odendaal, T. (2007). Schooling a horse & sport. SA Horseman, 2(5), 72-75.