Getting your horse on the bit refers to when your horse stretches through their body and neck to accept the pressure applied from the rider through the bit. The horse will round its neck and propel itself forward using its hind-end; this helps the horse to carry itself better and focus on the rider and instructions.
Not only is a horse that’s ridden on the bit nicer to look at, but it also gives the rider more control and it gives the horse more focus. Here is a list of reliable solutions to help you train your horse to go on the bit:
- First, Teach Your Horse to Soften & Flex
- Close Your Fingers and Hold
- Use Your Leg
- Ask for Connection on a Circle
- Ask the Horse to Flex to Help Them Get on the Bit
- Widen and Raise Your Hands
- Check Your Position
- Remember to Release Pressure
- Let Your Horse Stretch to the Ground
- Don’t Pull Your Horse Into the Contact
- Work on Getting Your Horse In Front of Your Leg
Before you get started training your horse to go on the bit, let’s discuss the specific points a bit further. It can be easy to confuse you and your horse is you don’t have a clear understanding of not only how to ask for something but also why you ask that way.
First, Teach Your Horse to Soften & Flex
Before I train a horse to go on the bit, I first teach them how to soften and flex. Softening is when your horse gives to pressure by dropping its nose towards where the pressure is applied.
Flexing is when your horse flexes the muscles in its neck in order to bend and turn its neck one way or the other. These two principles are important to teach your horse because both concepts will be used in order to get them on the bit.
Teaching Your Horse to Soften
Teaching your horse to soften is most likely a concept you’re already familiar with. Its the same thing as asking a horse to lower its head in order to put the bridle on. The horse is learning to not brace its neck when pressure is applied to its face or head.
Start on the ground. I would recommend using a rope halter with a connected lead because it allows the pressure to be applied more thoroughly. Here’s my personal favorite rope halter you can see on Amazon by clicking here.
Stand next to your horse’s head. All you’re going to do is apply light downward pressure to the lead rope. Hold the pressure until your horse drops their nose. As soon as the move their nose towards the pressure, release, even if they only move a centimeter.
As your horse gets the hang of it, you can start asking them to stretch the heads closer and closer to the ground. You can also ask them to hold the soften for longer amounts of time.
Teaching Your Horse to Flex
Flexing their neck allows horses to bend their necks left and right. The neck muscles they flex in order to do this will also be the same muscles used to round their neck in order to go on the bit.
Starting out, some horses will seem stiff in the neck when you first introduce flexing to them. As you continue to work on it, you’ll notice that they’ll loosen up and their necks will become more flexible.
Stand facing your horse at the horse’s shoulder. With the lead rope in hand, lift your hand up to the horse’s withers, applying pressure to encourage the horse to bend their neck in that direction. If the horse is bracing against the pressure, wiggle your fingers to encourage them to stretch a little further.
A horse should be able to bring their heads all the way back to their shoulders. As soon as the horse has stretched their neck around without bracing against the rope, you can release the pressure.
In the beginning, some horses will step their back legs around trying to escape the pressure you’re applying when asking the horse to flex. When this happens, simply keep your hand at the wither and move with the motion of the horse. As soon as the horse stops stepping away, you can release the pressure.
To check out a more in-depth look at these exercises, check out our article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.
Close Your Fingers and Hold
Once your horse has mastered softening and flexing on the ground, you can mount up. First, try to get your horse to flex under saddle by placing your hand on your hip and applying pressure with the reins in that hand. Your horse should turn their head and bring it back to your leg.
The way to cue your horse to go on the bit is by applying even pressure on the reins simply by closing your fingers over the reins and holding the pressure. Steady, even, and still pressure is key when communicating going on the bit to a horse that is new to the concept.
I was originally taught to put a horse on the bit by opening and closing your fingers rapidly; however, I have strayed from this method because it seems to jerk the horse’s mouth and causes the horse to become agitated. With horses, the best way to always communicate with them is through steady pressure.
Use Your Leg
There are two cues that go into getting your horse on the bit; rein connection and leg pressure. The leg pressure will signal to your horse to stretch through its body and into the bit. This pressure will help your horse from getting stuck (dragging feet, not moving out, power building up in hid-end which causes rearing, bolting, bucking) which tends to happen when only rein pressure is used.
Apply light leg pressure in unison to the rein connection by wrapping your legs around your horse’s side and gently squeezing your lower leg against your horse’s barrel. While rein pressure is released when the horse responds by lowering its head, leg pressure is continuously kept on the horse to encourage the horse to move forward into the bit.
Ask for Connection on a Circle
In the beginning, an easy way to get your horse is to ask for the connection on a circle. The way your horse bends on a circle plus the aids to get a horse on the bit all go together nicely.
The key to getting your horse on the bit while on a circle is your outside rein. A fail-proof method to use is simply to hold your outside rein and rest your outside hand on the pommel of the saddle. This will give you a goal of where to keep your pressure if your horse resists.
Hold your outside rein steady and taut while you encourage your horse to bend on the circle by closing your fingers over your inside rein and applying leg pressure. You’ll feel the horse round its neck and tip its nose in as it gets on the contact.
As soon as the horse does this, relax your inside hand while still holding your outside rein steady. This will encourage your horse to stretch into the contact.
Ask The Horse to Flex to Help Them Get on the Bit
Another great way to encourage a new horse to get on the bit is by asking them to flex left and right, then hold the pressure in both reins to signal for them to soften and round their necks. The flexing motion will engage the neck muscles that will be used when the neck is rounded.
Another way flexing left and right before will help you to get your horse on the bit is because it encourages a response from your horse when rein pressure is applied. Flexing teaches the horse to follow the pressure that is applied. This means when pressure is applied equally from both reins, the horse will follow the pressure by rounding and lowering its neck.
How I’ll usually use this method is by asking my horse to flex one way, then the other. Let’s say I’m applying pressure on the right rein so the horse’s head should be flexed to the right. I’ll ask for a more subtle flex, so I can at least see the side of the horse’s face.
As I’m applying pressure to the right rein, I’ll add equal pressure from the left rein by closing my fingers. The horse should then drop its nose and round its neck.
Widen and Raise Your Hands
When starting a new horse to ride on the bit, it’s not unusual for them to fight you and the pressure you’re applying. This usually looks like the horse sticking its head up further and further into the air as it braces its neck against the pressure. If your horse does this, just keep holding the pressure until the horse drops its nose, even if it’s just a little bit.
A way to encourage your horse to stop tensing their neck and to simply give to the pressure you’re applying is by widening the distance between your hands. Also, lifting your hands higher as the horse’s head goes higher when it braces against you will help the horse accept the contact.
Widening the distance between your hands can help you communicate a more steady pressure to your horse when asking them to go on the bit. Lifting your hands does the same; many riders will tend to lower their hands when their horses brace against them with the thought that they can pull their horses’ heads down, but this isn’t the case. If anything, this encourages more bracing.
It’s important to understand that you’re not pulling your horse’s head down when asking them to do on the bit; you’re actually asking them to stretch into the contact that the bit is applying. If your horse is bracing its neck, lift your hands and keep applying pressure to encourage the contact.
Check Your Position
Always check your position when asking your horse to go on the bit. As mentioned above, you want to make sure you’re not trying to pull the horse’s head down. Be aware of your position, as you can subconsciously fall into this; if you get perched too far forward and your hands are low, you’re running the risk of falling into this trap.
Sitting up with your back straight and your lower leg beneath you can encourage your horse to stretch through their body and move forward. Steady hands raised above the pommel of the saddle will communicate the connection to your horse, as well as encouraging them to move into the bit rather than dragging behind.
Even your position while bending and flexing can play into how your horse will communicate with the contact. Using your outside leg behind the girth with a steady outside rein and straight shoulder will ask your horse to stay on the correct bend, not dropping the outside shoulder or over-bending to the inside.
Likewise, keep your inside hand lifted instead of dropping it while on a bend. This will encourage your horse to stay on the contact.
Remember to Release Pressure
One of the main principles of horse training is pressure and release. That means you apply the pressure of asking your horse to do something; as soon as the horse does the correct thing, you release the pressure. The release of pressure is considered a reward for the horse and shows them that they did the right thing.
To help your horse understand that you are asking them to go on the bit, it’s vital in the beginning that you release the pressure as soon as your horse drops their nose and rounds their neck. By doing this, you are communicating to them that they are responding correctly.
This will go a long way with a horse that tends to fight the contact. With this horse, hold the pressure for as long as your horse fights you. As soon as they make the smallest movement to soften and flex their neck, relax your hold on the reins.
Let Your Horse Stretch to the Ground
There is some discussion about whether or not you should encourage your horse to stretch their head to the ground when teaching your horse to go on the bit. Some riders will argue that this may cause the horse to fall onto their forehand instead of actually carrying themselves correctly.
While these riders may have a point, it’s important for your horse to learn that they should be stretching through their spine and into the bit rather than just breaking at the poll. If the horse is just breaking at the poll, then they’re not really carrying themselves at all.
Letting your horse stretch their neck down when asking for connection is good. It’s teaching the horse to stretch through its body. This will also teach the horse to adjust to any rein length to find the contact. When on loose reins, many horses will tend to lose the contact; If you train your horse to stretch into contact, they’ll do it even on the longest rein.
Don’t Pull Your Horse Into the Contact
When you first learn how to put a horse on the bit, you may think that you have to pull the horse into the contact by hauling on the reins. Another reason you could feel as if you’re pulling a horse onto the bit is when the horse seems to get heavy in the bit, pulling you down.
A horse that is on the bit should feel light in your hands. A horse on the bit will be easily controllable and instead of pulling you down, you should feel like they’re rocking up on their front-end.
A horse isn’t pulled into the contact; rather, they’re pushed into the contact. If you feel like you’re having to pull your horse into the contact, chances are you’re not using leg pressure to move your horse forward. Without leg pressure, your horse loses its momentum and will feel stuck. Leg pressure help propel your horse forward and up into the bit.
Work on Getting Your Horse In Front of Your Leg
Getting your horse in front of your leg means that your horse is responding to leg pressure by pushing from its hind-end and up through its body.
A good example of this is when you ask your horse to trot from the walk. Does your horse jump right into the trot or does your horse amble into the trot will little momentum? If your horse jumps into the trot, it responded to your leg cue by pushing itself into the gait with its hind-end.
Getting your horse in front of your leg can also be called engaging your horse’s hind-end. Putting your horse on the bit and engaging your horse’s hind end coincide. It will be much easier and smoother to do one with the other than to do one without the other.
When your horse is in front of your leg, it will take very little rein pressure to get them on the bit. Instead, the horse will naturally arch its neck and reach through its body. To learn how to encourage your horse to use its hind-end, check out our article, How to Get Your Horse to Engage Their Hind-End.
I hope this article will be able to help you better understand and communicate with your horse when putting them on the bit. It’s a big concept to grasp, but it will make your ride much more enjoyable! To get the low-down of some of our other training tips, click here!