A Good Start Avoids Bit Evasions

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

When a horse learns to evade the bit by going above it or behind it, that bad habit can be hard to correct and almost impossible to completely eradicate. A good trainer can reschool a horse so that it goes comfortably in the bit again but as soon as a rider with poor or even average skills mounts up, the horse just naturally reverts to its old habit as a way of coping with a rider whose hands may not be perfectly steady. It is far easier to start a horse so that he never learns to evade the bit in the first place than it is to correct evasions once they have become habits.

Before you even think about getting in the saddle, the first thing you should do is make sure the horse is comfortable. That means the bit is neither too thin nor too thick (contrary to what many riders believe, a fat bit is not necessarily more comfortable for the horse to carry). It should not be so wide that there is any part of it sticking out beyond the horseís lips nor should it be so narrow that it pinches the horseís lips at all. It should hang in the horseís mouth so it sits comfortably on the bars, neither so high nor so low that it can bang the teeth on either side of this space. The rule of thumb is to look for one or two wrinkles at the side of the lips when fitting a snaffle. I like to use a dropped, figure eight or flash noseband to help hold the bit in place. They prevent the rider from taking too much rein on either side and pulling the bit through the horseís mouth sideways. Make sure the throatlatch is not so tight that it restricts the horseís breathing and that all of the bridle straps lay flat, not twisted.

When you first start riding a green horse, you donít try to show him anything by using the reins because he has no vocabulary yet. You allow the horse to do what it wants, including just standing there, while it learns how to find its balance when there is weight on its back. If you have a partner available, you can get a young horse comfortable on a longe circle first and then add a riderís weight.

You just sit there with the reins on the buckle and wait until the horse offers some movement. Then you follow the motion with appropriate seat and leg aids. If he walks, you apply the alternate leg aids for the walk. If the horse offers to trot, you allow him to go forward as you apply the seat and leg aids for the trot. If the horse wants to canter or turn or even buck, you just allow whatever he offers and add the appropriate seat and leg aids. You donít try to steer. Just let the arena walls shape the horseís activity. You want to teach the horse the language of the seat and leg aids before you ask for any bit contact.

As the horse begins to understand the seat and leg aids, you can use weight aids to begin guiding him in circles and serpentines on loopy reins. Depending on the horseís conformation, you gradually shorten the reins so that as the horse relaxes and stretches forward and down, the hand is there to just catch the energy thatís moving forward from the hindquarters. Now you have contact. As the bit provides very light support it is critical that the riderís elbows remain soft and flexible, her joints stay loose and supple, and her seat follows the horseís motion. Contact is a steady but elastic connection between the riderís hand and the horseís mouth. It is not the same thing as being on the bit. If contact is properly introduced, the rider should not get any evasions.

As the horse begins to trust that the riderís hands are not going to bump his mouth or make him uncomfortable in any way, she can add ground poles and cavaletti that encourage the horse to look down and stretch into that light contact. As the horse works through these exercises with rhythm and relaxation, he becomes comfortable with the contact and begins to actively seek it. Now heís on his way up the training tree with no bad habits to interrupt his progress.

Starting a young horse this way requires an independent seat and a willingness to allow the horse to wander where he will at whatever gait he offers when he first starts carrying a rider. Many amateur riders do not have this level of skill or confidence. Often, they also lack ideal circumstances for working with young horses. The boundaries provided by the walls and corners of an arena limit the horseís activity while helping you shape and turn the horse. If you only have a pasture to work in, you will have a much harder time allowing your horse the freedom to learn a vocabulary of aids on a loose rein because self preservation kicks in if the horse offers a buck or a canter in a large open space. Find a safe place to work and take the time to start your horse right so that he never has a chance to learn bad habits you will have to undue later on.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I feel very lucky to have gone to Meredith Manor, you canít get experience like that at any other school.
Jana Armstrong: 2005 Riding Master VI Graduate