Riding your horse on the bit is both one of the easiest and hardest things you will do in your riding career.
The reason it is easy is because to get the horse to be on bit and flex at poll is the use of pressure & release to get your horses to give to the bit pressure.
The reason it is hard is because of the way the horse has to engage its core to do it well – which gets harder when we start moving!
In the same way that we can stand still and engage our postural muscles, it’s easy - but then you are asked to move, or run, or dance – not so easy.
These are the things we are expecting of our horse – to move gracefully forward with acceptance of the bit.
The actual teaching of the acceptance of the bit, to be on the bit, is easy; the hard part is conditioning the involved for the horse to maintain it easily and with forward movement.
Issues with attempting to get your horse on the bit when they aren’t conditioned to it:
The horse breaks away at the 3rd vertebrae as opposed to flexing at the poll and bringing its head on the vertical. This puts its head too deep, leading to them working on the forehand, pulling with the shoulders and then working behind the bit.
You will still get rewarded in your dressage test for your horse being slightly behind the vertical or slightly on the vertical but still on the forehand, but you will have comments like lacking forward or lacking impulsion. And that’s essentially because you have pulled the horses head down without learning how to ride them forward through to contact.
That is the conditioning work that we do to maintain the horse in frame while on the bit in forward movement.
Twisting Pelvis or Dropped Shoulder
We use bend to establish the suppleness for the horse to be able to put its head down in the first place. So rather than bending through the rib cage, they will twist through the pelvis or drop the shoulder. This allows them to put their head down without technically having to engage their postural or self-carriage muscles.
This further enhances them travelling on the forehand, pulling with their chest and shoulders, working with false flexion and working behind the bit.
Tips to work your horse to truly be ‘on the bit’
What being on the bit actually is is between being too hollow and too deep.
What I teach my students is to ride them forward, hands out of their mouth and let them be hollow. Then use their half halt (which you have taught them to give to bit through pressure/release), and they might come behind the bit slightly, or your just asking them to tuck their chin in, and then you want to ride them forward out of that again. You are using your circle work to keep them nice and supple. Eventually, the horse will develop its core strength and the stability of its postural muscles to be able to ride forward, into contact. So that when you ride your half halt, they don’t come behind the bit, and when you ride your forward, they don’t hollow.
What happens, though, is we get super excited that our horse is on the bit, and we want to keep them there, not change up the exercise or allowing strengthening. In doing that we end up with our horse coming behind the bit, behind the leg, and going on the forehand.
So it is important for us riders, in these first few stages where the horse is learning and developing how to work on the bit, to allow them to go hollow, and then bring them back in again, then letting them go hollow, and bring them back again.
You have to give your horse the 12 months it needs to condition their body to that exercise.
It takes 6-8 weeks to develop the coordination and balance, followed by 3-4 months of muscle conditioning – the muscles they need to develop to actually hold their head there (we want it to feel natural and good for them to hold their head there while they are moving) – and finally, 6-12 months for bone and ligament density, so that this environmental stress that we have created in their bodies becomes part of their conformation. That’s when you can just hop on your horse and they are already there.
The ‘on the bit part’ is quite easy. The conditioning part is the hard part, where you are giving your horse the time and the environmental exposure for their body to adapt to it and be able to do it easily and maintain it consistently.
Obviously, part of that is you, as the rider, understanding how to apply the pressure release so their head can come down, but also having the sensitivity to know when your horse has come behind your leg, or when its dropped the hip, or fallen out through the shoulder, or when it’s not moving forward to your hands, or when it is not moving forward with thoroughness.
All of these parts of part of your journey as a rider to learn, so that you don’t inhibit your horse’s range of movement.
You don’t want to stress about whether the horse’s head is on the bit or not, you want to learn the foundations of how to work the horse correctly into contact. And once you learn those foundations, and apply those exercises, the horse will come onto the bit.
The ‘on the bit’ part is just the last piece of the puzzle of good self carriage from your horse.