What it Means to be "On the Bit"

I love getting my www.thehorse.com e-mails, as they are usually filled with interesting news and information for concerned horse owners/trainers like me. So I was a bit dumbfounded by this recent article title:

Study: Horses Prefer Less Rein Tension

It stated:

“According to a new study by European equitation scientists, horses might prefer to avoid rein tension rather than just get used to it. And beyond a certain force threshold, rein tension can cause conflict behavior. To make the most of training and to keep the horse's mouth sensitive, riders need to know when to apply less rein tension, generally when the horse displays conflict behavior.”

When I read the title of this study I thought to myself, “uh, no shit, Sherlock.” Like a previous study stating, “Study: Shelter-Seeking Behavior Most Common in Poor Weather Conditions” this was not a major newsflash. But it was a topic near and dear to my training, so I read on and, to my great unsurprise, the study confirmed what I already knew logically and intuitively for years.

But sometimes the obvious needs to be stated and restated before it really sinks in for some people. And sometimes scientific proof can persuade where common sense fails (though in the case of climate change and evolution, even science doesn’t always satisfy them all, but that’s a rant for another forum ;-) This may be one of those cases.

The more I think about it, the more I realize this isn’t such common knowledge after all. There are plenty of people out there, including some very accomplished and respected riders and trainers, who genuinely believe strong contact and pulling on the bit either doesn’t bother the horse or is actually good for him. There is much talk of “taking” contact and “driving the horse onto the bit” which clearly implies he would otherwise not be there without force. So many trainers and schools of riding advocate fixing a rigid hand and, when the horse tries to evade the strong pressure of this, to drive him forward with the legs, spurs, whip, etc. which will only increase the pressure, until he eventually succumbs and either accepts the pressure or drops behind it but maintains a pretty bend in his neck to fool uneducated onlookers. So it is apparently not obvious, or at least not important, to some that horses are averse to strong pressure on their mouths.

I can just hear the German vs French school crowds complaining that this study was conducted in France and so was designed to vindicate French riding philosophy which is opposed to such forceful riding. After all, the rest of the world seems to defer to a more heavy-handed style of dressage and the sort of riders who employ rollkur or methods like it, so why should some silly French study change their minds?

It’s sad to me we need an entire study to come to this conclusion. To me it seems self-evident.

But there was also some information gained by the researchers which they hadn’t expected and I’d like to delve into a little further, as it relates directly to what, imho, constitutes being “on the bit.”

“On the Bit”
In this recent study on horses’ tolerance for bit pressure, the results were pretty predictable. But there was one conclusion found in the study that may not be as obvious, though it is one I’ve also noted for years and led to my refining my definition of what it means for a horse to be “on the bit.” The article said:

“While they expected the fillies to refuse the rein tension the first day of the study and then gradually increase their tolerance over the following days, they were surprised to find that the opposite was true. 'The horses applied a surprisingly high level of tension on the first day and apparently learned how to avoid the tension, rather than habituate to it,' Christensen said"

I have observed in every single horse I have started in the chambon on the longe the very behavior noted in the study: namely that the horse will begin with too much pressure and gradually learn to lighten that pressure when he is faced with a predictable boundary, i.e. a rein of a consistent length and position or, later, a sensitive, sympathetic hand.

I don’t use the typical training aids when longing such as running reins or side reins because I have seen them encourage evasive behaviors and postures in the horses I’ve worked with (and I won’t touch that Pessoa contraption which is a nightmare of forced, incorrect positioning and conflicting aids!) The horse will generally contort himself in any way possible to avoid or lessen pressure from the bit, and this tends to lead to a horse who is habitually behind the bit, something which too often is remedied by stronger driving aids rather than more yielding rein aids. For many horses it becomes a lesser of two evils kind of struggle where the horse will choose the least painful option – depending on which is more difficult to bear, he will choose either an avoidance posture or accept strong pressure from the bit.

Of course, the horse can’t be blamed for this because he’s been presented with an immovable object in his mouth which prevents the natural movement of his head and neck and punishes rather than rewards any attempt at relaxation (which sets off a chain reaction down the shoulder, back, etc….) I’m not saying all use of side reins is evil; they have been used by great horsemen for ages and at least they do offer a release when the horse gives to their pressure, unlike a restrictive hand which a horse cannot escape no matter how far he contorts himself in order to yield to it (rollkur being an extreme example.) Under special circumstances I might even use side reins if attached to a cavesson rather than a bit. But I think there are better ways to influence a horse’s positioning when longeing and encourage correct development without restriction or force. My aid of choice is the chambon/de gogue.

How this relates to the study:
When I first attach the chambon I teach each horse repeatedly at the halt and leading at the walk how to release the pressure of the device by holding a treat below its point of contact. Each time the horse reaches down and out for the treat, pressure is released (and he is rewarded with a treat!) And yet I find the first time I longe the horse with the chambon attached, he will put significant pressure on the bit and poll-piece, even though the rein is fitted very loosely and he knows perfectly well how to relieve the pressure.

The next time I will leave the rein the same length as the first time, and yet the horse will put considerably less pressure on the rein. This release of pressure continues to a certain point until, no matter where the rein is adjusted, the horse will seek that level of pressure.

The interesting thing is that, when done correctly, this release of pressure goes only so far and no further.

What I have not seen is a horse who seeks to relieve the pressure completely and make the rein slack. Whether it is adjusted loosely or shortened for a more advanced frame (after progressive conditioning, of course,) the horses all seem to seek a basic equilibrium with the rein where there is a particular level of contact specific to that individual horse. It is always a light pressure, but it is a pressure nonetheless. And it is the horse who seeks it. Even when the horse has been physically conditioned to go easily in a more advanced carriage, when the rein is lengthened, he will adjust his positioning accordingly in order to maintain a certain amount of pressure.

It is this pressure, I would argue, that is the essence of being “on the bit.” To be truly “on the bit,” the horse seeks the gentle, reliable, predictable guidance of the rein through the bit.

In other words, no matter where the hand goes, the horse will follow and seek a soft contact with it when truly “on the bit.”

Unless, of course, the rider abuses this connection and increases the pressure without release; then the horse will begin to resist, setting in motion a vicious cycle of increased pressure and increased resistance. This is the reason for the existence of strong bits and abusive methods like rollkur – it is a failure on the part of the rider to find and maintain that equilibrium.

When one goes in search of definitions for the term “on the bit,” one encounters vague descriptions of a position of the head and neck, or talk of “putting” a horse on the bit through aggressive rein and leg aids, all of which are either a misunderstanding of this fact or a nice way to cover up this failure of the rider.

Such definitions and methods make “on the bit” about externals rather than what it truly is: the unspoken contract between horse and rider about fairness and respect from the rider and trust and willingness from the horse. To be truly “on the bit,” horse and rider must meet each other halfway.

When the horse has placed himself “on the bit” he has signaled to the rider that he is open for communication, and light contact from both parties means the communication is two-way. The contact between the hand and mouth is like the string stretched between two cups to make a crude telephone line, with the reins being the string. The string must not be completely slack, but too much pressure will cause that line of communication to break. It is up to the rider not only to issue requests over this line, but to receive feedback from the horse along them as well.

Rather than the rider demanding the horse both yield to pressure while paradoxically accepting a strong contact, the rider offers a gentle contact and the horse, once he knows he can trust the consistency and fairness of the hand, will seek that gentle contact wherever the hand may lead, and allow the hand to shape his entire carriage and movement (the action of the rein through the body) with that same light feel. This, to me, is what it means to be “on the bit.”