I was recently asked by a member for a video recommendation, to help them understand how to get their horse on the bit. They felt that our videos that addressed this did not actually start at square one. In my search for what this customer asked, alas, they are correct, we having nothing that begins at ground zero. Until we create that, the following is my most helpful and simplistic advice.
The goal is to get your horse to push from behind, engaging his hind legs, reaching them under his belly where he can really activate the hind end which engages his back and moves the energy over his poll and you can feel this energy by way of light pressure on the bit evidenced by a feelings of light weights in your hands while holding the reins. You want about a pound of weight in each hand. It is with this lightness and feel of connection on the rein that you allows you to administer a few subtle aids such as a direct rein aid or indirect rein aid, half halts, halts, rein-backs.
Getting your horse “on the bit” as required in Dressage, means getting that connection from hind leg to the bit, felt in the hand. To obtain this, you first have to get your horse to move actively forward. You then need to make sure he maintains his rhythm, like the never changing tick tock of a clock. Once this is achieved you are ready to get him on the bit by giving him a light surge with the calves to say go forward while your hands are in fists, thumbs on top, holding steadily, then you immediately collect that energy with the outside hand by slightly tightening your fist and then you give a tickle aka; supple with the inside hand, then you let your tightened fist loosen a bit, both hands are back to their fisted rein hold, asking him to stay connected, hind legs active and you feel steady contact on the bit. With some horses you will need to do this every few strides, with some you may have to hold it longer than approximately 3 seconds or so, some will be easy and you will simply keep your steady contact with thumbs up and straight line, light fist, no loop in the rein from the bit to the hand, allowing your elbows to move like hinges with his rhythm so you don’t accidentally shut him down, by giving a halt aid. This action, of keeping a firm outside rein and tickling with the inside, sometimes both sides and giving him a little squeeze with the calve to say lets go, but remind me that your recycling that hind end energy over your top line by letting me feel your constant lightness in my hand, is all part of getting him on the bit and keeping him on the bit.
In the very beginning, you may have to supple more to show them the way. Sometimes, you may have to do more than lightly tickle (pinky movement). You may have to use the bit like a massaging hand to get them to relax and be steady and all the while you must remind him that he must still go forward. You must remember, to supple or massage, keep the forward and then you must relax the aids, with your goal being that he will remain in self carriage, aka; doing it on his own. This is of utmost importance, otherwise you may end up with a horse that is too heavy on the bit, and relies on you to constantly be keeping him on the bit and it will feel like you have to weight lift while you ride. Keep a picture in your mind regarding the direction of energy; a horse with his nose in the air, can’t recycle energy or thrust forward from behind if the energy from behind moves upwards into the air, it is then gone. A horse that hides behind the bit, or ducks behind, can’t recycle that energy if he makes a sharp u-turn at the poll, it dissolves into his chest. Moving actively forward from behind with the poll at the highest point, nose on the vertical is the key. Creating an even loop or oval from back to front, is what you want to strive for. As your horse progresses, so will his amount of engagement from behind and with that his front end will be able to lift as his hind end begins to sit.
This my friend, is the goal.
Keep in mind, I am not a certified trainer or coach, I am however blessed with having been able to watch over 60 of the world’s top trainers work with thousands of their horses and students on this subject and I am sharing what they do in a very simplistic amateur friendly way. I too am an avid and active rider and deal with these issues too. I hope that this has been useful and has served you.