Riding the horse forward on the bit is basically simple to understand in principle, but most difficult to execute. If the horse is correctly on the bit, the movements easily unfold and the horse is a joy to ride and beautiful to watch. Then he becomes, truly, the best that can be! This is the real essence of dressage, not a circus performance of tricks. Most riders can learn to “ride” at any level and to execute the requirements there, but those individuals that are able to ride a horse on the bit and develop his movement to its fullest potential are few and far between. It is toward this ambitious undertaking that I offer the following thoughts.
The goal of riding on the bit comes as a result of, first of all, riding the horse forward. The concept of riding the horse correctly forward is as follows: The thrust of the horse’s hind leg moves along the supple body through the back, neck and into the bit—”connecting” the horse through the entire body from the back to the front, or as you can visualize, from the rider’s leg into his hand. Let’s look in more detail at how this comes about in the process of training.
The young horse learns first just to move at the walk, trot, and canter under a rider’s weight and accepting the rider’s direction of his will. He is moving, at this early stage, almost exclusively by the forces of momentum—that is, following his own weight and being allowed to move naturally with his balance toward the forehand. As the training proceeds beyond this first, fairly brief stage, the momentum becomes less and less the method of locomotion; replaced, as the mental and physical development of the horse progresses, by thrust. If we take a long look “down the road” of development, we can see that thrust becomes essential, in that many high-level movements such as piaffe and passage require the carrying ability and thrust of the hindquarters exclusively—these movements being totally without momentum. Training proceeds along the relationship between thrust and momentum, and how it functions in correct forward movement.
“The goal of riding on the bit comes as a result of, first of all, riding the horse forward.”
The young horse is ridden on long straight lines and very large circles in the beginning, keeping the problems of momentum to a minimum, and using it to our advantage to draw the horse along in active gaits. When the circle is introduced, the first problem of momentum is encountered because the force of momentum only moves on straight lines. This now acts to draw the horse out on the circle, drifting there by centrifugal force. The attempt may be made then, on the horse’s part, to counter this drift by throwing his weight to the inside shoulder, in a attempt to “pull away” from the force of momentum, and redirect it to the inside. He may succeed at this and fall to the inside of the circle, cutting in because now he has changed the direction of the momentum.
If these avenues of movement are discouraged, he gradually learns that he must supply a little more thrust around the circle, and contain or control some of his momentum. The rider’s position (inside leg at the girth, and outside leg behind the girth) encourages the horse to stay in a given track; to be channeled between the rider’s legs and moved from the leg into the rider’s receiving hand. Thus, the rider’s position “lays down the track” that the horse is moved along—much like a train would move along a winding track. If the neck only is positioned on the circle, the push of the hind leg is lost through the outside shoulder of the horse (because, as you recall, of the force of momentum), and balance and forward movement are lost. Thus, bending and making the horse increasingly more supple is introduced, making it possible—if you will recall our original definition of forward movement—for the thrust created by the hind leg to come through the body of the horse into the rider’s hand.
Transitions between one gait and the next (walk-trot and trot-walk) continue to develop and control this balance between momentum and thrust, and teach the horse to accept the direction of the rider’s leg. The first stride of the trot in the walk-to-trot transition is unlike all other strides that follow it, for there is no momentum in the first stride—it must be made out of thrust. Of course, if the horse is allowed to take several shorter steps at first, he has managed to let momentum build up enough to “get the ball rolling,” and avoided the work of the transition.
Likewise, the last stride of the trot is the transition back to the walk an abundance of momentum and little thrust. In working to make this transition smooth and in a forward way, the horse is learning to control the momentum, balance himself toward the haunches and reach under himself with the hind leg to make the first long stride of the walk. So he is, in fact, learning to respond to beginning half-halts and to engage his hindquarters. In order for the horse to accomplish this, it is absolutely essential that he is not encumbered by the rider bracing the seat and stiffening the muscles around the seat bones. This is because in order to reach under to the maximum with the hind leg, the horse must raise or “arch” his back. A stiff, braced seat of the rider will prevent that from being possible, as those muscles of the horse’s back will lose their elastic quality and become contracted and rigid in defense, resulting in a dropped back, stilted and stiff transition that doesn’t “flow” from one gait to another, and the horse not moving forward into the bit. The success of the downward one, because it is here that the balance must shift toward the rear to control the momentum and the horse support himself with the haunches. If he does this, then the upward transition requiring the thrust from the haunches is possible.
“Out of the development of proper forward movement come increased balance, thrust, and carrying ability of the haunches.”
As you can see by the work so far, you must create the proper conditions for correct movement to take place and then you must allow it to happen. You cannot force the horse to swing under with the hind leg, because in doing so, you would be creating stiffness that would make it impossible for him to do so. In creating the proper conditions, we require the horse to move with energy and in good working rhythms. This must be strictly adhered to, for if the horse hurries, the balance is already lost and the horse can only control his momentum by losing energy—rather, he must learn to “contain” it, or there would be no fuel for thrust. He must also stay relaxed so that he can become more supple and , if ridden out of balance, he cannot relax. Thus, our conditions must include good rhythm, abundant energy and suppleness sufficient to allow the body of the horse to conform to the track we dictate. If any part of these conditions fail, the horse is unable to move forward correctly.
As proper forward movement develops, the back of the horse raises and the haunches and neck of the horse lower, giving the appearance of a “round” frame. Any attempt to put the head and neck into position without the raising of the back and lowering of the hindquarters is incorrect and will not produce the horse “on the bit”. For, just as in the example of the rider bracing the seat and stopping the horse from pushing the stride through, so can this be stopped by the rider’s hand. Hanging on the bit, or being behind the bit, are both symptoms that the horse is not into the bit and that connection between the hind leg and the mouth is not there. Putting the horse in such an artificial frame would result in downhill movement from which no thrust is possible.
Out of the development of proper forward movement come increased balance, thrust, and carrying ability of the haunches. He now becomes able to execute movements—depending on their level of difficulty—easily because he is truly on the bit. Logical, systematic work makes our goal possible.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR ARLENE RIGDON