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What exactly is ‘on the bit’?

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - January 20th, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: Over the years, several of my teachers and trainers have touched on the topic of connec-tion in regards to collec-tion. They have inter-changed words such as “on the bit,” “on the vertical,” “suspen-sion,” “elevation” and “engage-ment,” in order to explain connec-tion.

But everyone seems to have a different “explana-tion”. What exactly is on the bit? Is there a difference between “on the bit” and “on the vertical”? Also, What is the true value of connec-tion and stretching and how does it influence engagement in the movement of the horse?
— Celie Weston, Tujunga, Calif.

HEY CELIE: My first challenge in answering you is to recognize the fundamental importance of the many questions you have asked — 13 QUESTIONS! Secondly, I must be clear and precise so this week’s column doesn‘t turn into a book! Clearly, you have a serious interest in dressage. What I am about to share with you, though, can be directly applied to all horses and horsemen alike, regardless of discipline.

First, let’s review some of the terms you have mentioned:

“Connection” is the moment a horse chooses to accept contact, with the intention to interact without resistance or evasion. (For example, when a loose horse looks to follow you around, when a horse accepts the attachment of a lead or lunge lin, or when your horse accepts the feel of your hands in his mouth through the bit and reins.)
“Collection” is the process of gathering up and shortening the outline or frame of the horse. This happens when the withers, neck and pole are raised in relation to the hind quarters, causing the stride to become shorter and higher. This occurs naturally by the horse, or influenced by the rider.

“Stretching” is what a horse does with his head, neck, and body in order to lengthen his outline resulting in a more forward, lower and longer frame and/or stride. (Nose on the ground).

“On the bit” is a commitment on the part of the horse, to “stretch” down into any length of rein at any given time, in lightness (self-carriage), while maintaining “Connection“. (Different than “On The Vertical”).

“On the vertical” is simply a head position. The horse’s forehead is straight up and down (vertical) or perpendicular to the ground but not necessarily on the bit. (Also known as “false head set” if not on the bit.) Note: A horse can be “on the bit” and also simultaneously on, above, or behind the vertical. On the bit while on the vertical is ideal.

“Suspension” is simply hang time. The moment the horse spends in the air during a stride when all four feet are off the ground (floating).

“Elevation” refers to how high a knee and or foot comes off the ground. It is possible to have elevation without suspension (gaited horses).

“Engagement” is what a horse does with his body in order to propel himself forward. This happens when he lowers his hindquarters and brings his back feet forward before pushing off into motion.

The moment we choose to use an artificial aid for communication, certain things need to happen if we expect the process to work. It doesn’t matter whether the artificial aid is your cell phone or a bit and bridle. Both horse and human need to recognize the aid is a tool to communicate through.

Squeezing the horse into the bit is the same as placing a call. When the horse feels the sensation, it’s the same as the receiver of the call hearing the phone ring. When the horse accepts the CONNECTION of the bit, it’s the same as when the person you are calling, decides to answer the phone. When the horse is STRETCHING down into whatever length of rein you’ve given him and stays committed to that connection, it’s the same as when the person you are calling, picks up the phone and answers it.

The continuous interest to check and see if someone is still there on the other end, is called ON THE BIT. (“On the bit” = “Are you still there?”.)

The true value of connection and stretching begins with getting the horse’s mind focused. It allows you to be able to check and see if the horse is on the bit by simply bringing your hands forward. If the horse takes up the slack (seeks the bit),it means he’s still on the bit. Another advantage is, it engages the muscles of the top line. Being able to gather or lengthen the frame of your horse through stretching also means being able to collect or extend his stride — which requires your horse to be engaged in his effort to move forward.

Celie, I hope this clarifies things for you.

Always trust your instincts and stay safe,


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

2 comments have been made on “What exactly is ‘on the bit’?”

  1. Marissa Says:

    I’m going to my next lesson educated :)

  2. Emilie Johnston Says:

    You are a master! Thank you for your fabulous articles. Your explanations are so wonderful for teaching as they are clear and creative! I love your connection to the horse and to your students, and how your equine contact creates beautiful collection supported by your gorgeous position!

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