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Question from a hunter rider regarding head carriage and going 'on the bit'

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  • Question from a hunter rider regarding head carriage and going 'on the bit'

    All of my riding career I've been taught to aim for a low headset, while still traveling on the bit.

    I'm working with an OTTB who is having a lot of trouble accepting the bit and carrying himself. I'm tired of dealing with hunters who are forehand heavy and can't collect or bend properly. As a result I want to take a new approach to working with this horse that will make him more versatile than a traditional hunter horse regimen.

    What is the best way to explain how to pick the head up and get them to lift the forehand as opposed to simply tucking in their nose?

  • #2
    This is a subject about which books are written.

    First you need the horse going forward in a steady rhythm, when we say forward, we are not asking them to run, but to carry themselves in a balanced strong trot. Initially the lower head carriage is fine, as long as they are accepting contact, as you want them to stretch their topline. Then progressively, usually over a period of time, not minutes, we move into the school figures. The aim is, by making the horse stronger,you enable them to carry themselves. Once they are comfortable with school figures, circles, change of rein, and transitions within the gaits, you start with lateral work, progressing to shoulder-in. Shoulder-in is invaluable in suppling and straightening a horse. By straightening we mean to make him equally strong on both sides.

    This is an ongoing usually endless endeavor.

    Aren't you glad you asked
    Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

    Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


    • #3
      "All of my riding career I've been taught to aim for a low headset, while still traveling on the bit.

      "Tired of hunters who go on the forehand and won't bend...."

      They go how they're ridden. The position, tack, bitting, use of rein, seat, leg, all aimed at creating that outline and type of balance in the horse. To change that, everything has to change, especially the rider's position.

      What is the best way to explain how to pick the head up and get them to lift the forehand as opposed to simply tucking in their nose?"

      It's hard to answer in a simple way.

      First, what's your definition of "on the bit", "head set", "accepting the bit", "carrying himself" etc.

      I think many people think "on the bit" is when the horse puts his head down and chin in, and drops the bit, so they don't have much of a feel on the rein (they call that 'light'). They tweak one rein and then the other and 'bump the horse off the bit'.

      Whether they call it 'round and down' or 'in a frame' or something much more politically correct-sounding, if they think it's a pose they can get the horse into by working one rein then the other and getting the horse to drop the bit and put his head down and in, they're not going to get far in dressage.

      THe position of the horse's head isn't "on the bit". Saying it is, is a little like saying, 'when I am performing ballet perfectly, I wear a tutu'. That's not really what makes it correct ballet. It's a 'side effect'. That's where people get misled. They figure if they can get that head down and chin in, they got it. But that's like putting on a tutu and calling it ballet.

      For a lot of people, "on the bit" and "head set" are the same. It's really a pose, and getting the horse into the pose is the goal. Once I hear a person use the word "head set", I'm worried they aren't 'gettin' it'.

      "Accepting the bit", for most people, means the horse isn't a pita to ride, and when they pull on a rein, the horse doesn't pull back.

      "Carrying himself" means not pulling.

      Unfortunately, in dressage, these things all have a very, very different meaning. On the bit is something horses don't get into until they've advanced in their training, what most people THINK is "on the bit" is simply "accepting the bit". A horse can be "carrying himself" when the rider feels a great deal of contact with the horse's mouth, and "headset" is a little like "Russell Brand on a bad day"(ie, not something you want).

      "Pick the head up and lift the forehand"

      The short answer is that there is nothing you can do to lift the forehand and lift the head, that won't cause problems.

      People try to 'bump 'em up with the bit', raise their hands, try a bit with some 'lift' such as one that works on the lips, all sorts of things. People even put on a double bridle or hitch 'em up with short sidereins, thinking if they can just tie the head into a position that'll do the job.

      It doesn't work. You can pull a horse's head up, but his head goes up and his back goes down, and his hind legs go out behind him.

      Creepily enough, many horses go with their head very low because they can't do anything else (due to rider position and long reins that put them on forehand), and they've been taught to do that for eons. If they weren't punished every time they lifted their heads, they'd probably go in a more natural position.

      The secret to creating a more balanced horse is that the good way takes time and is not easy. You start by teaching your horse to go forward, and take a big strong powerful step up under his body with his topline rounded, not concave or 'hollow'- THAT's what is going to lift him up - later. The more he can learn to swing his back, go energetically forward and bend the joints of his hind legs, the more he will, some day, be able to prop up his forehand with that big strong hind quarter, WITHOUT dropping his back or pushing his hind feet out behind him.

      But as you well know, if you make your horse just go faster on a long rein, all he'll do is wind up running on his forehand.

      The legs urge the horse to go forward, but unless that energy is met somehow, and the horse is balanced by clever use of the reins, he's just going to fall flat on his face.

      You need instruction from a good dressage instructor. They can show you how to coordinate your rein and leg to balance your horse and channel that activity. IT takes time and the rider changing how he rides. He learns to coordinate leg and seat and rein aids, to change his position to help the horse balance, and to be able to use his reins to balance the horse without 'stopping' the horse up.

      It's what everyone in dressage is always trying to do.


      • #4
        Whew, that was a book slc2, but I concur with everything! I, too, hate the word "head set" and that just means to me that the person speaking may not understand true connection.

        My questions for the OP are, what bit are you currently riding this horse in? How old is this horse? Is he built downhill like some hunters are? Are you riding him in a standing martingale? Will he allow his head to come up if you float the reins? (Most horses do.)

        I have two horses now that are built a little downhill, one hunter, one jumper. 1st one (hunter) tends to get too low and on the forehand, 2nd one (jumper) likes to get both low, on the forehand and tuck behind the contact.

        Both horses I ride in a mullen mouth snaffle, so they learn to seek my hands and stretch to the contact. This is a very soft nice bit and most horses like to take it. (I like the Happy Mouth version) I allow them to come up with their head and neck and move forward to my very soft, light hands. For horses that are use to diving forward from contact, you may need to have ultra-light hands to get them to come up. I NEVER worry that their head is up. I only worry if they are moving forward into, and accepting my hands. I rode horse #2 for 4 months with his head up, tracking forward, until he learned how to take my hands. He had almost been ruined by being ridden in martingales and draw reins and he would collapse and dive with contact. The more I pushed him forward and up into my hands, the more he began accepting my legs-to-contact and the flexion came on it's own, and he stayed up.

        If you are forcing a horse to be anywhere with their head and neck and flexion, they are not truly carrying you. It will happen naturally with good training. It may take some time. Dressage is about patience!
        Last edited by Horseymama; Apr. 23, 2009, 09:30 PM. Reason: not making sense
        "A good horse and a good rider are only so in mutual trust."


        • #5
          I just wanted to chime in and applaud SLC for her time spent on giving a good response time and time again.
          chaque pas est fait ensemble


          • #6
            I'd take it a step further and suggest that you take at least one of those lessons on a properly trained dressage schoolmaster that *will* work correctly once the aids are applied, because a lot of knowing whether you have a correct frame and not just a headset is *feel*.

            Most of the problems earlier mentioned are caused by people starting the frame at the wrong end of the horse. ANY frame...dressage, hunter, even western pleasure...starts with the *inside hind leg*.

            And it starts with forward, forward, forward. I personally have no objection to using flexion to bring the head down...but only *after* the inside leg is applied to drive the hindquarters forward and only to correct certain kinds of bracing against the contact with a horse that 'knows better'.

            To say a bit about what I mean by feel. I've been riding a horse named Party. This horse is a 20 year old retired preliminary eventer, she sticks at 17h and I swear 16 of those hands are leg :P. This horse is long in absolutely every dimension...long neck, long legs, long back. When she is *engaged*, I can actually feel her get shorter and taller. That's the only way I can describe it. Because she's so strung out naturally, the difference between collected Party and strung out Party is incredibly obvious, both from the saddle and the ground.

            You need to know what it feels like when it's right before you can teach it to a horse.
            Manes And Tales


            • #7
              First the rider must just keep an even connection with the horses mouth, not asking for any flexion. That generally means (more) up and open (very much ifv) with a steady tempo (not just forward/forward and hurried) and active behind. If ridden like this the horse is also fairly straight, it merely 'accepts the bit' (and this is sometimes enough for lower level hunters...but is not drop/flat). Then, through light lateral flexability (ie on circles) the horse develops light degrees of longitudinal flexion, starts to chew, is still active behind, slightly flexed at the poll. As it starts to go 'on the bit' it also then can be asked to chew the reins from the hand and lengthen the outline at the riders will. At this point light lower level jumping/caveletti play a part. Those things keep the horse eager, into the hand, better balanced. As lateral work and smaller figures are added, the horse can take hh more clearly, flex the hindlegs better, be rated easier, and learn to collect and extende, and become more handy in jumping and turning.

              (Longitudinal) Flexion (which keeps the throatlatch closed) manipulates the neck, the horse must chew/open/seek the hand as it lowers the neck. Especially for jumping the horse must not just lower (with the throatlatch closed) or the hindlegs will only push the horse over and the bascule will not be evenly round (takeoff/landing). What is less material in dressage only is very material for good jumping technique in the horse. If the horse is too low/flat the bascule is also, if the horse is too compressed/shortened they climb over the fences.
              I.D.E.A. yoda


              • #8
                You can still get a long and low head set going on the bit and elevate the forhand. Its all about elevation of the withers and this comes from the bend and the seat. What I do is start off in a higer frame and really make my horse work off of his back end, bending both ways, in a circle, into the corners, and in changes of direction. From there once he is soft, I stretch him out with the contact I created when I first started riding. This is the difference between throwing them away and guiding them where you want them because they are truly connected. Now I have a long off the forhand frame that is "long" from them stretching their neck and topline properly and not from them "detatching" their neck from the wither to go long and plowing forward like a freight train w/no room for change in anything.


                • #9

                  What is the best way to explain how to pick the head up and get them to lift the forehand as opposed to simply tucking in their nose?[/QUOTE]

                  Get the hind legs under the horse and then give him time to become strong. When the hind end is taking the weight, the shoulders will be light.


                  • #10
                    After this one, I'm going to need a nap.

                    "move forward to my very soft, light hands. For horses that are use to diving forward from contact, you may need to have ultra-light hands to get them to come up"

                    The trouble is, and why people don't advance from training level, is that people confuse 'ultra-light hands' and 'softness' with never creating a circle of the aids, never 'catching' that impulsion in the hand and recycling it to the hind quarters. Riding with too long a rein is riding with too long a rein, and the reality of collection and lightening the forehand is that you CAN'T create that by having 'ultra light hands' if 'ultra light hands' means never getting the reins to an appropriate length, and create enough energy that the horse is stepping into the bridle energetically, and you're RECEIVING something and recyclng it, with half halts, into the hind quarters.

                    Here's an example.

                    My friend was a lovely, soft, passive, 'following hand' rider who NEVER got her horse out of a training level posture. If the horse wanted to poke his nose down further or out further, that hand was always giving and soft. The horse NEVER met anything. As one trainer told me, 'her hand is like a ghost the horse can never find'. Sure he was lovely with a long neck and his head down, and he moved along rhythmically, and she rode him that way for YEARS. And she was SURE that was dressage.

                    When she finally realized that years and years of riding around like that led nowhere, and she had an 'eternal training level horse', she wanted to fix it. And the horse was SO used to that comfy, easy position, that if she ever tried to do anything else, ever tried to get him into a different balance, he started rearing.

                    How do you do that? You won't like the answer, and basically every time any instructor tells ANYONE that and they come here and ask if it's right (because, granted, it feels so weird to them and the horse now doesn't want to work and use himself, so he protests, because there's nothing easier in this world than jogging around with his head down, on the forehand, but also because he has absolutely NO confidence and NO muscle to go in a different way)....they always get a round from the in-the-knowers of 'THAT'S A BAD INSTRUCTOR!' if the instructor tells them, 'you need to shorten your reins and start using your legs'.

                    He was a very quiet old horse any kid could ride, and after years and years of that habituation, he could not change. He LOVED to slog around with his head down on the forehand, with the reins on the buckle. He went to a 9 year old boy who rode him in saddle club hunt seat classes.

                    What happens, is that in their enthusiasm for 'not blocking the horse' and 'being soft' and 'riding back to front, not front to back' (which is great), the riders (and I see a lot of them, all the time) could never balance their horses or advance them.

                    They go around constantly, 'stretching' and they think they're getting the horse 'over his back' and that if they just stretch enough and ride with a long rein enough, that suddenly, magically, the horse will pop up and start piaffing perfectly.

                    And it just never happens. They don't get to first level, let alone start piaffing, that way.

                    Some of them realize that they're kidding themselves, and admit that they like to ride that way because anything else is 'too hard'. They go to an instructor who tells them what they need to do, and they're convinced it's 'mean' and 'confusing' or even, 'It just doesn't sound like The Spanish Riding School'.

                    But fact is, since they've created a balance problem and a habituation in the horse, now fixing it just isn't all that classical or pretty. And face it, if they were taking lessons from Alois Podhajsky of the Spanish Riding School, they never would have gotten in that fix. HE'D have had them barrelling around creating muscles and impulsion in their horses, and with a contact and a balance, by correcting their position and rein length, and telling them 'Dressage Lite ain't no dressage at all'. It might be easy, but it ain't dressage!

                    They never create any impulsion, because they never create any circle of the aids, and they can never recycle any energy with a half halt, and send it back to the hind quarters. It is that circle of the aids that allows a horse to be collected and engaged and have impulsion, and it will NEVER happen with such long reins, such a loop in the reins, such a 'ghost hand'.

                    Every time the horse in the very least steps into the bridle, he stops, because he doesn't have enough activity to step into the bridle, and because his poll is stiff because he's never been suppled properly (he's been taught to hold his neck in, not to bend in his neck), no half halt can go through that and complete that 'circle of the aids' and engage his hind quarters. Immediately, because he's stiff and half halts get in a log jam at his poll or neck, they shout out, 'Oh no! I'm blocking him!' and throw the reins at him, and he gets MORE on the forehand, stiffer, and he has to cut his activity down more again, or he'll fall on his face. He learns to hold himself stiffly and not swing his back and hind legs, because he's so off balance, and he knows it. He learns to move like a guy walking on eggshells, and just pat along.

                    Fact is, they ride like Western Pleasure or Hunt Seat, in dressage tack. Their horses AREN'T carrying themselves, AREN'T developing self carriage, AREN'T light, AREN'T supple, AREN'T balanced, AREN'T engaged, AREN'T collected and most of all CAN'T GET OFF THE FOREHAND, CAN'T get collected, CAN'T be in self carriage. They're nice, eager, enthusiastic people who are all in a panic about not being mean to their horses, but they totally misunderstand dressage, half halts, collection, self carriage and lightness.

                    What they've misunderstood the worst is what is a half halt, and what is riding back to front, and what is impulsion, what is self carriage. They can't advance because they don't understand those things. They'll give you a description of a half halt and how to do it that would have a psychiatrist running for his notes. They have such a fixed and such a wrong idea in mind about what those things are, that they can't teach their horses those things.

                    The trouble is, you CAN'T create anything in dressage, can't advance, can't balance your horse, EITHER by having a 'ghost hand' OR by hauling away on the reins like a drunk fisherman hauling in the nets.

                    Some people try to get around this by trying to balance their horse without any impulsion. They keep bumping the horse off the bit and slowing him down til he's very comfortable to sit on and 'pats the ground' in lovely soft gaits that are like sitting in a padded easy chair. The trouble is, the horses aren't really collected, they're just patting along without any real collection, engagement, throughness or impulsion, most of all, because the animal isn't straight, and you can't have both hind legs stepping into the bridle (which is what impulsion is) if you aren't straight. But good lord, try to convince people they're on the wrong track, you're more likely to get them to fly to the moon on a riding lawn mower.

                    There is a middle ground, where one can use the reins intelligently, coordinated with the seat and leg aids, and balance the horse while still creating impulsion.
                    Last edited by slc2; Apr. 24, 2009, 08:34 AM.


                    • #11
                      One thing that I've noticed that limits riders is physical strength. I am riding a really big horse right now, and he's still strong, so I have to have a certain amount of strength in my legs, seat, and arms until he begins to go better. I was surprised at how strong I had to be to begin his training. I ride with a group of other riders and we've all commented about this aspect - some are willing to develop the strength and reflexes and some aren't, and we are progressing accordingly.

                      I have another instructor who comes in to work with us with the stallions, and he really helped me understand half halts - we go around in circles half halting at every flex. He said something that really resonated with me - "no step belongs to the horse at this level." I was used to riding after cattle on rough terrain, where the idea was to not influence and interfere with your horse other than general direction, so this has been a difficult concept for me. I'm beginning to enjoy the difference now, and to appreciate the feeling of power I get when one of the stallions begins to lift up and work correctly. The training level horse is also progressing, and seeing his canter become more powerful and uphill has been a joy.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Manes and Tails View Post
                        I'd take it a step further and suggest that you take at least one of those lessons on a properly trained dressage schoolmaster that *will* work correctly once the aids are applied, because a lot of knowing whether you have a correct frame and not just a headset is *feel*.

                        And to take THAT further, I'd be taking lessons on your horse with a good dressage trainer. Everything, and I mean *everything* you are talking about, everything slc and ideayoda described, as being good, comes from very basic dressage training. A good Hunter should be able to work well as 2nd Level, and that's not really asking a lot in the grand scheme of things.
                        The CoTH CYA - please consult w/your veterinarian under any and all circumstances. - ET


                        • #13
                          Oh, I agree, I just think the first couple of lessons should be on a schoolmaster at *least*, because it's hard to teach a horse what you don't know and have the feeling of yourself.

                          Now, here is the thing. You need the energy and the *forward* first, *then* add the rein. The rein aid is to change 'energy' and 'speed' into impulsion. Now, you can't change what you don't have.

                          That is what 'riding back to front really is'. It's starting with the energy.

                          There's two wrong paths people go down. One is to not have the energy and get what I call a 'draw rein special' (because draw reins are the most common gadget people use to create a false frame)...a horse that has its nose at or, most commonly, behind the vertical, but which has a hollow back and trailing legs because it has no impulsion (I also know a horse that will do this with inexperienced riders...she'll just drop her nose and then go around not carrying herself knowing the rider can't tell the difference ).

                          The second, as slc said, is to create the energy and never change it into impulsion. It's amazing how *much* outside rein you need to add on a trained horse. This is the trap I personally have to watch myself not to fall into.

                          Here's an interesting thought, thinking about my last ride. The rein aid needs to be proportional to the amount of energy you are generating. If the horse is not going forward, then you lighten off the rein to encourage it to do so, and as the forward increases, so does the outside rein.

                          Flexion exercises, which are often confused with 'how you get the horse down on the bit' serve two purposes. First, they can be used as a stretching exercise for the horse, help getting the kinks out. Second, if you happen to have a horse who likes to brace against the contact, *then* they can soften the horse and encourage proper acceptance.

                          A good trainer will tell you *when* it is appropriate to 'flex inwards, check outwards'...eventually you'll learn it yourself.

                          Just remember that Impulsion is a factor of Energy and Control. You need *both*. Even a piaffe is a forward, energetic movement. Heck, so is a rein back!
                          Manes And Tales


                          • #14
                            "'draw rein special' "

                            LOL. you funny.