Put Him There and Keep Him There

Posted by in Blog, dressage, fingers, freeing the back, get your horse going, get your horse listening., getting your horse in your hand, hands, horse sets its neck, how to keep a contact, keeping a horse on the bit, losing softness, on the bit, outline, positive thinking, problem solving, problems, train your horse, training, training your horse, transition problems on Apr 22, 2012


When you school your horse how much of your session do you spend in trot? Why? Chances are you’re either trying to get him on the bit or you think you’ve got him there and you don’t want to upset things. The thing is – if he was really on the bit you’d be able to do anything with him without upsetting him.


The phrase ‘on the bit’ is unfortunate. Of all horsy terminology it’s the most commonly misinterpreted. It has very little to do with what goes on the bit – and everything to do with what goes on behind it. Take a look at the basic mechanics.


When you push your horse on into a steady contact it doesn’t allow him to go any faster. Because his hind legs can’t move quicker they step further underneath his body bringing his quarters and his shoulders closer together. As they get closer his back has to round. (Try it yourself) If he’s relaxed his spine lifts upwards, giving him the shape you’ll know as on the bit. But what if he’s tense?


Every time you pull on a rein your horse will tighten his back. Yet somewhere along the line every rider learns to pull one rein and then the other to ‘get their horse’s head down’. This causes enough discomfort for the horse to admit defeat and put his head in. But that’s all he does. Further back his body is tightening against the pressure. His spine still rounds but the wrong way. He hollows. Whilst he may look as if he’s going well when you change anything he’ll pop his head back up and you’re back to Square One. Which is why it’s easier to stay in trot.


Your aim should be to push your horse forward into a steady contact. (Push his quarters towards his shoulders – never pull his shoulders back to his quarters.) Your contact is kept constant between your thumb and first finger. Your 2nd and 3rd fingers should move so you don’t fix on each other. Using both legs at the same time – with an extra tap with the whip if he’s lazy – will push his hocks under his body, his quarters and shoulders will get closer together and he will naturally go onto the bit.


You may argue that your horse “won’t do that” but that’s only because you get fed up because you know it’s quicker to do a quick left, right, left. YOU need to get that thought out of your head and stick it out! Be consistent and he’ll learn to trust your hand and relax. If you start off with good intentions and then opt for the short cut is it any wonder that he’s resisting your hand?


But what if your horse is really settling onto the bit in trot and you’re genuinely losing the softness between paces? It’s probably down to something you’re doing – or not doing – in the transitions.


From trot to walk be sure you’re riding the three or four strides before and after the transition. Reduce the pressure at this critical moment and your horse will stop using his hocks and his quarters and shoulders will get further apart. When that happens his back flattens – as does his trot. He’ll fall into walk and lean down onto your hand. This will put his whole weight onto his shoulders – he’ll either poke his nose or drop behind the bit. Either way it will take you half a circuit to get him back again – by which time you’ve probably decided to trot on again.


Are you too heavy handed to walk? It’s easily done if your horse is soft and going well. Horses are sensitive and when they’re relaxed their senses are heightened. The slightest change in pressure will have an effect. If you pull back too hard he’ll tighten his jaw and his back. The tension in his body will draw his head and neck up and back making him hollow. He’s very likely to jog a few strides before you get him to walk. Again by the time you’ve settled him you’ll be thinking about trotting on again.


Try this – Ride forward in trot until you’re ready to walk. Tighten your knee and thigh into your saddle which will slow your horse down by restricting his shoulder muscles. (His shoulders aren’t attached to his spine and this has far less effect on his back) This should mean you can use the smallest of squeezes on your rein to tell him to walk. Then, keeping your lower leg on relax your thigh, knee and fingers on the reins to allow him to walk on. And he’ll do just that.


Trot to canter is always an event but it doesn’t need to be. Treat it as you would a trot to walk transition. If you don’t get tense or start fidgeting in the saddle your horse will think nothing of it. It’s just a change of leg sequence after all.


Many riders try too hard to get their horse to canter. In doing so they either use unclear leg aids by flapping, lean to one side to help him get the right leg or lose the contact because they think the less they hold the easier it is for him to go forward. If your horse is working softly, he’ll need much less encouragement. If you do any one of those things here’s what happens –  

  • Changing from a calm, still position to one where your legs suddenly bang on and start flapping isn’t going to help him stay relaxed and he won’t be able to understand a word you’re saying!
  • Leaning to the inside makes him feel unbalanced. If his weight is on the inside shoulder he’s going to put out his outside shoulder to steady himself. Result? The outside leg becomes his leading leg and he’ll be disunited or take the incorrect lead.
  • The slightest loss of the contact will be enough to drop his weight on his shoulders making it impossible for him to canter – so instead he’ll poke his nose and rush.


It’s very common for a horse to be crooked in canter which is where many problems with losing the softness stem from. If your horse isn’t straight he can’t push himself forward correctly. His quarters must follow in the tracks of his shoulders – even on a circle. (Imagine yourself doing a forward roll. Your whole body is in a curved position but your hips are on the same line as your shoulders)


Look at your canter aids. Once you’re in canter what do you do with your outside leg? You should move it back to its usual position. You do? Check your outside hip came forward with it. There’s a chance it got left behind. Whatever you do with your hips your horse will do with his. If his outside hip is further back than his inside one his quarters will move to the inside. When he’s crooked he can’t push his hocks under his body, his quarters and shoulders move apart and so his back doesn’t round.


Those three little words ‘on the bit’ are foremost in every rider’s head but do yourself and your horse a favour next time you ride and change them to ‘leg into hand.’  


Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

There’s another great post on the subject by Horse Listening. Check it out here – http://frwdnrnd.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/frame-round-or-collection-2/


The schooling guides in the shop http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/#!/shop/ are proving popular – thank you to everyone who has been in touch. Please leave a comment on the Forum http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/#!/forum/ if there is something you’d like to see in a future guide or if you found one of them useful. 

The Teach Yourself series has a new edition. TY4 is all about The Speed Merchant. If your horse is sharp, silly or strong it could be the one for you. http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/shop/syh-books/teach-yourself-4-the-speed-merchant/





  1. Apr 28, 2012

    Hi Lorraine!

    Great post. I love this explanation –

    “Because his hind legs can’t move quicker they step further underneath his body bringing his quarters and his shoulders closer together. As they get closer his back has to round.”

    I never really understood physiologically why the rounding occurs.

    You have a real talent for simplifying riding concepts. Especially helpful for those of us working without instruction.

    A side note:

    A while back you did a post to the effect of, if you’re stressing on the canter transition, why not just try walk / canter, rather than getting all wound up and rushy transitioning from the trot.

    Well, I tried this a few days ago, and it worked beautifully, for both of us. I took a few tries for my horse to understand what I was asking, but he was very relaxed about the entire process.

    It was our first real canter work – attempting proper departs – since I got my horse. I was overjoyed. Thanks you so much for giving me the tools and confidence to try this on my own. 🙂

    • Lorraine Apr 28, 2012

      Thank you 🙂 I’m so glad you’re getting results. It’s always nice to hear that people understand my explanations too. The canter/walk thing has had a good response. Sometimes it just needs someone to point out that these things can be done. Best of luck with your horse. 🙂

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