Give to the bit. If you ever thought there must be a better and easier way to train your horse, this training series by Kate Fenner is designed for you! 

Each article walks you through specific lessons and how to teach them. From stress-free trailer loading, to handling head-shy horses, to safe mounting. Kate’s gentle and no-fuss approach will provide you with the tools and confidence you need to educate your own horse.  

Last month, Kate explained the ‘give to the bit’ lesson on the ground. This month, she continues from the saddle, riding give to the bit.

Last month, we looked at how to teach your horse to give to pressure – ‘give to the bit’ – from the ground. This lesson is often the first one I teach a horse because it’s an uncomplicated way for the horse to learn about negative reinforcement; that is, the pressure goes away when he finds the correct movement. In this case, it’s giving to bit pressure specifically.

When we come to riding give to the bit, there will be some re-learning for the horse as the angle of the rein will be slightly different, and we have added our weight and any leg cues we use.

To make this easier for the horse, we can go through the same steps as we did on the ground – breaking the lesson down.

Step 1: At a stand still.

Of course, you have read and taught your horse ‘Hips to the Fence for Safe Mounting’ because that was in the March issue of Horses and People. In case you missed it, you can read it here. So, now it’s time to mount your horse and begin the ‘Give to the Bit’ lesson from the saddle.

This is not the easiest part of the lesson as one might expect. The reason is it’s hard to raise the horse’s emotional level without moving their feet. Therefore, asking the horse to give to the bit a couple of times while standing still is all you will need to do.

Once you are mounted and your horse is waiting patiently at the mounting block or fence, simply pick up the right rein and ask the horse to give to pressure. As soon as he does, release the rein and praise the horse (verbal praise and a nice scratch on the wither works well).

Step 2: Get walking.

Move your horse away from the mounting block or fence, so you have enough space to walk left and right.

Now that you have started moving around the arena, you will have two reins. The outside rein will be there to stop the horse from moving his head too far to the side.

Remember, you really never want the horse moving his or her nose outside the point of the shoulder, but it’s fine while the horse is learning to exaggerate this a bit – just not so much the horse is straining his neck by moving his nose close to your knee!

Step 3: It’s all about the release.

The two most important things to remember when teaching this lesson are:

  1. We are releasing on relaxation and,
  2. The horse learns from the release, not the pressure.

If you have a horse that has been habituated to a great deal of pressure (an off-the-track Thoroughbred, a beginner’s horse or even a dressage schoolmaster), then you might need a lot of pressure to begin the exercise.

Pressure is your motivator – you need enough to motivate the horse to change. A horse that has been desensitised to pressure will require just a little more than the level to which it has become accustomed – or desensitised.

This does not mean you will always require more pressure. Quite the contrary – I usually find once such horses realise there is a way to make the pressure go away completely, they learn very fast indeed! These are the horses that, when they realise they are being involved in the learning process and have control over the application of pressure, learn the pattern quickly and soon respond even before the pressure is applied.

Step 4: Repetition.

When you begin riding this exercise, you may find your horse raises his head during the change of direction. That’s because it is easier for the horse to give when there is some lateral movement involved and during the change of direction you are moving in a straight line.

Horses that have been taught to travel in a stiff and hollow frame, or those that have been habituated to a lot of bit pressure, have often also learned to lean on the bit. By offsetting your horse’s head a little, this is made more difficult and it prevents the horse from pulling against you with his entire skeletal system.

Straightness comes as you spend longer and longer riding the strides between your circles.

Aim for a pattern of serpentines – perhaps ten metre half circles. At the beginning, you will simply change direction from left to right, and your horse may raise its head during that change. Once they realise this is not necessary, and simply changes bend and not head elevation, it’s time to increase the number of steps you take on two reins – with the head and neck straight.

If your release is consistent, your horse will soon learn to maintain his head elevation during the change of direction.

Step 5: Putting it all together.

This exercise, like much of our training, is most difficult to ride in walk. I think it’s hard to keep the horse in the Engagement Zone in walk and the added motivation of moving the feet a little faster in trot is a big advantage.

When walking, the horse has a lot of time to think about other things – be it something scary outside the arena or where his friends are – but, by increasing the level of motivation a little by increasing speed, it seems to help the horse focus on the lesson.

Trot, even a slow trot or jog, is a great training pace at which to establish patterns, such as give to the bit. Don’t be afraid to use it. I often hear that ‘I can’t ride a dressage test in jog’, but you are training not riding a dressage test. Allowing the horse to jog while learning a new movement will not ‘ruin’ your trot.

I find that ‘starting with your goal’ leads to a lot of riders simply giving up, assuming they aren’t good enough or that their horse is not able to learn the lesson. This is especially true for young horses that are learning new things, such as give to the bit and to travel in frame because, as young potential dressage horses, they are thought to have to travel around in a ‘good working trot’.

The give to the bit lesson is simply a stepping stone, a foundation lesson, which establishes relaxation first, then frame and self-carriage are the result of this with engagement.

Trot or jog is your ‘learning pace’. The pace the horse can maintain relaxation and engagement, but be motivated enough to look for a release. Work your serpentine pattern, with lots of changes of direction, for as long as you feel your horse is physically and mentally able.

Remember, a tired horse isn’t learning and hurting the horse, even unintentionally by over-using the neck and back muscles, isn’t productive.

It’s our job to make these important foundation lessons fun for the horse – the sort of lesson that makes the horse eager to come back and learn something new tomorrow. How do we do that? Easy – focus on what the horse gets right and on your release. Be present and engaged in the lesson yourself – this means making a big fuss and rewarding your horse when he finds the right answer.

Once you have established a soft, round and relaxed frame in walk and trot, it’s time to move up to canter. Of course, serpentines will not be possible (unless you’re hiding some fabulous flying changes), so aim for a good circle, not too big or the horse may be too straight, and not too small as the horse is unlikely to have the balance for that. Your circle should be about 20 metres in diameter – the width of an average arena.

The 20m circle is a new pattern for the horse that has recently been doing serpentines, so establish your circle in trot and then signal the horse to canter. Exactly the same principles apply. Your outside rein is there to stop the horse from bending their head too far to the inside of the circle, but you are asking for the give on the inside rein and releasing when the horse gives to the pressure and relaxes.

For a full video course of ‘Give to the Bit’, go along to the Kandoo Equine Online Training site:

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.