Saturday, September 17, 2011

Being on the bit

WARNING!  I have dragged out my soapbox!  This is a self righteous rant, I mean PSA.  Read at your own risk...don't get mad if you are offended.  Just stop reading!  ;-D

Every once in a while, I see something that really bothers me and I can't keep my mouth shut any longer.  You always see photos, such as on Facebook or a popular website, of horses not anywhere near being "on the bit" in the proper sense of the word.  And then the comments are so complimentary, despite the fact that the horse is actually moving really poorly, at least in the moment the pic was taken.  I especially hate when professional photographers post pics of dressage horses that are SO behind the vertical or are completely moving incorrectly, that it makes the regular horse person think that is how you "ride dressage". The more the general horse public sees incorrect movements, the more they mimic it.

"On the bit" is a very misleading term.  Many people see a horse with its head on the "vertical" and automatically think it is "on the bit" and everything is just perfect with the horse.  Or the horse has its nose shoved down behind the vertical (either in true rollkur or just because the horse is actually moving way behind the bit).  There is SO MUCH more to being on the bit than just head position (which is why rollkur gets me so angry).  But so many riders simply pull the horse's head down and in, riding with nearly straight arms with hands down below the withers (!!!) and think they are in a correct dressage "frame".  UGGGGG!!!  I guarantee the horse is not able to follow the bit contact down and cannot do a correct free walk.  They have no idea about how to be "on the bit" so they just stay in the same head position as the rider throws the reins at them in a loopy fashion.  For a horse to truly be on the bit, it not only has its head in a vertical (or slightly in front) position, but ALSO has rounded its back and neck (outline), engaged its core muscles and hindquarters underneath itself, and is moving forward with impulsion.  And when the rider feeds out the reins, such as in a free walk, the horse will then follow the bit down and out as low as the rider wants to the horse to go....hence being ON THE BIT.


So many riders only "ride the head".  Just because the horse is moving with its head down or neck curled up, it does not automatically mean it is moving CORRECTLY.  I much rather have my horse slightly ahead of the vertical and be moving its body correctly, then "on the bit" with its face and trailing its hind end and hollowing its back with zero impulsion.


For example, look at Reva in these two pics  below.  She is a very green mare, with limited strength.  She is learning how to carry her body correctly and balance herself with a rider.....this is MUCH different than how she is used to moving, which is REALLY FAST with a sulky behind her.  So it will take time to develop the right muscles and all that.


Oh, such a pretty head!  Right?  WRONG!!!!  The rest of her body is incorrect.

The beginning of engaging her hindquarters...



Without even looking at her HEAD, which pic is "nicer"?  There are very definite differences that most horse people would not notice.  Look at how much her hind end is trailing out behind her in the first (top) pic.  She is downhill, not using her back, and not taking correct rein contact.  She is pulling herself along with that strong front end.  Photoshop out me and my saddle and you could practically put a sulky and driver behind her!  LOL!!  Granted her head looks "pretty" but she is not correctly on the bit.


Now look at the second one (bottom) one.  Now she is beginning to use her hind end and is in a much rounder frame.  Look at how she is starting to use her back and step up underneath herself.  I love that she is in almost the same position in both photos.  She is engaging her core muscles here too and lifting through the withers.  See how much shorter her underline is in the bottom photo?  It is easy to say that her front legs are much more "extended" in the top photo, but that is really not what I am asking her to do.   She looks more "bouncy" and "swingy" in the bottom photo, as opposed to the feeling of just flying down the center line full tilt in the top one (which is exactly what she was trying to do...LOL!).  Is the bottom photo exactly where she needs to be?  No!  This is the best pic I can find right now.  Could she be more "on the bit"?  YES!  But she is showing promise.  And I actually want her poll at the highest point, which it is not in this bottom photo, but I digress.  (And while I am having a digression, that is my rig in the background of the bottom photo...LOL!)


I know she is still pretty weak in the stifles and not nearly where she needs to be yet, but she is starting to understand our training.  Eventually as she becomes stronger, she will be able to move uphill, rather than so downhill.  Moving correctly is a very basic crux of training any horse, and most certainly a Standardbred.  They are so used to moving fast and PULLING themselves along in the sulky, while under saddle we want them to sit BACK and PUSH.  When you engage the hind end, the head will come down.  There is no need to pull it in.  The horse will seek the bit and want to establish a steady connection.  And then you have a "dressage" horse who can be successful in levels above Intro.


So much easier said than done, I know.  I have spent the last four years working my butt off with Dreamy to finally now start seeing a much steadier and true connection to the bit with her.  We are finally not seeing "connection could be steadier" at the bottom of every single dressage test!  It takes patience with any horse, but certainly more so with a Standardbred.  And I am just a regular little adult amateur (hence the reason it has taken me four years!) who takes as many lessons as she can, so realize that I am certainly not a professional!!  I am sure my instructor could have trained Dreamy much faster than I have done.


Next time you look admiringly at a horse or photo of a horse because it has a pretty curled neck, look at the rest of the body.  There is so much more to moving correctly "on the bit" or "on the vertical" than just a headset.  :-)


OK, off the soapbox...for now!  ;-D  
/rant

3 comments:

Kate said...

You are oh so right - it's a huge pet peeve (or more than that) of mine. It also takes relaxation - a tense, tight horse can't use its core correctly and relax its entire top line. Facial expression is a good indicator of what's going on - if there's tension in the face, then the head position is irrelevant. Another good sign is "swing" - is the horse freely stepping under - the feeling is unmistakeable. I think so many people ride the head because you can see it and the rest requires feel - but that's no excuse for upper-level dressage riders who are among the worst offenders - put away those draw reins and bitting rigs, folks. And it takes time - a lot of time - to develop properly - maybe they're in a hurry . . .

Holistic Horse Care - HHC said...

Thank you for sharing! The more educated we are the better!

Dressager said...

A great example to see is some of the very classically trained baroque horses. Granted the horses have natural collection-favoring conformation, but regardless: the horse has his hind legs practically beneath the rider, his haunches practically make a semi-circle, there practically IS no underline, the horse has a beautiful, self-carried arched neck, and the horse has his nose a few degrees in front of the vertical. So, if you were going by headset, OMG he's not on the bit! If you go by the actual definition of being "on the bit", then this horse is by all means displaying the qualities of being "on the bit", not to mention enough self-carriage and collection to spare.

Another thing people need to understand is that head carriage is in no way a means to the end. Having the head carried BY THE HORSE on the vertical or a few degrees in front of the vertical is a RESULT of the horse going properly. Frankly, I would rather we not use the term "on the bit" at all because it implies riding from the mouth and not the leg and body.

The goal of dressage is self-carriage, so if your holding the horse's read in a certain position, that kind of defeats the whole purpose.