Most novice riders, and even some higher level riders, believe that the only way to get a horse on the bit is to pull their head down. I’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it at shows, at your local barn, online, ect. You see some people riding around jerking on their horse’s mouth with their hands on their knees continuously bumping them with huge spurs. Every time the horse would try to evade the bit, the rider would simply crack their wrist and the horse would typically have no choice but to go down.
Let me tell you why this is wrong: first and foremost, most of these horses that are trained this way do not have impulsion. What impulsion means is, is that they are moving forward. There is a difference between moving forward and moving fast. Moving fast is when your horse starts to run with their legs forming this whole new gait of their own and becoming more uncontrolled. Moving forward is when you feel their hind end and even their spine push up into the saddle and pushing from the back to the front, elevating their front a bit more than they would if they were “running”.
Making sure that your horse is fit to do this job is key for this. You don’t want to drag your old pony in who you haven’t worked in a year and start hardcore training exercises. Like anything else you would want to build up to it. Do some circles, figure eights, halfpass across the quarter line, ect, until you feel your horse become more comfortable with becoming supple and bending left and right. Warming up is also extremely important. You don’t want your horse working on stiff muscles as this could be an accident just waiting to happen. When you begin to warm up, ride on a loose rein. Just be wary that you still have control over your horse if you do ride on a loose rein or the buckle. Walk, trot, and canter, letting your horse stretch up and then down over their topline. This will in turn stretch out their neck, back, and legs, warming up their whole body so that you may begin to prepare for the whole reason why you’re out there.
Once you’ve warmed up completely, start to slowly gather up your reins and asking for more contact in the mouth. Do not pull or jerk on your horses face but rather squeeze by gently opening and closing your fingers gently on the reins. Press on and off, still keeping direct contact, with your legs to urge him to move forward, sit up with your elbows at your side, tuck your tailbone in and push him with your bottom thighs and seat. Move with him by using your hips, and by giving and taking the rein to encourage him that you are not here to force him but to ask him to give into the bit.
Your horse is now on the bit. So, now what? He’s in a good, forward gait, let your hands and elbows go soft and push him forward with your legs and seat. Do not let your reins go as your horse will still need to feel some contact with your hands while doing this.
Keep going. Don’t stop there. You want your horse to get comfortable with bending at the poll. A good exercise to keep in mind is transitions. When you ask for a downward transition, sit up and back, squeeze with your inner thigh slightly, while asking for your horse to come down. When he transitions down he should never faceplant onto his front end. He should always sit back on his hind end coming down easy. You normally do not want to even ever feel his face when he comes down. The best way to think about it is that you want him to feel light in your hands. When you do an upward transition, it’s the same thing only you are going to need to push him forward. For example if you are at a walk going into a trot, start by asking for a forward, impulsive, marching walk, and then push your horse up into the trot by using your seat and hips to have the horse push up from the hind end into the trot.
If you don’t get it on the first day, don’t worry. This stuff takes practice! With time your horse will be more willing to go on the bit and you will have a better understanding of how to ask and maintain the maneuver with little to no frustration. Good luck and happy riding!