"On the Bit": Calm, Forward, and Straight

I’ve been thinking about the role and responsibility of the seat and leg aids in “on the bit” and whether “on the bit” is dependent on those aids from the rider or simply influenced and/or refined by them at a later stage of training.  I got to wondering about all of this because all of the horses I start are given considerable training from the ground long before they are ever backed, and that ground work continues in addition to ridden work as a part of their training for the rest of their careers.  An important part of that ground work for me is introducing the horse to contact with the bit and the rein effects before riding in hopes of developing the best possible relationship between horse and hand, while also developing the correct form and balance needed for their later ridden work.

Contrary to popular belief, longeing is not just a way to give horses a little exercise when you’re too busy to ride (though that’s not a bad thing) and it shouldn’t be the way to burn off excess energy when they are too nervous or excited to ride.  Longeing can (and imo should :-) be used as part of a complete training program.  In most classically influenced training methods, horses spend a great deal of time training in hand, on the longe and/or in long reins, usually working from a cavesson or bit with some form of rein connected to (or through) a longeing surcingle well before their work under saddle even begins.  And while I also think it is good to longe a horse without tack once in a while, those reins can be an important part of developing a dressage and/or jumping horse.

Why We Start Horses on the Longe

In a way, “dressage” can be summed up as the art of riding a horse straight on a curved line.  A horse's natural balance on a curved line versus what we need from him for dressage and jumping are two very different things.  At liberty, the horse’s natural inclination when turning is to shift the shoulder into the direction of movement while swinging the head and neck to the outside as a counterbalance; in other words, the horse naturally counter-bends through the turn, usually with the topline inverted.  The only time one ever really sees a horse look and bend into the direction of his turn is when he’s circling around an object he’d like to keep his eye on. While western riding often allows a position closer to the horse’s natural movement through neck reining, the inward-facing posture is the one we try to create in our riding horses for dressage and most jumping.  But it doesn’t happen on its own.  It must be taught and developed carefully and gradually over time.

Correct longeing with some kind of a rein - on either a type of a cavesson or a bit connected to a surcingle or saddle - is a great way to teach and develop this without adding the complications of other aids (which the horse may not even know yet) and the rider's weight for the horse to contend with.  In this way it is easier to adhere to the horseman’s mantra of “calm, forward, and straight.”  Sometimes removing unnecessary stress and simplifying the equation to just the basics of positioning and impulsion is enough to teach the horse to carry himself as we’d like and learn to go “on the bit” without over-complicating things with too many aids or overtaxing the horse physically before he’s ready. 

When he can be encouraged to adopt a gentle inside flexion, as with properly used long reins*, he relaxes the muscles bracing his neck and topline in their inverted posture, stretches forward and down, and seeks a light contact, which I would consider the basis of being “on the bit.”  Here he releases and begins rounding up in his back, realigns his shoulders and begins to use them more freely, loosening his whole frame and engaging/tracking up behind.   The same effect is achieved with correct use of the chambon, which opposes only bracing and inversion, and rewards any effort at relaxation, stretching and release through the topline.  This resulting positioning and movement is the foundation upon which all the other movements, including collection and good jumping form, are gradually built.  And, imho, it begins with the horse placing himself willingly “on the bit,” not the other way around; driving into the hand or forcing the position and then expecting the horse to somehow relax and voluntarily accept the contact seems counterintuitive, to say the least.

But is it Good Enough?

Some may wonder whether the horse can still be properly “on the bit” without the support of all the aids, i.e. the legs, seat and hands.   Is this work equally effective, or can the horse only be properly worked with a rider seated on its back employing all of the aids in concert?  Some claim the seat and legs are more important to the horse’s balance, movement and engagement than the hand.  It’s really appealing to think that could be true.  But in a light seat or two-point, the seat is removed from that equation.  When longed, both seat and legs are out of the picture.  Where does that leave us?

As a hunter/jumper rider primarily, I think I’d take offense to anyone suggesting that, whenever I ride in a light seat or two-point, I lose all connection with my horse and it would be impossible to balance, engage, collect or do much of anything else with my horse properly - much less have him “on the bit” - just because I didn’t have my seat deep in the saddle.  I’ve always felt like I could do those things just fine, but maybe I’m a bit biased. ;-)  What about longeing?

A lot of people probably don’t realize how much can actually be achieved on the longe.  Riding of course has certain advantages over work on the longe, but when it’s done properly, longeing can have some advantages over riding as well, particularly when starting or retraining a horse.  Even quite advanced work is possible, as shown in Philippe Karl’s excellent book on long reining.  With this kind of method, the horse is essentially “ridden” through to an advanced level from the ground, all while maintaining a soft connection with the rein - and only the rein.  Instead of the legs, all impulsion is created from a distance through body language, voice and the whip, but nearly all positioning and balance is influenced through the rein aids.  Whether coming from a training aid like side/running reins, an aid like the chambon, or directly from the hand as in long reins - or even the longe line itself to a degree, seat aids never come into play.  While I can see the limitations and how it may eventually be preferable to sit on the horse and use all the aids to really refine this work, I think it shows what can be accomplished without those aids.

At the other end of that spectrum is the Spanish Riding School which also does a great deal of its training from the ground, including in (imho restrictive) side reins, and even going so far as to aggressively drive the horse into the bit between the pillars, which represents a very different relationship between horse and bit that some might consider excessive.  And yet this school is held up as the paragon of classical horsemanship and dressage, and there is no doubt they have impressive results in their own style. 

I can see how either system could be abused, and could be a disaster if executed incorrectly, and the latter may actually be fundamentally flawed if one considers relaxation and sensitivity to the mouth important.  But, to my mind, the fact that correct form and movement can be achieved from the ground proves that a driving seat and leg aren't necessary for the horse to carry himself correctly, as some dressage trainers insist.  Of course, ridden work can be more refined than longe work because a following seat, the turning seat and weight aids as well as proper use of legs for impulsion, positioning and support can work wonders; once the horse is conditioned to respond to these aids in unison, the rein can often be lessened or even, at times, dispensed with completely.  But these aids aren’t mandatory for connection via the rein or balanced positioning and movement – for that one only needs the basics: calm, forward and straight (which I have always interpreted as “relaxed, attentive and balanced.”)  And that can be achieved in a number of ways that don’t necessarily involve all the aids, including the rein at times. 

My feeling is that, if the horse can’t do it without a rider on him, there’s not much hope he’ll be able to do it better with a rider, and it may not be fair to ask.  If it can be done without a rider, then that just means that our aids when we ride can be that much lighter once we do put our butts in the saddle – and the responsibility to use those aids fairly and correctly is even greater!  The rider’s role when mounted is to initiate, guide and shape the movement already present in the horse without interference, not to get on and create it from scratch or try to wrestle it out of the horse every time.

I think we can all agree that NO horse of any discipline should ever be trained solely from the hand/rein.  While the hand is clearly important in the communication between horse and rider, some riders speak of it as inherently evil, others seem to imply it is simply unnecessary – all the communication with the horse happens through the seat or legs or perhaps even some kind of mutual intuition.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who act as if their hands on the reins were some kind of a crane that could lift and pull the horse into whatever position they’d like.

As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Contact and rein aids are neither inherently good or bad – it depends on the quality and sensitivity of that contact and the correct use of the rein aids that determines their virtue or lack thereof.  I guess I wonder how interdependent the aids really are, or if they are actually all independent and their best use is a matter of understanding their individual effects and learning to balance and coordinate them all so they complement rather than oppose one another.

*I like to see the inside rein run from the hand, through the inside bit or cavesson ring to the surcingle which gives a gentle “direct” or “opening/leading” rein effect.  It is frequently seen running the rein from the hand through the surcingle to the bit/cavesson ring, which creates a “direct rein of opposition” effect which is not conducive to good lateral flexion or lengthening of the topline; this effect, however, is suited for the outside rein which is run over the back or behind the quarters, from the hand through the surcingle to the outside bit/cavesson ring or when ground driving from behind where both reins should be set up this way.