Learning The Language Of Dressage: On The Bit

Feb 1, 2018 - 2:41 PM

There’s a lexicon to dressage. Connection, suspension, swing: These are words that have a very specific horsey, and dressage-y, context that we dressage trainers throw around and make it sound like we’re speaking Swahili, such that a layman might not grasp our meaning.

And coming to an understanding of those terms, from the beginning of one’s riding career to the point of mastery, takes a long time, a lot of feel and even a constant evolution.

One of my students just yesterday said to me, basically, “Oh my gosh, I thought I understood what you meant by sit down and put your leg on, but it’s so much more than I’d thought!” She’s a lifelong rider, now right on the brink of Grand Prix. We never finish learning Swahili.

But one of the biggest and most important concepts to grasp is that of being “on the bit.” Doesn’t that just mean pulling my horse’s head down? Funnily enough, it’s a little more complicated than that. I don’t think I can nail it, perfectly and succinctly, in one blog. But if you all will allow, let me wax philosophical (because it’s what dressage trainers do) about this oft-used but ill-understood basic tenant of the dressage horse.

“On the bit” first and foremost refers to a shape in which the horse’s body should work. This is that classic dressage horse silhouette: neck round, with the muscles of the topline popping out; poll at or near the highest point; face mostly perpendicular to the ground; back lifting and croup lowered.

Fender showing the classic outline. Photo by Susan J. Stickle

But because this is dressage we’re talking about, it couldn’t possibly be that simple. The “ideal” on the bit shape for each conformation is different. Stallions with a big cresty neck often don’t have the poll as the highest point because there’s a big chunk of stallion fat and muscle atop the neck, for example. The length of the neck and the degree of roundness of the neck changes from the first few minutes of a ride to the last, from young horse to Grand Prix, from movement to movement.

And even within individual horses there’s a best place for each horse to be within each movement. I showed Ella’s right canter pirouette with the neck slightly lower than the left, because that was where her body worked at its best those directions. Midge piaffes best with the neck lower; Ella with the neck higher, and some horses I know even with the nose a bit, if not significantly, in front of the vertical.

So while “on the bit” is about the ideal round shape, there’s a lot of variance within that shape, animal to animal, minute to minute, movement to movement.

And it’s not just about shape. It’s also about way of going. We have all seen the horse that is round, connected and absolutely careening around on its forehand like a runaway freight train, just as we have all seen the horse that is lightly and deftly floating along with no contact and no roundness of the neck. The on the bit horse is round from bum to ears; his hind legs lift the low back and the neck into the contact. I tell my students that when my horse is really on the bit, his hind legs are pulling on the reins.

“Pulling” is a word that’s going to get me in trouble with the Klassical Keyboard Kops, so let me clarify.

Some horses are strong, and some are light as a feather, and all will swing back and forth between more and less assertive meeting of my hand over the course of their training and development. But it would be an extremely rare horse who would be able to execute the entire Grand Prix without ever touching the bit or taking the rider’s hand ever; I’ve never personally met such a creature.

While the horse that is in true self-carriage should be able to execute movements into a loose rein for moments without a loss of balance, even the most uphill, balanced and organized of horses needs to push his hind legs into a contact.

So: “On the bit” is about a shape, and it is also about the way the horse uses his body and his energy. He should use his powerful hind legs to step under the body, pushing himself forward while lifting his back and neck into that shape.

“On the bit” can take many forms and shapes. Photo by Molly Sorge

Here are some things that “on the bit” is not:

• A head-set. Just because a horse’s head is perpendicular to the ground doesn’t mean he’s on the bit.

• Something we pull horses into. Some horses need more contact than others; some horses need guidance on how to yield their polls and engage their necks, particularly if they’re just learning dressage, or especially if they’re learning it coming from another career. But on the bit is not created by reins alone, even though we have a standing joke at my farm: PYFHD, which stands for “Put Your Freaking* Head Down,” and feel free to substitute any other F word that may tickle your fancy.

• Always with the poll at the highest point. I again put my head in the Klassical Keyboard Kop lion’s mouth to say that for some horses, at some moments, putting the poll as the highest point isn’t the right choice.

Yes, in the finished Grand Prix horse, in the show ring, the poll needs to be the top of the picture. But sometimes horses need to stretch. Sometimes, as a horse is developing strength and balance, it’s in the best interest of the animal to let him be a little lower and/or a little rounder.

A horse that only has one outline is not trained enough. Within reason, of course, a finished horse should be able to do everything a little “too:” too high or too low, too long or too short, too big or too little. And I am not saying that pulling horses’ chins to their chests is an option. It is not. But a little lower neck or a little rounder neck with a kind and compassionate rider isn’t a crime; it’s often the right decision for the moment in time.

So: A horse who is on the bit is round from tail to ears and uses his hind legs to become so. A horse who is on the bit is in balanced and organized posture, and he’s then able to use the muscles of his core—his abdominal muscles, and the muscles of his topline from ears to tail—to execute dressage movements from a place of balanced, uphill strength.

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