Beginner’s Guide to Getting Your Horse on the Bit

As you learn to ride horses, there’s nothing quite as confusing as getting your horse on the bit. There is a lack of understanding and many misconceptions about getting a horse on the bit and its meaning. Not every horse is a dressage horse; the normal horse will look a little different going on the bit than a dressage horse who’s had years of training. In this article, I will explain everything you need to know to get a horse on the bit.

How do you get a horse on the bit? Here are simple steps to take to get your horse on the bit:

  1. Get your horse moving with momentum
  2. Flex your horse’s neck towards the middle of the arena.
  3. Close your fingers around the reins and hold the contact.
  4. Simultaneously, move your horse into the rein pressure by squeezing your legs.
  5. Maintain by closing your fingers around the reins and encouraging your horse forward.

I will break down each of these points further, but first, I want to share what getting your horse on the bit is, and what it’s not. I want to share how to know if your horse is on the bit and the benefits of riding your horse on the bit. If you don’t know why you’re asking your horse to do something or how to tell if they are doing it right, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Keep reading to learn more!

What Does it Mean to Get Your Horse on the Bit?

If you don’t know what it means to get your horse on the bit, you’ll have difficulty asking your horse your horse to do it and know when they have done it correctly. Sometimes, it’s easier to understand what it is by first understanding what it’s not.

What Getting Your Horse on the Bit IS NOT

Getting your horse on the bit isn’t just getting your horse to round its neck. Many riders assume that if they can get their horse into a frame, their horse is on the bit. Some riding horses are trained to round their necks and just hold it there for the entire ride. There’s no engagement from the rest of the horse’s body, and they just plod along.

A horse that drags behind but has its neck in a frame is not on the bit. If a horse is constantly behind the leg (you apply leg pressure, but the horse doesn’t move forward) and feels as if they don’t have any momentum or forward push, they probably aren’t on the bit.

What Getting Your Horse on the Bit IS

When your horse is correctly on the bit, their body will be engaged from their hind quarters all the way through their body and neck, stretching toward the bit. The horse engages their body by stepping their hind legs further under themselves. By doing this, the horse will have to engage its core muscles and back muscles. The back muscles will lift. The horse’s forehand will become lighter, and the horse will appear visually more “uphill.” In other terms, by engaging its hind end and lifting its back, it almost looks like the hind-quarters are lower than the shoulders and pushing the shoulders up.

Have you ever seen horses get riled up in the pasture and start trotting around with their tails raised and their necks arched? They seem to float effortlessly across the ground as they trot. When a horse does this, they engage their body in the same way riders hope to achieve when getting the horse on the bit. If you notice the horse in the field, by engaging their hind quarters and body, the neck naturally rounds. When getting the horse on the bit, you want the horse to stretch through the rounded neck to seek the contact of the bit.

What Are the Benefits of Getting Your Horse on the Bit?

While not every horse is going to look like a professional dressage horse, there are benefits to every horse knowing how to go on the bit:

Encourages Your Horse to Carry Themselves Correctly

Riding your horse on the bit encourages your horse to move in a way that requires balance and impulsion. It requires training to learn how to properly balance, and correctly balancing enables you to build and maintain muscle.

By carrying themselves correctly, the horse can passively carry the rider’s weight. When the horse’s back is lifted, there is much less strain than when the horse’s back is hollow.

Encourages Your Horse to Focus

Engaging its body requires the horse to focus. You’re centering the horse and drawing them into the exercise. Instead of looking around at what’s happening outside of the arena, getting the horse on the bit will keep them in tune with what you’re asking of them.

Gives the Rider More Control

Since getting the horse on the bit encourages the horse to focus, it will be easier to control them. Using their body correctly and paying attention to the rider will make your horse more responsive.

What Getting Your Horse on the Bit Feels Like

How do you know if your horse is correctly on the bit? When you’re on your horse’s back, you must feel rather than see when your horse is doing something right. In this section, I will share what you should feel from your horse when they are on the bit.

Swinging/Propulsion from the Hind-Quarters

First, it’ll feel like your horse’s hind-quarters are more active at the walk. You’ll feel your seat swinging more side-to-side than usual as your horse steps further beneath itself. At the trot, you’ll feel more bounce as the horse’s stride helps you rise at the post. In the canter, you’ll feel the hind-quarters scoop under the horse, propelling the gait up.

Lightness on the Forehand

The propulsion from the horse’s hind-quarters should make them feel lighter on the forehand. A horse who’s heavy on the forehand will feel like they are dragging you down, or that if they tripped, they would definitely fall on their face. A horse light on its forehand will feel more springy. Imagine the feeling when you go from a walk to a trot; it feels as if the horse springs into the trot. If your horse is light on the forehand, each stride will feel springy. It also feels like the horse has more energy.

Soft Contact in the Reins

When your horse is on the bit, you should feel contact with its mouth. It shouldn’t feel heavy, as if it will pull you down. You shouldn’t feel no pressure at all, or else your horse is probably just breaking at the poll. There is a balance between these two points. When you close your fingers around the reins to get your horse on the bit, imagine putting a 1-lb fork over your pinky finger where the reins are supposed to sit. You can practice this at home. Go get a cooking fork from your kitchen and hold it between your pinky and your other finger; this is the level of contact you should feel when your horse is on the bit.

How to Get Your Horse on the Bit

Step #1: Get Your Horse Moving With Momentum

The most important aspect of getting your horse on the bit is your horse’s ability to go forward when you put your leg on. You don’t necessarily want your horse to move faster when you put your leg on; you want them to move bigger. I use the word “momentum” to illustrate this. Likewise, a horse moving forward isn’t necessarily taking faster strides; it means it’s taking bigger strides.

You should be able to squeeze your horse’s sides with your legs, and your horse should move forward with momentum. If your horse doesn’t do this, you need to practice this first before trying to get your horse on the bit. Your horse has to engage its hind-quarters to move forward with momentum. This is the starting point for getting your horse on the bit.

Step #2: Flex Your Horse’s Neck

Flexing your horse’s neck will encourage your horse to stretch through the neck and seek the contact of the bit. To understand this, it’s easier to start at a standstill and practice. If you reach your hand down one rein and then bring that rein out and back toward your hip, your horse should bring its head around to your knee. If you hold the pressure until you see the horse dip its nose all the way to your leg, you should be able to release the rein, and the horse will want to stretch its neck down.

Once you understand this concept, you can move on. Now, you should be able to reach your hand down the rein, but instead of bringing the rein back to your hip, you should be able to close your fingers around the rein and ask the horse to simply tip its nose toward the pressure. Here is when you should see the horse’s neck round as the horse follows the pressure. When you release this pressure, the horse should stretch its neck down.

Now, if you tip your horse’s nose to the right and then close the fingers of your left hand, your horse will naturally round and straighten their stance. When your horse is moving with momentum, ask the horse to flex its neck by tipping its nose to the inside or outside arena. Close the fingers of your opposite hand to feel the contact of the horse’s mouth. The horse will round and stretch through its neck, seeking the contact.

Step #3: Close Your Fingers and Hold the Reins

Now that you have your horse rounded and seeking the bit, how do you maintain it? You shouldn’t have to see-saw on your reins or yank on the horse’s mouth. All you have to do is close your fingers around the reins to feel the contact of the horse’s mouth. If your horse sticks its head up in the air to avoid the bit, flex the horse’s neck first and then try again.

An important note is that you shouldn’t feel like you are pulling on the reins to get your horse on the bit. All you have to do is close your fingers and feel the horse’s mouth. If you’re pulling on the reins, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re doing it correctly, you should be able to stick your hands forward, and your horse will extend its neck to find the contact again. If you feel like you have to pull on the reins, your horse is probably heavy on the forehand and you need to go back to getting engaged through their body.

Step #4: Add Leg Pressure to Move Your Horse into the Contact

Last but not least, the most important aspect to maintaining your horse on the bit is leg pressure. If you’re riding around and you can tell your horse’s neck is rounded, but you don’t feel any contact in the reins, add leg pressure to encourage your horse to stretch more through their body. If your horse sticks its neck up in the air instead of rounding through its neck, you’ll flex the neck and add leg pressure. If you feel like your horse is dragging you down and pulling on the reins, add leg pressure.

Visualize your leg pushing your horse through your hands and into the bit. Without leg pressure, your horse would move lazily and with dragging feet.

Getting your horse on the bit is a complicated subject. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out a Youtube video I made on the subject by clicking the link below:

For more helpful tips for getting your horse on the bit, check out my article Getting Your Horse on the Bit: 11 Reliable Solutions.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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