On the Bit: Next Phase
“ON THE BIT”—NEXT PHASE: BALANCING
In the previous stages, you worked on relaxing the frame, primarily by loosening the jaw, poll, and any bracing in the muscles of the neck. You should have found that this transfers its loosening effect all the way along the topline, through the shoulder and down into the hind legs, creating regularity and an easy, swinging in the gaits, as well as an overall lengthening of the horse’s outline.
However, as noted before, using the inside “Direct (Leading) Rein” will have the effect of slightly loading the inside fore. This is not the great sin it is often made out to be, especially when the horse is relaxed (not rushing) and working at a natural pace (not pushed) on straight lines and gentle curves (not tight turns.) However, your goal in this next step is to shift that balance from inside to outside. You will do this by creating a subtle inside lateral flexion throughout your horse’s body from the long low frame.
HOW IS THIS ACCOMPLISHED?
Begin in walk. Once you have your long, soft, relaxed outline established, ease into the “Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither” with the inside rein, coupled with an outside “Direct (Opening) Rein:”
Gently bring the inside hand toward your navel above and behind the wither (imagine a line from the corner of the horse’s mouth to his opposite hip) always careful never to cross the line of the wither.
Here the hand offers gentle resistance by closing the fingers slightly, but does not pull.
And at the same time, open your outside hand away from your horse’s neck, also lifting into the corner of the mouth.
(Remember to keep a supple arm from hand to shoulder, with a straight line from the bit, through the wrist, to the elbow. Unclench your fingers—you should hold the reins as if you have an uncooked egg in each hand.)
These two rein aids used simultaneously allow the horse’s balance to be more or less distributed evenly between outside fore and hind. The frame remains long and relaxed. Most importantly it should be natural. There should be no true collection yet, as there is no real contact in the outside hand; it is just there as a guide. All contact is light, and the inside hand merely suggests a soft bend to the inside, where the rider can just see bridle buckles or the horse’s eye at most. This gentle, subtle lateral bend at the poll is transmitted evenly through the entire body.
The inside leg rests still against the horse at the girth for support, but does nothing; no prodding with every step, no squeezing, no spurring, etc.. The outside leg, slightly behind the girth, is completely passive.
WHAT DOES THIS ACCOMPLISH?
The effect of these two reins on the horse is simple and direct. The inside rein of opposition behind the wither subtly blocks the horse’s impulsion on that side causing the horse to bend evenly throughout his body as it simultaneously redirects the horse’s balance to the outside of the body. In addition, the horse will load both the outside hind and, to a lesser degree, the outside shoulder, and will have a tendency to move forward and out through both.
At the same time, the outside rein “opens the door” to that flow of energy, allowing the horse’s body to round out into the bend, and allowing his balance to shift outward into his shoulder, allowing for a more or less even distribution of his balance over the outside of his body. This is a very strong and confident position for a horse to be in while carrying a rider, particularly in the green and developing stages of his training, and it requires little maintenance from the rider. This is where the horse begins building strength, confidence and trust. Don’t shortchange these first two phases: the loosening and trust-building of phase one, and the foundation-building of phase two.
This new balance and it’s centrifugal force are enough to cause a slight outward drift, but with the addition of supporting inside leg, he is even able to leg-yield or spiral out into the bend while that “door” remains open. This will help keep you on the rail or out on the circle, where in the previous exercise you may have felt you were always falling in on your turns and circles because of the “Direct (Leading) Rein” and its inward gravitational pull.
Begin in corners, on large circles and on wide, curved lines, figure-eights, serpentines, etc., incorporating changes of direction through a few strides of loose, straight long and low if necessary in the beginning to make your transitions as stress-free as possible.
Spiral out and leg-yield:
Don’t be afraid of the outward drift that tends to occur here: embrace it. Ever wondered what the aids were for spiral out and leg-yielding? You’ve just learned and practiced them. Just add inside leg and increase your outside “Direct (Opening) Rein” as needed. Keep your eyes up, use your feel, and adapt accordingly.
Note: Just be careful not to overdo it here. These are tools, not tricks, and their value is limited. They can become bad habits leading to aimless drifting, and learning to move outwards from the leg is not the goal of this phase, so remain focused. Everything in moderation. (Also, remain in forward motion: these aids will work for turn on the haunches, but that requires more precision and would be somewhat counterproductive at this loosening, balancing stage—add it later.)
Calm, forward and straight:
Yes, this works even when riding straight lines, preferably along the long sides of the arena where you have the support of the rail. It should be easier now to keep to the track than in the loosening first phase where steering and balance were less a priority. And though you are not working on collection yet, if well tolerated by the horse, maintaining that slight, gentle inside flexion described above, even on straight lines, will serve you well here and into the next phase. Just remember that the outline here remains long and loose, even with the slight overall lateral flexion.
REMEDIES AND REWARDS:
Horses do not have to be trained to understand the “Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither” aid; it affects their innate sense of balance and biomechanics. If done correctly (and hopefully humanely) it will simply work. Practice it with patience and discretion. Introduce it slowly, reward generously, and keep your sessions short, alternating between the balanced, gentle head-to-tail flexion of this phase and the long, loose frame of phase one. You’ll see a remarkable transformation in your horse; don’t be greedy.
If you or your horse become confused, frustrated or you run into a setback, don’t panic. This is horsemanship. It will take time and practice and you will have to go back and forth between these first two phases continually before moving on to the next phase. And, the long and loose phase will forever be your “reset button” and your reward, so if things get tense or your horse becomes tired or resistant—or you simply want to take a break or give a reward—downshift to the loosening posture you’ve already established. This is your new home base.
Also be advised, this is not the time to worry about precise steering, imperfections, or making it pretty. If people are watching, they may not understand what is happening or what you are trying to accomplish. You may look like a complete beginner who can’t steer. Your horse may look like he’s “misbehaving.” Don’t let it throw you or frustrate your efforts. An audience is too often the enemy of good riding. Ignore them. Be patient and be persistent. Your solidly built result down the road will speak for itself, even if it doesn’t have a perfect gloss on it today. The only one you have to explain yourself to is your horse.
I hope this installment has been helpful. It has been a long time since I posted anything. Feel free to write with any questions or comments. I am pretty busy these days, but I will do my best to get back to you about any training questions you may have. Good luck!