Thursday, January 13, 2011

Over the Bit

Here's my column from the paper. It's pretty much over kill from a very simple question from HorsesandTurbos, but hopefully it answered her question too, especially since she was the motivator behind the column!

My Horse is Over the Bit
By Janet Huntington

I was recently asked about how to correct a horse coming over the bit, or travelling behind the vertical. This little habit is more than an annoyance.

It’s an evasion which can become dangerous quickly.

I have seen cow horses steam rolling down the fence with their forehead tipped over and their nose buried in their chest. The rider is pulled forward, the horse is dumped over on his front end and the resulting turn on the fence, if there is one at all, is a dangerous, out of control mess.
I have watched barrel horses come over the top of the bit at gymkhanas and shoot past the barrel and into the arena fence.

I have seen children’s horses drop their nose to their chest and take off for home.

These of course are extreme examples of this evasion, but the lack of body control and steering tends to be pretty consistent no matter what speed your horse is at.

Ducking behind the vertical usually comes from a horse being ridden with only the hands and not the legs and seat. Trying to create collection by pulling on the reins is another reason.

I avoid the head flexing and bending exercises many clinicians recommend because it rewards the horse for flopping his head around without bit contact.

If I pick up my reins and my horse immediately drops his nose I feel like I have taught him to duck before I take contact. This little maneuver will also dump my horse on his front end once he’s travelling.

This might be just me, but I don’t like to teach them to avoid contact, then have to go back in and teach the horse to accept contact later. I’d rather teach them to follow their nose from the get go.

When a horse is behind the vertical and we try to drive it forward the spine doesn’t have enough stability to bring the horse forward. Instead we have a shortened and floppy neck and dragging, scuffy action in the back. Riding a horse tipped over the bit is kind of like trying to play pool with a rope. You’re just not going to get any honest forward.

A horse needs to carry his rider with his weight shifted towards the hindquarters. Asking him to drive his hindquarters forward while he is behind the bit is pretty much impossible. If he does try he will travel along with a hollowed out back and his hind legs dragging behind him. This prevents him from balancing the weight of his rider with the power of his haunches.

The question asked was how to fix the problem, not how to avoid creating it. For me the answer to both problems is the same. It’s just that it’s much harder to fix a horse coming over the bit than prevent it in the first place.

When I have a horse with this problem I go back to a ring snaffle, back to riding two-handed and back to the basics. I’m going to pretend my horse knows nothing and build from there.

First I’m going to make sure I have plenty of forward. I want my horse to walk, trot and canter on a loose rein without me having to push him.

If you are afraid to let him tool around the arena on a loose rein then you might be closing in on your problem. If your horse can’t travel without you taking a hold of him then you hang on way too much.

Once I have plenty of forward I’m going to start asking my horse to engage his hindquarters. I want him to rock back and balance on his back legs, one leg at a time.

I’ll begin to serpentine on my horse. Big, loose, loopy esses, through cones or from pole to pole in the arena. I’m going to drive my horse forward into a lively trot with my calves and engage his face one rein at a time with my hands. This will encourage him to go to the bit briefly as he goes through his turn.

Notice I still haven’t set both hands against the bit.

I keep this up and make my turns deeper and sooner between straight-aways.
After I have a good handle on my serpentines I will start working on some transitions. I start as simple as walk to trot and back then make them harder. Stop, trot, stop, walk, trot, extend trot, walk, lope, you get my drift.

Again, I still won’t have taken a strong hold of his face yet, I'll just let him bump into my hands. I like my youngsters to get a feeling of security and stabilization from my hands.

It’s all about engaging the hindquarters and getting his motor back off his forehand.

Good lateral work is helpful next. I’ll get a leg yield at the walk and trot, and eventually go to the half-pass. This kind of work will set you up for lead changes too.

Once I’m happy with my horse’s balance and drive I’ll start to take contact on the long side of the arena. I keep the contact light but constant and push my horse forward with my legs. When I feel one or two lengthened strides I release. Then I round my corners and take the long side and ask for a few strides in frame again.

I stay at a trot and just take up enough rein to feel the corners of my horse’s mouth. Then I drive with my legs while keeping my hands steady and encourage him to step into the bit. I never pull him back, I only hold.

If a horse is still ducking me I’ll put him in a side pull for awhile. When he understands condensing himself into my hands I’ll go back to the bit.

My dressage buddy and contact Michelle showed me an easy way to encourage a horse to get himself back on the bit if he ducks on and off as I drive around the arena.

A light upward bump, kind of like the bump you see Western Pleasure riders do on their horses is the secret.

“Up, up!” she would encourage while bumping his mouth with an upward tug. I’m not talking pain here, just an annoying bump. The horse will bear down on the bit as he moves from the pressure. When you feel contact then you relax.

For me the biggest factor in getting a horse happily back on the bit has been working hard to engage the hindquarters and lighten the forehand. The mouth tends to come along for the ride.


  1. I love the "playing pool with a rope" metaphor. I'm currently training this habit out of my new horse, and it's one of my most hated habits to work with -- I would almost prefer buckers and bolters to curlers. At least bucking is honest! ;P

  2. I am flattered I inspired Mugs! Wow!

    I glad I am working in the right direction, hands on bit, we are doing figure 8's off my seat...bareback. When I say he knows noting, I mean nothing :) I am pretending he is just learning...and he is just learning! His back is no longer sore, his hips no longer sore...and all we are doing is walking. And I have him in a O-ring french link snaffle.

    And he's got tons of forward and propulsion - I just have to teach him what I am asking him. He is very on his forehand, and no back muscles from avoiding, and I can't wait to see the changes!

    Okay, I need spring... :)


  3. Great article! Love the back to square one thinking, and that one's horse should be able to easily carry you around on a loose rein, if not the buckle.
    Thanks for posting it.

  4. how do WE learn to let go. Most of my riding 'education' comes from the racing industry and I find it difficult to unlearn my heavy hands. Even when I think I am being 'loose' I am apparently not. I seem to have a built in brace that my horses pick up on, so it feels like they are constantly braking.

    For me, it's not 'playing pool with a rope', but trying to push through a brick wall and there are few, if any, qualified riding instructors in my area.


  5. I think overuse of the reins is one of the main things that "English" riders in particular get wrong. Once a horse has a few rides on them a lot of people seem to expect them to be in a frame and the way they endeavour to teach it is by pulling on the reins the whole time. It sounds like a ridiculous caricature, but I see it happening often.

    An interesting challenge: Can you think of a training problem where the solution isn't going back and fixing the basics?

  6. Just so you all know, my new horse was ridden western before I got him...put 30 days on him and then put a curb bit in. And used a training fork to get his head down because he was sticking his nose in the air to avoid the bit. He's just 7 years old now (yes, I got another baby)so I hope he can unlearn quickly his bad habits.


  7. Oh,oh,oh, a training article! Those are my favorites :)

    I started my first baby this summer, and the thing I'm the most nervous about is inadvertently teaching him to avoid the bit. I've already been doing a lot of the exercises you suggested because they make sense. I’ll have to start adding to the mix!

    “I avoid the head flexing and bending exercises many clinicians recommend because it rewards the horse for flopping his head around without bit contact.” I never thought of it this way - I always considered it stretching, flexing, and yielding. You raise a good point, though. I will have to mull it over for a few days.

  8. Hey Mugs...took what I was doing and went one step further per your suggestion...and let him walk all the way out. Did the serpentines, figure 8's, etc. He's go super sensitive sides (the trail riders rode in a chair-seat, legs forward and off him) so I am also getting him used to my legs hanging down on his sides.

    He has a *big* walk. I am riding him bareback and must have been tensing up a bit (I don't know him that well, just trust the previous owner about his temperment), so today I forced myself to let him reach out as far as he wanted. His head came down, hips started swaying - very kewl.



  9. And This is why I like to red your blog. Though many need to be reminded that this process takes time: for the horse to learn, for the muscles to adjust and for it to become easy. But Yeah, stay off their face and only give them the contact they need.

  10. I believe these discussions are very interesting, as you can exchange thoughts between different equestrian sports, combine them and learn something new.

    Here are my twocents from the dressage corner!

    I agree with you Mugs, that a horse that is constantly working behind the bit often is a result of too much hand, or too strong a bit.
    A forward horse combined with an insecure or inexperienced rider often ends up here because the rider feels she has not got enough brakes.
    Instead of learning the horse to respond more to seat and weight aids through transitions with a soft hand, the rider resorts to the hands to try and slow the horse down, and over time also perhaps to stronger bits.
    To re-learn such a horse to accept the bit and trust the rider’s hands is not easy.

    Then you have the horse that from time to time comes behind the vertical.
    I believe you here have to differ between the horse that leans on the bit because he has a balance problem and weighs the forepart (something that happens from time to time with a young horse) and the situation where the horse drops the contact.
    In the last scenario it is very important to keep the hands still and ride the horse forward into contact, and not take up contact through moving the hands closer to the body.
    In the first situation it is a bit more complex as the balance is the most important thing.
    It takes two to pull!
    If you ride with a snaffle, you can raise your hands straight upwards for two or three strides, to get the horse above the bit again. If you ride with other types of bits/bitless this doesn’t work, so instead you have to soften the contact so your horse doesn’t have anything to hang onto. Then you have to rebalance your horse through halfhalts or transitions.

    I believe much of the problems shows up, and also is solved by transitions.
    If you have a horse that ducks behind the bit in transitions downwards, or doesn't accept halfhalts, you have to correct it. Don’t make the transition, but soften in the hand and ride forward instead. Keep repeating until the horse stays up – over the bit is much better than behind the bit.

  11. Thanks, HoC...My gelding's issues are that he was ridden with a curb (shank) bit after 30 days of training. Right now he's just learning that I will not *hurt* him. He's even letting me communicate through the reins without throwing his head up or touching his chest with his chin.

    He'll be on the bit soon enough, but right now he's learning to trust the rider.


  12. Jackie, I did not get your initial question so I was just speaking in general.
    To put a curb on a horse just after 30 days of training?
    What were they hoping to achieve?
    I bet your horse is very happy to be with you, instead of with previous owner.

  13. HoC - Trail riders :) They love their horses, but have no idea. He was used for beginners, so for more control (just because he didn't know) they used a stronger bit.