On the Bit

So many riders and trainers talk about having the horse “On the Bit” but what do they really mean by this ambiguous statement? Do they mean pull on your horse’s mouth? Do they mean ‘contact’? Or do they mean ‘collection’? Certainly if one goes to a competition one sees all too many riders who think “On the Bit” means pulling on the horse’s mouth  and forcing their horse into a frame.

When ever you hear a trainer yell “get your horse on the bit” you see people frantically shortening their reins at the same time as booting their horse in the ribs, desperately trying to attain what they think is the correct frame by dragging their horse’s head inwards. But why? The chances are if you use your reins to shorten your horse’s frame you will achieve exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve.

The expression “On the Bit” seems to me to be fairly meaningless, all it does is encourage us to think about the front end of the horse rather than the engine, which is the horse’s hind legs! Since the German Federation has come to be viewed by many as the originators of dressage let us look at what they say in the Scales of Training.  Now the Scales do vary and sometimes we see Rhythm first and other times we see Relaxation – but we never see “On the Bit”.

Contact is #3 in the Scales but what is contact? “Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s aids and ‘seek’ a contact with the rider’s hand, thus “going onto” the contact” But the important point here is that the horse should seek the contact, not the rider take it. Contact should never be achieved through a backward action of the hands; it should result from the correctly delivered forward thrust of the horse’s hind legs.

Collection is #6 in the Scales but what is collection?  The aim of training is to create a horse who is gymnastic, light, supple and ready and willing to perform. For the horse to meet these criteria, his weight, plus that of his rider, needs to be re-distributed. This means reducing the amount of weight on the forelegs, which naturally carry a third more of the weight than the hind legs, and increasing by the same amount the weight on the hind legs, which were mainly intended to create forward movement. By training and developing the relevant muscles, it is possible to increase the carrying capacity of the hindquarters. The increased flexion in the 3 joints in the hind legs results in the pelvic girdle of the horse tucking under which in turn results in the withers and neck of the horse being raised.  The poll should remain the highest point and the horse’s nose should remain just in front of the vertical. The important thing to note here is that the body of the horse shortens but the neck does not. The horse is then in a position to move in balance and self-carriage. This is true collection!

As you can see from the preceding paragraphs the frame of the horse in front of the rider should express the engagement that comes from behind. The frame in front should NEVER be the result of hanging on to the reins. On the contrary, pulling on the reins prevents engagement and develops nothing but an insensitive, unresponsive horse with a bad back and a bad attitude!

So we still haven’t found out where the phrase “on the bit” comes from or what it really means. Let us take a look back into history and scrutinise the literature of the Classical Masters – does the phrase occur. The answer is a resounding no!

So how did the English term “On the Bit” appear in our terminology? According to Dr. Max Gahwyler it started with the creation of the FEI in 1921. DeCarpentry wrote the FEI rules and definitions in French using the sophisticated French Dressage vocabulary with its infinite nuances and meanings. But there is no expression even remotely resembling the notation of “On the Bit” anywhere in the Rules. This would translate in French as “Sur le Mors,” an expression which simply does not exist.

The Germans didn’t bother to translate the French FEI text, because unlike us Brits most of them understood French as well as having an eloquent and well-established equestrian vocabulary of their own. So where does this phrase of “On the Bit” come from?

Since there was hardly any Dressage in the early 1900s in England, there were simply no real equivalent expressions for the terms used by DeCarpentry, that reflected the nuances of meaning of the French Dressage idioms. It is unknown who translated the French FEI text into English in the 1920s but it is clear that while the translator had a good grasp of French they did not have any concept of French equestrian terminology, and the term “On the Bit” was created without really understanding what was meant in French. More to the point they could have had no idea just how newly created phrase would affect riding in English-speaking countries to the detriment of the horse for years afterwards!

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