Saturday, November 13, 2010

my take on being "on the bit"

I personally wish the entire term "on the bit" would disappear from the riding world and magically be replaced with "on the aids" which would hopefully lead to a larger focus on riding a horse lightly and softly as the result of an entire gestalt happening between legs, seat, and hands.

I was recently reading a debate about whether or not a horse without a bit (halter and clip-on reins, bitless bridle, nothing) can ever do dressage b/c there is no way for the horse to be "on the bit" if indeed there isn't one.

As we know, a horse with a good rider can create beautiful, classical, and imo "correct" movement with no bit! Because it isn't just the bit that allows this to happen.

I've eradicated the notion of "on the bit" from my brain as much as possible when I ride b/c I really want to focus on the bigger circle of movement - that I'm finding more and more comes from my own balanced seat, comfort in accepting the forward motion that happens with impulsion and schwung, which THEN circles back up and doesn't get blocked or stopped by a stiff rigid (hard) rein contact.

In other words, the bit thing sort of takes care of itself if I do my job as rider. This sorts itself into different ways of going with our different horses:

Salina basically knows the drill to a T. She moves from behind, lifts her back, and responds instantly to leg/seat aids. She creates her own contact which if you allow with a soft hand, puts everything in exactly the right place. I was referring to that the other day calling it a "lightness in the bridle" that I always felt with her when I rode her.

Keil Bay is not as easy - with Keil I have to get him into his high gear - the instant he goes into high gear and I am able to ride that gear comfortably and well, the rein contact takes care of itself. The problem is when you stay in slug gear he is not "on the aids" and goes on the forehand - and leans on the bit. It feels heavy although from the outside it looks mostly correct.

Cody is still learning, but he was trained to respond to the seat, and if you focus entirely on balance in your own body, he takes a lovely light contact and is like riding a much more advanced horse. But his balance relies completely on the balance of the rider.

The pony defies all logic - he goes okay with a bit but when he truly gets "on the aids" is when daughter rides him bareback. I suspect he feels her leg/seat aids more clearly that way and his contact completely softens and shifts.

Given that I tend to go off on my own paths with this kind of thing, melding together things I've read and things I've experienced, and things I simply *think* make sense, I consulted my copy of Dressage in Harmony to remind myself what Walter Zettl says:

"A rider must RIDE the horse on the bit, not PUT the horse on the bit... When the hind leg is working properly the horse comes on the bit automatically, but when the rider tries to put the horse on the bit with the hands, the hind leg will never swing through, and will push instead of carry."

He goes on to look at stiffness in the poll as a common problem:

"The problem of 'putting the horse on the bit' should really be thought of as getting the horse to yield in the poll. The first and foremost step is to be sure that the horse is good and relaxed.... After relaxation, the second ingredient is a quiet hand. The hand must remain still so that the horse can have the trust to go to the contact. It is generally easier to overcome the resistance in the poll when the horse is moving forward than at the halt... Think always that when the horse is doing something wrong with his head that something is wrong in the back."

And my theory is that much of the time, what is wrong in the horse's back has to do with the rider. Stiffness creates tension, which blocks the circle of energy that happens when rider and horse move into harmony of motion.

Which I know perfectly well was true of me when I came back to riding in 2002! So my journey into this has focused on getting my own body out of the way of the horse, and without ever really trying to get "on the bit" that's where I find myself when I take care of the other stuff.


Anonymous said...

So true - people tend to want to ride from front to back and focus too much on the position of the head.

Valentino said...

Hi Billie-

Out of all the rides I had with Val last week, the one where he was most "on the bit" happened when I rode him in the new bareback pad. He was chewing, mouthing the bit, reaching and moving so freely through his back.

I think we could feel each other much more clearly without all of the leather, and my seat was likely more relaxed... it was a lovely ride and a real eye opener :)

*Sharon* said...

Great article!
Would you allow me to quote some of it in a riding club newsletter? With all credit, of course.

Grey Horse Matters said...

I think the best thing we can do for our horses is learn the art of relaxation. I also believe one of the most important parts of riding is to have a light following hand an independent seat and balance. Once all of this is achieved the horse will naturally seek the contact. Good post.

jme said...

now who's going to leave a long comment! lol ;-)

i agree that the term 'on the bit' has probably caused an unfortunate focus on the bit itself and not the nature of the relationship between hand and mouth (or whatever else might be at the other end of the reins....)

i totally agree on the importance of having the horse 'on the aids' but i see that as the bigger picture of which 'on the bit' is a specific component. they may be interrelated in the big picture, but i think the term 'on the bit' refers to a specific, independent phenomenon - it describes being 'on' a particular aid, in the way one might describe a horse being responsive to leg aids, etc..

i say it is independent because a horse on the longe may be on the bit without the benefit of being on seat or leg aids, so i don't see it as necessarily dependent on the other aids. but of course, when riding all the aids should work in concert and i think you're absolutely right that the goal should be that holistic integration of all the aids!

as i wrote in a comment on my post, for me, 'on the bit' is more of a shorthand for a state of connection between the horse and rider via the hand and whatever happens to be at the other end of the reins, bit or otherwise...

great post :-) thanks for reading my post and joining in the discussion. i always love to hear your point of view.

billie said...

Kate, I once had a young woman who wanted to ride Cody once or twice a week - we needed some help keeping him in regular work, so I asked if she could come out and meet him and let me see her ride.

She asked me to ride him first, so I did. He was fine - I'd been working with him some in lessons and shared with her that he needed very little in the way of rein or leg aids - that he would do everything from her seat.

When she got on his head shot up in the air and pretty much stayed there for her entire ride. I suggested she take her legs completely off - she was driving pretty hard and her arms were fairly stiff so although he tried to manage the driving legs but the forward motion/energy simply got stuck somewhere between her lower back and her arms.

The kicker was when she asked 'what's wrong with him - why is he sticking his head in the air?'

This was someone who billed herself as an intermediate/advanced rider.

Needless to say, we didn't proceed. She was trying to get forward motion, but she couldn't let off the driving part, which he so totally didn't need. She kept her hands still, but they were stiff, and from the ground you could see the energy building but having no where to go - but out through the top of Cody's head, which was pointing skyward. Sigh.

billie said...

V, I think (for me, personally) some of the places where I get tense/stiff come from having my feet in stirrups - many things resolve when I drop them. And I can stiffen through the shoulders/upper arms, which is resolved when I'm on the lunge line with no reins.

I wonder if the security of the bareback pad, but the absence of the stirrups, makes a big difference for you. I can sometimes bypass the problem if I lower my stirrups a notch so they are not really short enough to brace my feet on - but within reach if I need a resting place. The stirrups almost float around my foot when I do that, and I get much more effective use of my legs.

billie said...

Sharon, thanks for asking - you're welcome to use this. I've gone in and added quotation marks in addition to italics (as well as Walter's first name) so that his passages are more clearly distinguished from mine.

billie said...

Thanks, Arlene - perfect summation!

billie said...

Funny, j, I didn't think of the longe line when I was writing the post. I'm absolutely no expert on the art of longeing - I don't do that much of it.

That said, when I do it, I often do it w/o a bit. Salina is fine either way, Cody is fine either way, the pony is actually better at liberty with no line at all (does anyone see a pattern here with the pony?!), and Keil Bay often refuses to do it at all unless he is fully tacked up.

If I do use a bit, I will often attach the line to the side of the bridle (probably breaking every rule in the book) and twist/tie the reins up with the throat latch. I often think I need a proper cavesson but since I don't do this all that much I never seem to be willing to spend the money! (there was a beautiful one at the tack sale today that I went so far as to pick up - but it was so heavy I freaked and put it back again)

I have never used side reins b/c I really don't understand how to do it and don't want to create a scenario I can't easily undo.

What I find is that the line is connection - but it's my using the whip as a gentle driving aid (sweeping if anything but usually simply lifting and lowering) and even more importantly my body language that I think "connects" the horse in a similar way as the weight and balance of my body does in the saddle.

When I balance my body in the center of the circle, keep a light, listening hand on the line, a very quiet whip that only moves with a clear signal when needed (as my legs would do) but again, mostly focusing on my body - how I'm holding my shoulders, releasing any tension, funneling my "energy" up or down, as well as voice - all these things meld just the same way the aids do when I'm mounted - and the result is a relaxed, calm horse who is finding his balance on the circle - and when he and I are in sync with the "aids", he lifts his back and goes forward in a lovely way.

Which again, for me, doesn't have a thing to do with the bit, nor does it come from me asking for something with the line - except that the horse stay with me on the circle.

Cody is incredibly sensitive to body language when being worked on the line, and he teaches me huge lessons about just how much my own breathing, releasing tension, and putting my body (standing in the circle) where I want his to be have to do with him being on the aids at the end of the line. Because there isn't a bit, and because if there is I am not connecting to it directly, being 'on the bit' doesn't really come into play - but the connection is there and there is clearly a circle of energy moving from back to front.

I look more at the tension in the poll than the mouth.

And I have no idea where I'm going with this but in a nutshell - I see the same gestalt from the middle of the longe line that I do from the saddle - and generally no being "on the bit" is involved. And coming full circle, why I am not fond of the phrase and simply wish it were out of usage. And my guess is a lot of horses would sign that petition!

Thanks for elaborating - I so enjoy your analysis of these finer details!