On the Bit
By Leslie Desmond

The things we have missed with our horses usually show up when we ask our horses to do something they have not been prepared to understand. Few postures riders can ask their mounts to assume bring this fact home as clearly as asking a horse to travel in a calm and relaxed manner 'on the bit'.

What does 'on the bit' mean? There are many different interpretations of this phrase, and many ways to go about educating a horse to adjust to this request. When I use the term, I mean that the horse is, first of all, attentive, willing and flexible from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. His body can bend and hold the shape I ask it to be in without pressure on his mouth or head from a bit, cavesson, rein or rope and halter. His body can be shaped and "parked" in that shape, and his feet can go and stay where I place them. When this is happening, his mind and body are working in unison. When it's right, the horse offers no resistance to my hand or leg. There is life available that can be accessed immediately.

When I ask for life, I want all of it available for the asking, even if I only want him to take a single step with just one foot and leave it there for a good long while. Pushing, kicking, begging, shoving, and urging are not part of that picture. Life is asked for and offered initially through little reciprocal movements that convey both my wish and his understanding that he move forward, backward, to the left or the right, or that he start or stop. Eventually this is done in response to thought and desire that is barely visible to the untrained eye.

When a horse is ready to travel 'on the bit' he can maintain accurate foot placement on a loose rein when he is asked to start, travel in any direction at almost any speed, and then stop in a stride, two at the most, in a relaxed state of continued readiness. He can gear up with all he has available for the next task at hand and he can do these things with a good demeanor, meaning that in no event would he respond to a request from me by pushing his nose out against the feel of my hand, nor would he think to pin his ears, swish his tail, back up when I ask him to go forward, or anything contrary like that. There is either a little or a fair amount of float in the lead or the rein, but in either case, his relationship to my hand is weightless throughout his whole being, and the frame he adopts is a frame that the horse and I maintain in an emotionally calm state of athletic readiness and mental willingness. I think all these things combine to make a pretty nice ride.

To understand how to ask the horse to perform reliably on the bit, we first need to see about the foundation. What does the horse already know about responding to human feel? What sort of feel does the person learning this present to a horse?

For best results, the preparation takes place on the ground. There are some questions I ask my students to ask of themselves before getting too far into this important function of horsemanship: Do I really respect the horse? In what ways is this apparent? Do I understand trust, love and respect, and their differences? Do I tend to be soft and gentle around this horse or have louder than usual speech around the animal? Does this horse expect to be fed by hand? How close to people does this horse tend to stand? Does he become active or more still in my presence? Can the horse stand tied quietly (not cross-tied)? Does the horse have to be tied up to be saddled and bridled?

'On the bit' is a posture that can be attained for the asking in a rope and halter. When the horse is wearing a bridle, it does not require more than a snaffle bit adjusted without wrinkles that the horse can take up in his mouth and hold. There need not be tight reins or a tight rope for this, although some people prefer to pull a horse into this position. The preparation leading up to the posture determines the horse's capacity to comprehend the request, just as it influences his willingness to go along with it, and it is the rider's finesse that ensures the continuation of this posture, whether the posture is maintained through a single maneuver or an entire ride.

Putting a horse on the bit must look right and feel right; the best feel I've discovered is when the horse shapes his body in a way that enables him to keep the float (some slack) between your hand and his head. A horse that travels comfortably on the bit is evidence of a good foundation; when the foundation is right, the posture will appear. It is simply a clear and willing exchange of well-presented information between two beings that just shows up when everything else a horse and rider need to know about feel, timing, cadence and reciprocal respect are in place. I find that when the goal is the refinement of the process of attaining the posture, and not the posture itself, the horse adjusts his way of moving and holding himself and moves very easily onto the bit.

Another thing to consider when learning how to ask the horse to perform is the fact that not everyone learns the same way, and no two horses or people are alike, so no prescribed way suits all. Adjusting the rules that determine "what and how" we learn and "what and how" we are expected to do anything is very important if we want to progress. When we customize the rules on learning to fit our learning styles and our characters, it shortens the learning curve. As an added benefit, the change that doing this brings about on the inside of a person actually seems to empower one to take even greater responsibility for the horse and the outcome of the effort put forth.

Far too often, there is little regard for the variations between individual horses as well. Any regimented approach to putting a horse on the bit just about precludes the flexibility and adaptability needed to become a truly "sensitive" rider. When 'on the bit' becomes more of a goal, and maneuvers or styles associated with certain disciplines are adhered to, it is often at the expense of the horse. Sensitive hands start with a sensitive mind, which is a part of the open-hearted rider that horses must have for their inspiration to maintain their inherent lightness, which is to be genuinely soft. 'Inspiration' that comes from the heel and the whip is not open-hearted. When the horse is inspired by the presence of the rider, that rider's requests are at the top of the horse's thoughts. In that frame of mind, one need not pursue a 'frame' or experience the frustration of begging for lightness or manipulating the animal's body for any purpose. When the horse is inspired, he's going to try to do all the things you are asking him to do for you. When it's right, onlookers are astonished because it is undeniably attractive. The desirable look and feel of this is stunning, even on a common-looking horse.

It's not a secret that horsemanship in the 21st century is in a grand state of flux. The learning process itself is under close scrutiny because of how little time people reserve to learn about horses and to become safe, proficient riders. For one person to live the dream of becoming an excellent hand, many adjustments have to be considered. The most obvious obstacle in all of this is that the horse is no longer needed for transportation, agriculture or commerce -- in most places. This unfortunately has reduced their role in our lives, for the most part, to being purely a source of entertainment and recreation. Except on dwindling numbers of working cattle ranches, the Amish country, Tibet, and perhaps a few other places where strong community has resisted the effect of popular commercial and political trends, this sad lapse in the inter-dependent connection between horses and people seems to bear out.

What does this mean? It means that the pursuit of horsemanship and horse owning is optional. It is a choice. The rules about learning can and should be revised to include a foundation in feel. Feel is the language of the horse, and is the inherent foundation for getting a horse to travel well 'on the bit', which is a delicate, important and easy to destroy thing. Nothing produces a more reliable, more beautiful result on horseback than a rider and horse that understand each other this way. When they go as one, they look as one!

Traveling together in a posture that is agreed upon, that is as classically effortless as it is graceful, means that the rider and the horse both agree on how to be, what to do, when, and where. That's a feeling that beats all.

Copyright © 2001, Leslie Desmond

About the author:
Leslie Desmond is the co-author of True Horsemanship Through Feel. Additional information about the book she co-authored with Bill Dorrance, her articles, videos and clinics can be found at www.lesliedesmond.com.
Leslie's second book, Refinement on the Reins, is a new presentation of classical technique, and will be published in 2002.