Saturday, May 11, 2002

The Bit, As a Communication Tool

Leaning on the Bit

Horses who race have learned to lean on the bit to balance themselves. This is a bad habit, usually resulting from a lack of training. Dental problems should not be ruled out, however, when undertaking a course to transition a horse from leaning on the bit to using the bit as a communication tool.

Horses who have learned to lean on the bit do it from lack of understanding, sometimes fear of the bit--they "grab" it before it grabs them! More than likely, they also have not been taught to accept the bit. A horse traveling with his mouth open shows discontent or evasion of the bit, again, most likely a training issue--either the horse doesn't understand or the rider's hands are heavy. In either case, more training of horse or rider is warranted :-). Using a noseband to close the mouth is not the answer.

The bit should be used as a fine-tuned communication device. All other communication and direction for the horse should be coming from the seat and legs. The weaker the seat, the stronger the hands. There is also an analogy thinking of the bit as a lollipop--the horse uses his jaw movement, mouth, and tongue to "taste" the lollipop. As sweet and wonderful as the lollipop can be, if it's jammed in his mouth and pulled on with no relief, it becomes an instrument of torture. Once the horse focuses on his pain and attempting to get relief, he will no longer be in willing communication with the rider.

Leaning on the bit is a habit, and will continue from one rider to the next. The habit may have been developed when the horse was ridden by the original trainer, or whenever he learned that "hands" could not be trusted. In order for a horse to lean on the bit, there must be something there to pull against. If not, the horse cannot lean on the bit!

An astute rider will use only the weight of the reins to maintain contact. Hard hands make a heavy-on-the-forehand horse into a VERY heavy-on-the-forehand horse! It makes a horse stiff and resistant in the neck, poll, jaw. His mouth gets harder as time goes on.

Most horses will eventually complain about heavy contact--either by tossing their head, leaning and pulling on the rider's hands, hollowing the back, running away, etc. The horse, for the most part, will give several warnings to the rider before getting to this point; however, a rider with heavy hands is not in a position to "receive" communication FROM the horse and may have missed all the cues from the horse.

If a horse is continuously ridden with heavy contact, it will make him more heavy on the front end.

No matter from whom, or how your horse learned to lean on the bit, it is now your responsibility to change things! Change the role the bit plays, and your horse's reaction to it will change.

Starting The Change

Look into riding lessons in these disciplines: dressage, classical horsemanship, centered riding, connected riding. Find someone who can help you learn how the body influences the horse.

Use very light contact, allow the horse to be responsible for his own front end (and that you will not be holding it up), acquire educated seat and legs, teach your horse to understand the seat and legs. Use a good dressage program of half-halts, transitions, rein-backs, circles, serpentines, figure 8's. Utilize John Lyons "Give to the Bit", Parelli's 7 Games and lateral flexion, Bill Dorrance's ground work, and / or some TTEAM groundwork. To help your horse understand, bridge these learning exercises with clicker training. Educate your hands to take light contact, slowly, and release contact quickly; as it is the "release" that teaches the horse.

This will all take time as the horse learns to trust the hands, to give to the bit, to relax. It may be difficult for him to transition to light contact, but hang in there--even the dullest mouths have been changed! The important thing to think about is that the bit does not control the horse. The rider who gains control of the horse's mind, has control of his feet.

Icelandic Horse Connection

Icelandic Horse Connection