On the Bit 1.0
©Thomas Ritter 2009

I want to explore the notion of riding the horse “on the bit” in the next few entries. It is something that most riders struggle with for a long time. It is something that is considered to be of central importance in dressage. Yet, it is not as well defined as one should think. Opinions on what being on the bit is or looks like diverge. A posture that is considered to be on the bit by rider A may be considered to be above the bit by rider B. What rider B considers on the bit may be considered behind the bit and on the forehand by rider A.
One of the problems with the concept is that too often it is described only in terms of a superficial form, rather than in terms of function. What is interesting is that the old masters didn’t really talk very much about having the horse on the bit in the same way contemporary riders do. Instead, they discussed elevation and poll flexion, as well as the relationship between the flexion of the haunches and the elevation and flexion of the neck, and the energy connection between the horse’s hind legs and the rein aids.

In the next several blog entries I will look at the most important gymnastic and biomechanical components that play a role in the concept of riding the horse on the bit with the help of what some of the old masters had to say. I will give you an excerpt from the classical literature first, in which the author addresses a key element of poll flexion, and then I will add a few remarks of my own.

Gustav Steinbrecht (1884):


“The correct angle between head and neck not only produces the correct effect of the bit on the bars and thus contact, it also makes it possible for the impulsion generated by the hind legs to travel through the back and neck to the mouth, making the horse light on the bit and yielding in its poll. Only then is the path free between hindquarters and forehand, and now the hands are enabled to transmit their effect through the entire spinal column and to the haunches. In this way, forehand and haunches are connected with one another, the horse's body becomes a closed unit, hands and legs are able to interact correctly; the horse becomes “through”. If individual vertebrae are not in the correct connection, that is, their contact surfaces are not in proper alignment, they will interrupt the transmission of the aids, similarly to the way a crack or break in a hard, resonant body interferes with its vibrations.”

In Steinbrecht’s system the transmission of energy between the hind legs and the bit through the spine plays a central role. The vertebrae pass the energy impulses of the hind legs along from back to front towards the bit, and conversely, they pass on the rein aids from front to back towards the hind legs. This energy transmission is only possible when the vertebrae are properly connected with each other. Steinbrecht is especially concerned that, in spite of the longitudinal flexion and lateral bend which the neck may have, all vertebrae share a large enough connective surface area with each other.
The straighter the alignment of two vertebrae and the smaller the bend is, the larger is the connective (shared) surface area. The greater the bend, i.e. the greater the angle between individual vertebrae is, the smaller the connective surface area becomes. A larger connective surface area means that the forces will be transmitted more effectively and more completely. A smaller connective area means that the forces cannot be transmitted as well.

If this connective surface area is too small, because the neck is bent too much in this area, the energy cannot be passed on adequately any more. This is called a false bend. In that case, the thrust of the hind legs no longer reaches the rider’s hand, and the half halts no longer reach the hind legs.

If the shared connective area approaches 100% of the vertebral surface, the neck is completely straight. The transmission of the horse’s thrust may be very direct, but the transmission of the rein aids to the hind legs is compromised due to the lack of suppleness. This means that we need to find the right balance between stability (straight neck) and suppleness (longitudinal and lateral flexion).

In the first sentence of the paragraph above, Steinbrecht mentions something that other authors address as well: the angle at which the rein aids act on the lower jaw. The more this angle approaches 90 degrees, the more effective the rein aids become.

Notice, though, how carefully Steinbrecht avoids making any absolute recommendations about the horse’s head position. He often does this sort of thing. While he emphasizes the importance of having just the right amount of connectivity between the individual vertebrae, and the best angle at which the rein aids address the jaw, he never indicates a specific head or neck position. I think he did that on purpose, so that his readers would not mistake form for function, because there is no one size fits all frame that works for all horses and for all situations. It is too easy to end up emulating a headset as a hollow gesture, while completely missing the point of gymnastic training. – And Steinbrecht considered dressage always to be first and foremost gymnastic training. Anything else was “Pudeldressur” - “poodle dressage” to him, which he abhorred.

The details of the head position, the elevation of the neck, the degree of lateral bend and longitudinal flexion are like variables in a mathematical equation. Their precise numerical value has to be determined by solving the equation. The specific technical details are determined by the conformational features of each horse, its training level, as well as the gait, the stride length, the balance, and the gymnastic intentions of the rider.

To be continued…

Feel free to post below with questions and comments for me.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 27, 2009 at 9:11am
Thank you for writting this post.

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