What does 'on the bit' really mean?

The horse being on the bit, or engaged, is a fascinating physiological phenomenon that can apply to all horses, in all spheres, and should be the basis of all riding. In fact, it could easily be said that this is the most important thing that you can understand about riding.

Engagement protects the horse, giving him the strength and suppleness to carry the rider comfortably, and it protects the rider because it creates the unity that puts the horse under full control. It gives rise to a whole realm of wonderful sensations between horse and rider, and is the means for the athletic development of the horse's movement, giving it beauty and expression.

Engagement, commonly known as the horse being on the bit, is not an additional quality acquired by advanced dressage horses - it should be present to a greater or lesser degree at all levels of a horse's training.

correct engagement on the bit

Engagement on the 'ring': the synchronized action of groups of muscles throughout the horse which brings about the longitudinal stretching of the entire spine; the lifting of the abdominal muscles and back; tucking of the pelvis bringing the hind-legs further underneath the body, and the arching of the neck with a soft under-neck muscle. The horse feels to the rider like it 'locks-on' to this postural ring, and the locomotive muscles can then relax rhythmically, giving suppleness and expression to the movement. Note the softness of the contact and the symmetry of the diagonals (see below). The whole horse lifts underneath the rider, giving a feeling of weightlessness and the suspension of the significant unbalanced forces that the horse (and gravity) normally exert on the rider.

The biomechanics of the ring of muscles is now well-understood thanks mainly to the fascinating work of Deb Bennett Ph.D. The highlighting of muscles and structures on this image is based on the diagrams in her article “The Ring of Muscles Revisited” available to download here.

Go to our photo gallery to see more examples of horses working in engagement.

Characteristics of the horse correctly engaged on the bit:

  • the abdominals lifted, showing a delineation of the muscles on the belly

  • the pelvis tucked, lowering the croup and bringing the hind-legs further under the horse's body

  • the neck arched, but in a forwards-stretching, or 'telescoping' way, showing a delineation of the muscles mid-way up the neck, and a softening of the under-neck muscle

  • one of the most reliable signs of true engagement is, in trot, the unity of the hind-leg and foreleg of each diagonal pair swinging forwards at the same angle. The following illustration shows how this can clearly be identified on a photograph.

    illustration of the unified diagonals of engagement The yellow lines indicate the angle of the upper foreleg and the lower when this diagonal pair is raised and swinging through. In an engaged ('on the bit') trot these angles are identical i.e. the limbs are parallel, in a reflection of the connection through the horse's whole body created by engagement.

    disconnected diagonals in lack of engagement

    This photo, however, shows a great difference in the angle of the limbs in the diagonal pairs - the foreleg is raised to an exaggerated extent, and the hind-leg is barely lifting off the ground. Note also the compression in the jaw (where the head joins the neck) reflected by the tension in the reins - the powerful curb bit is pulled to it's strongest possible degree of leverage - and observe also the raised croup indicated by the steep angle of the horse's lumbar back behind the saddle. This horse achieves phenomenal success at the top level of competitive dressage, despite the clear lack of engagement - the most essential foundation of correct dressage.

    It's interesting to take a moment just to compare these two images, looking at the differences in the energy dynamics between them.

    Can you see the overall stretching forwards dynamic in the first photo, with the rider lifted up by the horses back? Whereas the second photo shows a clear contraction up and back in the horse's neck, with the rider dropped into a hollow back.

    Incidentally, this difference has nothing to do with the more 'advanced' level that the second horse is working at - if it was genuinely more advanced, it should show an even greater degree of engagement, not a lesser one.

    The high head-carriage of a truly advanced degree of engagement is a reflection of the significant lowering of the croup (this tucking of the pelvis is brought about mainly by engagement of the abdominal muscles) so the longitudinal stretching of the whole spine is maintained. On the other hand, a high head-carriage achieved simply by holding it up with the bit compounds the hollowing of the back, and has nothing to do with true engagement.

    Many people are attracted to dressage for the sheer spectacle of the performance of horse and rider, and would disagree with reducing it to a question of geometry, but the irony is that in focusing on the spectacle and forgetting the gymnastic goal of dressage, in our opinion the beauty of performance had been totally lost in most competitive dressage (and in many other forms of dressage spectacle). Perhaps the only solution is a far less subjective method of judging involving analysis such as we have shown here, at least to confirm that the horses competing are actually engaged, and not just making a pretense of being on the bit.

    Why 'on the bit'?

    The reason this whole-body phenomenon is usually described as the horse being 'on the bit' is that when the horse engages onto the ring of muscles as described above, the neck arches and the jaw relaxes, giving the rider the feeling that the horse is softening onto the bit as opposed to resisting against it.

    Unfortunately, because this effect in the horse's mouth and head-carriage is one of the most obvious signs of engagement, often riders focus on achieving it on its own, usually by 'fiddling' or playing with the reins, or worse, simply pulling against the horse's mouth (modern sports-horses are bred to bring their head in easily when the bit is pulled, where an untalented horse would normally resist).

    This focus on the front-end of the horse is a completely futile approach, because the correct softening of the horse on the bit is only as a result of what the horse is doing with the rest of his body, and on its own it has no significance or benefit to either horse or rider. The double bridle also has an artificial softening effect on the horse's jaw, click on the link for more on the subject.

    The profound effects of engagement on the bit

    When the horse works properly engaged on the bit, it not only makes a profound physical transformation to him, it also has a remarkable effect on the horse's mental state. When the horse starts to carry himself using his postural muscles, at the same time connecting with the rider's postural engagement, this goes hand-in-hand with the release of tension. Not only the physical tension the horse has when he carries a rider out of balance, but also the mental tension that is very often present with horses, who are essentially prey animals, and therefore easily stressed when they are not in the security of their natural herd environment.

    The amazing thing is that when you put a horse on the bit correctly, not only are you connecting to that horse in a profound way, but you are asking him to give himself over to you in a whole-body way. This is comprised principally of his yeilding to your leg in order to bend round turns in the opposite way as he would naturally, and his giving up the natural flight reflex when he comes off the forehand and balances back to the rider.

    When the horse hands his body over to the rider in this way, and he then feels the security that this balanced way of moving and connecting to his rider gives him, this brings about a profound mental shift in the horse in that he releases his need to defend and protect himself, because he senses a great safety in the connection with his rider. In a way, as a rider you have become his 'herd': the security of a trustworthy leader that allows him to relax on a deep mental and emotional level.

    The important point here is that in correct riding, you earn the this trust and voluntary submission of the horse in a physical or gymnastic way, by showing the horse that he is safe in balanced motion.

    We don't believe that you can ever achieve this level of mental calmness through training the horse by conditioning his mind, as is the methodology of many natural horsemanship methods. Horses are extremely physical beings, everything about their mental state is related to how they feel in their body. In domesticating horses we have (for the most part) removed them from the physical security of the herd, and then in riding them we have upset their natural way of balancing in motion, so, in riding, it is therefore only by giving them back the physical security of the balanced connection of engagement on the bit, that we can give the horse back his natural lack of tension, and maybe even create something more profound.

    This is why the whole management of a horse is so relevant to his training. If a horse has a great deal of tension accumulating in him from an unhappy existence outside of his work (for example solitary confinement to a stable) then it will make it all the harder to for him to release this tension and give his body over to you in his work. Interestingly, we have found that this kind of stress often manifests itself as tight holding in the horse's diaphragm, the part of the body where emotional tension is often stored. This creates a direct barrier to his coming on the bit, which requires a relaxed diaphragm for the right postural engagement to take place.

    Unfortunately it seems to have become the fashion in modern dressage to see tension as a desirable aspect of performance, so not only is the tension of an unnatural lifestyle not addressed in training the horse, it is actually amplified by forceful riding, and this is rewarded by competitive success.
    The original relevance of dressage was to train a horse to be calm enough, and trusting enough of his rider, to be able to be ridden into battle. It's hard to imagine the dressage stars of today being capable of that...

    Training Philosophy: A tale of two boats uses an analogy to explain the harmonious connection you achieve when you commit yourself to the horse's movement and build enough postural strength to channel it, compared to the superficial success achieved by training the horse while restricting him with the bit.

    How does the rider get the horse on the bit?

    This is one of the most important questions in riding!

    Why? Because it concerns the basic transformation that ideally all riders should be making (to an appropriate degree) to all horses on a continuous basis, no matter what their riding discipline is.

    It is all very well knowing what engagement is, but far more important is to know how to create it, and what it actually feels like when your horse is on the bit.

    To achieve engagement, the rider first needs to acquire postural strength, begin to develop flexibility in the right joints, and most importantly lose the reliance on the reins for balance and control. Then an understanding of aligning (straightening and bending) the horse can be achieved, along with the skills required in the seat to modify the horse's weight bearing and longitudinal stretching.

    In fact we have come to the realization that in order to engage the horse, the rider must engage their own body in a very similar way, using the same core strength and the suppleness of certain joints to connect to the horse. This is part of the beautiful symmetry of riding when it is understood as a unique gymnastic art. Look at Rider Biomechanics for more on this.

    When you acquire the ability in your own body to bring the horse on the bit correctly and consistently - not just in fleeting moments - it is a huge empowerment which takes your experience of riding into a whole new realm.

    When riding is broken down into its essential elements - how your body really influences the horse's - and then built back up into an effective whole, it loses the mystification and misunderstanding that often makes trying to improve your riding frustrating or boring.

    Whether you are inspired by competitive or Classical dressage, or simply want to improve your riding in general, it comes down to the same principles. The gymnastic harmony that can be achieved between horse and rider through good riding is an amazing phenomenon no matter what the context. Many of our clients have found the unity with the horse that they discover through engagement - the apparently simple matter of putting the horse on the bit - to be a profound experience. For us this is what riding is all about.

    Available exculsively on Happy Horse Training: The Gymnastic Rider eBook is a comprehensive step-by-step guide to building your ability to achieve engagement on any horse. The process of developing the seat, leg and postural influence necessary for engagement explained in the book, is simple enough for any rider to achieve, but the fundamental elements of it are counter-intuitive for most riders, and this explains why so few riders and teachers practice and understand correct engagement.

    How To Ride A Horse In Balance gives you full details of the book, and the philosophy behind it, as well as the opportunity to download the 15-page introduction to the book for free.

    relevant pages within Happy Horse Training that may interest you:

    What is real dressage riding?
    Rider Biomechanics
    The Importance of the Posture in Riding
    Training Philosophy: A tale of two boats
    Training horses: the whole way!
    The Independent Seat
    Achieving Suppleness in Horse and Rider
    The Bit
    Photo gallery

    return from What Does 'on the bit' Really Mean to Happy Horse Training home

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