Here are a few common comments a judge might make on your dressage test:
“Horse needs rounder frame.”
“Horse needs better balance.”
“Horse needs better acceptance of the bridle and more elastic steps.”
What those comments mean is that the rider hasn’t got the horse “on the bit.” Or, if you prefer, “on the aids” or “in the bridle.”
In other words, the rider’s aids haven’t achieved that magical connection between their horse’s hindquarters and head, a connection that is the essence of dressage but is also, to a lesser extent, the basis of the jumping sports and reining.
I like to call it “connection” instead of “on the bit” or “in the bridle,” because I’ve found that that term makes more sense to many people, including myself. And I’ve found that achieving that connection is a lifetime quest (I’ve been working on it for 40 years!), and that, with event horses, achieving and keeping it is a goal to balance with encouraging or allowing the horse to figure out how to do things on his own.
Riding with a definite connection is also somewhat at odds with certain schools of riding, most noticeably with show hunters. In that sport, the horse is supposed to march around the ring on a looping rein and soft contact, and less experienced riders are taught to ride their horses the same way. It’s even sometimes taught to the extreme of no contact with the bit, even with no contact between the rider’s legs and the horse’s sides.
But to achieve true “softness,” riders have to use their leg aids correctly to activate the horse’s hindquarters, so that the horse is holding himself in balance. And you can’t show a jumper on a looping rein, because the courses ask for quick to immediate changes of stride length and direction—requiring that you have that connection.
And even in the dressage world, there are schools of thought that advocate riding with a nearly hunter-like amount of rein contact. But these schools, in my observation, are the non-competitive schools of dressage, in which doing a movement or transition at a letter isn’t a requirement. These schools’ priority is simply how you do a movement—where you do it doesn’t matter.
I think a critical challenge to learning to establish or to ride with the connection is that it isn’t absolute. The connection rides along a scale, just like the scores in a dressage test, from 0 to 10. A 0 is the horse standing still, half asleep. I’ll call 1 a horse lazily walking along on a long rein, barely picking up his feet and barely going anywhere. And a 10 is, basically, a horse doing Grand Prix work, especially piaffe and passage. Between those extremes, from 1 to 9, I’d argue that the levels of connection are divided by decimal points—think 4.9, 5.2, 8.5.
And then the level of that connection varies throughout your ride on your horse, and it rises and falls as you warm the horse up and as he gets tired by his exertion. If you made a graph of it, you might see it rise steadily—3.5, then 4.8, then 6.6, then 8.1, then stay steady as you worked, until you stopped, when it would drop back to 1.2. Or you might be working in the 6 to 7 range, when the horse spooked at something and it dropped to 1.5 or l.1.
How do you learn to achieve the connection? Practice. Lots and lots of serious practice.
The practice starts with developing an independent seat in the saddle, which basically means developing the balance, strength and suppleness to able to control your body parts so you can use your aids. Once you’ve done that, you have to learn how to use your aids at the right time and to the proper degree, to develop a feel of how much leg, or seat or rein to use at a wide range of times. That’s one reason to do exercises like transitions, shoulder-in and leg-yield, as well as to develop your horse’s strength and suppleness.
Your success at developing the connection also depends on factors like your horse’s conformation, his fitness, strength and suppleness (which can be inhibited by injuries or soreness and will often need chiropractic or medical attention). The success of the connection also depends greatly on your horse’s willingness to work—because it’s hard work for him, because some horses are more easily distracted by their environment, and because some horses simply can’t take the discipline required. This last type is the one that prefers finding his own way over jumps or down the trail and doesn’t want to be told how to do it.
Achieving a high number for the connection is a lifetime pursuit, for you and for every horse you ride, because you never become perfect at it. Having that feeling—of the horse’s hindquarters squarely but fluidly underneath you, with a light but steady contact in the reins, and a feeling of your directions become his willingly immediate commands—is a beautiful one.