Saturday, January 15, 2011

Over the Bit ll

There were a couple of good comments out there. I felt like this conversation could keep going with a little more input.

Whisper_the_Wind said: OK. How do WE get them off the bit?

You need a small pen or, if you trust your horse, any size arena. Then you get on and, very simply, put the reins down. As in out of your hands. Hanging on the horse's neck. Without you touching them.

If your horse speeds up pick up a single, leading rein and execute a turn the opposite direction. As soon as your horse is going the other way let the reins go again.

Keep up this very simple step until your horse will stay in whatever gait you put him at whatever speed you ask for.

If he wants to wander around it doesn't matter for now. Just getting him to hold the same speed with no contact is enough.

When you have this much start expecting him to stay on the rail. If he wanders off of the rail then pick up one rein and direct rein him back. Then drop the rein again.

You can take this as far as you want, go into maneuvers, etc. You want your horse to look at the reins for guidance and support. Your legs control movement and forward drive. To my horses a solid hold on the reins means stop and back. A pull means "Get back NOW!"

I also teach my horse to back. I want him to pick up his back (which drives his head down) as we go in reverse. I release my pull when he picks up his back and drops his head.

Once my horse completely has these concepts we start on collection. I drive him forward into the wall of my hands. By now he trusts my hands, seeks release from pressure, understands my leg pressure to mean forward, but not necessarily faster, and is able to get the concept fairly quick.

This is pretty much how I start my babies too.

I don't frame up my horses for the first year I'm riding. I spend that year on forward and suppling, laying the groundwork for collection.

They begin to drop their nose to the vertical on their own when I ask them to drive into a turn, increase or reduce speed, transition gaits, back and stop. To my mind they are figuring out collection at their own pace.

Now we get into why I don't make them bend their nose left, right, bring them to my knee, zippety-do--da-day.

I don't think it teaches them to travel the way I need them to travel. I still teach them to give their nose as soon as I ask for it, but I want them to travel. I want my young horse to follow my hands with his feet.

I want him to try to line his spine up from dock to poll.

I want my colts to wrap around my legs and move their ribs when I create a bend, not stiffen his body, flop his head to the side and tip his poll.

Now before you guys start hollering about safety I would much rather double a colt, have him follow through my hand then have him wang his head to my knee and stop dumped over on his front end.

A horse with his head yanked to my knee knows perfectly well he can still take his shoulder and go. If he's not moving I don't have his feet. If I don't have his feet I don't have him.

Besides, you Dressage folks don't do all that bending to the knee stuff do you?

Help me here if I'm not making sense.


  1. I love your concepts. Wish I had read them when I had started my last mare. She had nose to knee, poke shoulder and go to a T. I am trying a few different things with my other two year old now.

    I sure wish I could come ride with you, I bet I would learn A LOT.

  2. As one of those "Dressage folks" *chuckle* I've always been encouraged to keep the neck straight.

  3. It makes sense to "struggle" with Starlette is her not dropping her nose around, and to curve her whole body.

    Now Friday, on the other hand, has no curve because he doesn't know, so I am working from a different direction with him. He's also just getting under's fun to see how far Starlette has come over these last 4 years compared to starting a green horse again!

  4. "Now we get into why I don't make them bend their nose left, right, bring them to my knee, zippety-do--da-day."
    I found it mind boggling when I first saw that done - to me (yeah dressage/english) all you are teaching your horse to do is to pop the shoulder out and go... I must be nuts as I would get on an ottb in a 10 acre paddock and go, if she got away from me, I could start on a big circle and work down until I was back in control (this was a hose that would get behind the bit from little more than the weight of the reins, and the only bitless option to me was a mechanical hakamore, which made things way, way worse). I did a massive amount of trotting on big rectangles and circles and loops getting her to move forwad into a very, very soft hand.
    we had very good brakes and she never went behind the bit until the time she saw the horse ahead of us on a xc day... jumps were only 2ft high, so she was going to catch it....
    I didn't have to do anything drastic, but it was funny as I'd have her showjumping collected" into the fence and as soon as she got some rein to jump, she put the hammer down. She went behind the bit once, the rest of the time it was a very impressive extended canter - and she never popped her shoulder once. IF she had I would have been in massive trouble.
    I will also never, ever foget gloves when riding xc again.

  5. Have you ever heard of Dr. Gerd Heuschmann (not sure of spelling)? He's a German rider (dressage) who has come to the same conclusion you have (behind the bit = bad), but looked into the biomechanics of it.
    His DVD is really interesting. It focuses on rollkur (which takes "behind the bit" to the extreme) and basically explains that, when the horse is behind the vertical even the slightest bit, 2 things happen: it is no longer able to bend correctly (due to some bones on the skull that "lock" it in place, so no sideways flexion at the poll at all) and it can't use the neck muscles to bear weight. That means that the horse has to tense its back to carry the rider, resulting in a choppy gait. As well, the back muscle is connected to the butt muscles, so when the horse's back tenses, the muscles along the butt contract, which pulls the hind legs out.
    He explains it a lot better than I do. I just figured I'd mention it in case you hadn't heard of him, because he explains in detail why the things you've observed happen. Hence why I am now hard at work training my eventer to stay in front of the vertical and respond more to seat aids, and so far it's going really well :)
    I hate how almost every upper-level rider now has their horse behind the vertical... at least in most English disciplines :(

  6. I was thinking "I wonder why Mugs is so down on having a horse able to flex when that is about the most important thing for a lot of horses" but reading this I'm seeing that you do want them to flex, you just don't want their head being pulled right around, which stands to reason. Once you've got a bend and the horse isn't pulling to straighten back you don't really need it to be a big bend at all - most times if you can see their eye they are bending enough.

    That said, I would like my horse to follow the rein wherever I take it, so if I did ask them to come right around they wouldn't quit on me after five degrees of bending, but practically I never ask for it.

    In fact one horse I ride at the moment gets a bit excited about trying to bite my toes anyway ( asking her hindquarters to step under she could tell the problem was my leg so the solutions she tried included trying to bite my toe and cow-kicking the underneath of my foot before she realised just stepping away from the pressure was the easy solution ) so I'm reluctant to encourage that.

    I think with dressage folks there are some who believe in flexion being the core priority and others who believe in impulsion being the core priority. I fall in more with the first ( approximately French ) set than the second, but both seem able to get good results eventually but to my mind the push-push-push ( approximately German ) approach spends less time working with the horse's mind and more working with their body. Dressage is inclined to be mechanical at the best of times so if I'm taking ideas from that they tend to be more from the French school, though it will be a long time before I'm as good as even an average rider from either.

  7. Glenatron- Very interesting. I started with the flex first thinking. As time went on I have shifted to the forward first train of thought.
    It's because I feel a horse who is comfortable with being forward is able to engage his brain faster when we get to flexing.
    It also helps me avoid getting flexion and losing momentum. This of course could come from a weakness in my training, but it has become clear to me I do better if I add flexion to a already forward horse.

  8. CJ - I'm going to look that guy up....

  9. "I want him to try to line his spine up from dock to poll.
    I want my colts to wrap around my legs and move their ribs when I create a bend, not stiffen his body, flop his head to the side and tip his poll."

    I believe those "Dressage folks" would cheer to that.

    Personally I want stability in the shoulder area. It is very important so you don't get a wiggly horse. You want a horse that is driving with the hind legs to a stable contact with the bit.
    Sometimes a horse is stiff in the poll area, and you have to make him supple. A stiffness in the poll area is often related to lack of hind leg activity, so you cannot solve that by only using reins and overflexing. You have to put the body to work.

    Another thing; many riders mix what they see (flexion of the neck) with flexion in the body (which has to be felt). Too much flexion of the neck often results in a shoulder that pops out and a straight back. And no work today.

  10. I doubt it is a weakness in your training, Mugs. I do wonder ( and this is simply because I don't know ) whether you're riding more horses that you have started or ridden since they were quite green. A horse that has never been taught to pull or brace up on the rein just won't do it, so if you're mostly riding horses that you've trained from the start it probably never comes up in the first place.

    Most people, certainly here, don't know anything about that- you get taught to pull on the rein and so you do - which means that before you can really get much else with most horses here you have to go back to the foundation and remind them about how to follow a feel on the rein and how to give at the poll. I think this is actually more basic than what you're talking about- it's more at the "being able to bend a horse at all" level. I've been taught that getting on a horse you can't bend is a good recipe for a wreck, so I try to avoid doing that.

  11. Hiya,

    Instead of a bridle (though you can use that as a backup), I use a stiff piece of lariat rope cut to length, with the ends gorilla glued and wrapped (with a small nylon rope or string) together to form a "neck ring". We use a piece of plastic shrink tubing to make a handle at the wrap point.

    Anyhow, because the lariat is stiff, you can move it up and down the horse's neck to stop and turn them. But for this particular exercise, you want to just hold it in the air off the horse's neck.

    At the point where you need to stop or turn, you engage your butt and legs first. Basically do what is described in article. Then, if you don't get your response, you engage the neck ring. The upshot is that the bit becomes totally beyond the point.

    Here's an example of the neck ring technique in performance:

    Oddly, with the ring, the horse will carry themselves in the way that is most natural for them. If they know how to collect, they will collect themselves appropriately. It's very interesting to watch a horse move when ridden this way.

  12. I love your training tips.

    Some people click with certain trainers and not with others. For whatever reason I find your tips really gel with me.

    If you ever write up a complete cowhorse training program I really want it. I really appreciate how you think through a whole issue, from how you start - to what it means for the horse in the long run. Not just "I want to fix X and Y works today" but how it fits in with the whole training program to the finished bridle horse.

    I suspect that this comes from your intention to be "fair" to the horse.

    Please keep writing these cowhorse training gems for us.

  13. Thanks for this two part series Janet. I've never really understood the whole concept of "on/off/under the bit". But after reading your article I finally get it!!! WHOOP!!!

    We are in the middle of winter here in Ontario and conditions are not ideal for practicing your techniques but once I get my fatties in condition then we will definitely be working on this!!! Thanks again for making it reasonable and easy to understand.....especially for us more equine learning impaired...sigh....