I know it’s a bit of a controversial topic within the horse community, but it’s one I care a lot about. There are quite a few misconceptions out there about what exactly “on the bit” means, and I’m hoping to clear that up a little. It’s a bit of a long post, which essentially boils down to that head carriage when being “on the bit” is a symptom, not the definition.
I’ve often seen people ask questions like “my horse’s head is in the air, how do I get it on the bit”, with answers often like “drop your hands”, “saw your reins”, and “use draw reins to get their head down” being common (from what I can see) answers.
And so, “on the bit” has to be one of the most misleading terms in the horse world, because the truth it, being on the bit has relatively little to do with head carriage. If the horse is on the bit, it will carry its own head correctly. A horse that has its head in, but the rest weak and wrong, is not on the bit. Head carriage is a symptom of being on the bit (hence the name), but not the cause.
When a horse is on the bit, it’s whole body is working. It’s engaged and, travelling with self carriage. This means that the horse is drawing its power and impulsion through the haunches, up along the back, and through the hands.
When the horse does this, it seeks contact through the reins. Upper levels of dressage are now trying to include long rein work more and more into their tests, because it is a test of self carriage. Is the horse truly displaying self carriage, or is the rider just making it seem that way? If it doesn’t really have self carriage, if the head is in but the back is hollow, if the hindlegs are not engaged, then the horse will just fall apart. In fact, hollow back and disengaged legs, but head in is a classic sign of what “on the bit” leads people to believe vs what it actually means. Try it yourself. Get down on your hands and knees, and hollow your back. Your head will naturally rise and will be difficult to put down. If you bring your legs under you a bit and hunch your back slightly, your head will drop. Now imagine putting weight (a rider) on that, and see which is preferable.
Another common issue with a horse incorrectly being “on the bit” is it’s often accompanied by rollkur and/or a broken neckline, as seen in the photos.
So how is this properly achieved?
By using the Scales of Training as a base. Obviously every horse is different. Getting a horse on the bit is not something to be achieved in a single session. It may even be months or years before a horse is athletic, supple and responsive enough to achieve it. Lungeing, pole-work, backing up, and lateral work are all exercises that can be used to help achieve the first few stages in the scales. You can’t really have true self carriage or collection without the other steps. Your horse should be working with you, not against you or because you make it. A contact is part of the scales of training, and therefore part of being on the bit, but not the main part. Done correctly, it’s a whole body work out for horse and rider.