When I first heard about a horse “being on the bit”, I thought it had all to do with my hands and their mouth. Did I have my reins short enough? Was I pulling on his mouth too hard? I, more often than not, convinced myself having any sort of contact with his mouth was bad because I ride lesson horses who small kids also ride and I’ve seen the way they handle their mouths and, and, and . . . and none of this had to do with what being “on the bit” actually meant.
According to Nuno Oliveria, classical dressage Master Trainer, “putting the horse on the bit means feeling that the poll flexes, the back rises, [and] the haunches become active.”
To the extremely novice rider, that explanation doesn’t mean much. Unless you’re working in a well fitted, close-contact saddle — or you know what you’re even supposed to be feeling for — you might not notice the way a horse’s back rises. We know when his head comes up, and it’s hard not to try and force his head back down. The problem is, we don’t understand why his head is coming up as he’s moving forward. We have our reins shortened like we’re supposed to! So what’s the problem?
Let’s break what Nuno said: It’s also not pulling on the reins while pushing forward with the leg. If we pull on the reins, and not giving, we’re just encouraging an improper headset and our horse isn’t going to be able to relax into what we’re asking of him. Being on the bit is actually about the energy loop that moves through the back from the hindquarters moving forward, into the neck, back into our hands. It becomes a delicate balance of giving the reins and taking them, depending on the amount of force you’re using to move forward, and our willingness and ability to give in the reins when we feel our horse relax into what we’re asking him to do. And that’s the major key to being “on the bit” or collected, or round, (or whatever term your trainer is using to help you understand this concept): relaxation and suppleness. “The relaxation of the mouth alone is not enough,” Nuno explained. “It has to be accompanied by the relaxation of the entire horse. When he relaxes the back, it will definitely have repercussions in the mouth.”
Figuring out how to get your horse on the bit will be one of those lightbulb moments in your training, not just for you but for your horse as well. You’ll both get to that point of being relaxed, and supple, of him understanding the reward of the pressure off his mouth, and the slight tension of your ring finger around your reins as you encourage that collected forward movement. But once you feel it for that first time, you’ll get it and you’ll recreate it to the point where, like with having good posture (heels down, thumbs up, elbows in, etc.), it becomes an automatic thing you do.