What do we mean by on the Aids? When your dressage test sheet says "horse above bit", or "horse against bit/hand", or "horse behind the bit" and "unsteady in the contact". What do these terms mean?

What do we mean by “On the Bit” or “On the Aids?

When your dressage test sheet reports "horse above bit", or "horse against the hand", "horse behind the bit" and "unsteady in the contact". What do these terms mean?

Lets start with the simple definition of “On the Aids” (On the Bit)
It involves a balanced horse, accepting the bridle, working with equal weight over all four legs, carrying his weight more over his hindquarters than his forehand, more than naturally at leisure, and showing self carriage appropriate to his level of training.

Additionally it is a horse that has his nose carried slightly in front of the vertical and his poll at the highest point, with a stretched, full neck, and a soft swinging gullet area. Additionally the horse will have a rounded top line and a tightened abdominal region with a soft swinging ribcage and back, engaged hind legs that are swinging with spring rhythmically under then horse with each step.

Below is the FEI Rule book’s description of “On the bit”:

The above terms refer to how your horse is accepting the bit, which really means how he is accepting the aids; that is his response to and acceptance of your seat. legs and hands in that order. A horse is never on the bit alone, the term is misleading at the very least. A horse is on the bit, i.e he is accepting the contact, only when he is on the aids, thus my reference to the term “on the aids” as synonymous with “on the bit”.

As seen in the above definitions of “on the bit” the whole horse is involved in being “on the bit” it does not refer to just the front end of the horse or its mouth and contact alone. See diagram of the development of collection.

So lets take each fault, their corrections and some specific exercises to counter them.

“Above the bit”
The most common fault, particularly, for the novice rider is “above the bit”. If a rider has not yet learnt how to place the horse ‘“on the aids” or if a rider has a horse that is unschooled this is the most common fault. Horses are not designed to carry riders, they are automatically thrown onto their forehands when we ride them, they need to learn to recover their natural balance under the burden of the rider, that is why we school them, we train them to manage carrying us! A common natural response to the burden of the rider in the unschooled horse is to go “above the bit” The position of the horses body is usually hollow backed, head high, often with a hollowing at the base of withers. The horse will often also drag his hind legs rather than swing them fully under his body
To correct the horse “above the bit” you simply need to ask the horse to step more positively forwards to the contact until he rediscovers his balance evenly over all four legs. Riding the horse onto the bit requires confidence and patience. On no account can a horse above the bit be pulled down onto it. Sadly I see people attempt this all the time but it is a hopeless effort. A horse has to be taught to lift its back and shorten its frame by engaging his hind legs under him, to rebalance himself under the burden of a rider. The horse will then be predisposed to lower his head and neck forward and down. He cannot be forced into a lower head carriage, attempting that you will merely teach the horse to lean on the bit and wait until you are tired and then stick his head in the air again. Always ride your horse from the back end forwards, that is a golden rule of classical riding! A horse that is “above the bit” will steadily correct when ridden forwards into a sensitive but consistent contact and will come confidently “onto the aids” with transitions and half halts over time, I guarantee it. The only rare exceptions are the horses that have been very spoilt in their training, but even then given enough time and consistency the horse will learn to come on the aids with this approa
There is no need for gadgets and cheat techniques if one has time and patience. Athletic development exercises I could write endlessly on exercises for improving the horses’ acceptance of the aids. However certain exercises are more helpful than others to simply address the common faults. Absolutely all dressage training is about developing a better acceptance of the bit and acceptance of the aids to produce a finely tuned athletic horse, that can dance under the direction of subtle aids from a rider. The most important thing is to work your horse, all your training exercises will improve you horse if ridden correctly. The horse “above the bit” will be predisposed to accepting the contact in a forward downwards way when ridden forwards into a sensitive contact that releases slightly when the horse shows the minutest tendency to take the rein down and forwards. The best way to achieve the above is while the horse is on a circle, he is less likely to resist you when he is slightly bent and it is easier for you to feel and time the softening and release on a circle through the inside rein. Try spiralling in and out on a twenty metre circle, also leg yield on a circle inwards and outwards or around the circle with the horse moving laterally. Anytime you move a horse sideways, you engage one of the hind legs a little more, that rebalances. strengthens and engages the horse, making it want to lift its back and therefore soften the neck and relax to the contact. Below is a diagram that show the hollow horse “above the bit”. Bringing the hind legs under the horse will automatically bring the back up and push upwards under the arrow which is where the rider sits.  (sorry technical hitch diagram coming soon) 
It is much better for the horse to have a rounded back when he is working as it enable his back to carry a rider more easily. A rounder back is a stronger back.

“Against the Bit/Hand”
This term describes the horse that is hard in the mouth pulling or leaning on the bit, it can refer to the horse that is above the bit as well when pulling. The horse is usually on his forehand i.e. his weight in unevenly distributed towards his forehand rather than balanced over all four legs.
The correction of the horse against the hand is simple. Ride as for “above the bit” but with the very determined use of half halts. In this fault you need to be aware that pulling and holding on for too long to the contact are your enemies. Driving with your legs to activate and engage the horse and then allowing the horse to experience the release through your body and rein as he responds to rebalancing himself is key. This will teach the horse that pulling and leaning against the hand is not the way for him to handle a rider’s weight on his back. We as riders need to educate the horse with patience and kindness to find its own balance and therefore the ability to work under the rider in a light and forward manner, eventually in a light and collected manner.

Athletic Development Exercise
The exercises for “above the bit” apply well here too. Also ride with frequent transitions, each transition encourages the horse to take his weight a little back towards his hindquarters, this rebalancing enables lightening on the contact, If possible ride more direct transitions, like trot halt trot or canter walk canter. Ride every transition with half halt preparations and using your seat and legs to slow the horse rather than the rein, eventually the horse will start to understand about using his body and hind legs to balance rather than his head and neck and teeth. Teach your horse the rein back for a few steps, followed by a direct trot transition, making sure you allow the softening of the hand as the horse gives to you, this really allows you to flex the horse on his hocks and makes the rewarding release crystal clear to the horse.
“Behind the bit”
In this fault we see a horse with his nose behind the vertical i.e. behind the imaginary line drawn down the horses nose, which should be close to the vertical or slightly in front of the vertical. A horse behind the bit is often also hollow in the back and dragging its hind legs like the above the bit horse. At best the horse may manage some balance but have a shortened neck that is overarched with a poll that is not the highest point of the neck.

In order to get the horses nose back in front of the vertical you need to assess if the horse is shortening its neck to over bend at the poll, dropping the poll, or leaning on its forehand and hanging on the riders hands. Either way the correction revolves around the same principle, the horse needs to tuck his hindquarters under him more so that the horses natural pulley system, the nuchal ligament, helps lift his forehand up at the wither. This encourages a longer stretched neck with the poll at the highest point. The horses head must never be pulled up. If a horse is over bent you must ride it up with your seat. It is also helpful to think about using your legs to get a horse’s head down and your seat to drive a horse head upwards...realistically you use both legs and seat to help ride a horse forward to the contact.
Athletic Development Exercises
If your horse is over bent, the best exercise to correct this fault involves lateral work, preferably shoulder in, shoulder fore or leg yield if your horse is green. All exercises that cause the horse to sit on his hocks a little more and to step under himself more will help. Transitions within the pace will help as will direct transitions. I particularly like the following exercise for those that over bend. Ride a shoulder fore or shoulder in toward the wall on the long side of the arena, then halt at the end before the corner, and ride a turn abut the forehand to change the rein, then ride a shoulder fore toward the wall again and halt at the other end and repeat a few times. This exercise can be ridden at walk or at trot involving a transition to walk and then halt for the turn about the forehand. It really makes a horse think and engage. All turn about the forehand exercises will make a horse sit more behind. Also try a 360 degree turn about the forehand over x on a twenty metre circle.
“Unsteady to contact”
This fault describes itself well, its is seen as a slight moving of he head up and down or side to side, it can be a small or large movement, it may be associated with the hollowness of back and lack of engagement as with other faults but not always. An unsteady head can occur in the well trained horse, and can be a habit based on previous training issues, or it can be evidence of physical weaknesses in the horse. This is a very common fault seen in young horses and horses with physiological issues that cause them to resist being on the aids due to discomfort e.g, short in neck with thick throat region.

With any unsteady contact problem as with any other fault, make sure it is not rider induce to start with, make sure your hands are capable of being still and that your feel and elasticity of contact is correct. The Carl Hester training reins are excellent for teaching riders the feel of elasticity, but you can get the same feeling riding with holding leather side reins as reins (make sure that they are the type that a leather restricter that stops the elastic overstretching) and link them together, it will give you the same feeling of elasticity.

OK assuming its not a rider fault, then we need to look at the horse’s bitting, Some horses are unsteady because they are uncomfortable in their mouths, check the bit fits and that it is not too thick for the horses mouth, I think Myler bits are excellent for horse with thick tongues or small mouths and they are made to fit the curves of a horse mouth, Assuming the bit is not a problem, then get a vet to look at the horses back and hocks. Many cases of unsteady head carriage are related to a physiological problem with the horses body, so make sure you have checked your horses soundness thoroughly if they develop this problem.

Presuming you have a fit healthy horse and your hands are well balanced then you need to look at how to steady your horses head. Widening the hands can help to teach the horse to be more still, however that means keeping your elbows at your sides and widening the arms, not lowering and widening the arms, because that can lead to incorrect balance of the rider. Make sure you are not overusing your hands as you ride as that will encourage unsteadiness. Use your fingers or small wrist movement to flex or vibrate the rein, not the whole arm. Work on getting your horse to stretch willingly to the contact, riding a little longer may help to begin with to encourage softness and stretch in neck, so that horse relaxes his head and neck, this may lead to a quieter contact
Athletic Development Exercises
The stretching exercise where you encourage the horse to take contact forward and down on a circle, then slowly retake the contact again. This exercise serves two purposes; one to relax and lengthen neck to possible reduce tension that might contribute to unsteadiness and secondly it acts as desensitisation exercise for the horse to the contact so the horse gets used to the reins being lengthened and shortened carefully and accepts the changes in rein length.

Also you can try riding with slightly firmer contact and doing some circle exercises gently resisting the horse if it tries to move is head and neck around too much. I would call this the side rein principle, imagine your horse is on the lunge and its moving its head up and down a lot. The side reins are gradually adjusted so that the horse feels pressure when it moves its head from the correct position, and over a few minutes the horse will start to learn to get a release from the pressure when it carries its head and neck within the parameters of the rein. When this side rein principle is applied to the ridden horse, it is kinder and clearer to the horse, for the moment the horse steadies its head, the rider can soften and allow the horse a little reward through the rein, so softening is rewarded for being more still. Be aware that softening can vary from a complete release and retake of the rein to merely a softening of the elbows within the retained connection.
So we have looked at common faults regarding being “on the bit”. Remember there are phrase “There are many ways to Rome” and these suggestions are the tip of the iceberg. The most important thing is to always ride your horses forward to a contact, with grace and compassion and teach them how to learn, never force them. A horse will always be a willing pupil if he understands what is wanted and he is physically able to do it.

Have fun.

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