Here are my 5 most common bit operator errors and suggestions to improve communication with the hands at the other end of the reins:
1. Unsteady hands interfere with the message’s clarity from human to horse. Like Charlie Brown’s teacher, the gist of the message is lost in a garbled, “wah-wah”. Novice riders may balance on the reins or spike contact with every stride of posting trot. Others shorten their reins as a nervous habit or reflexively, in planning their next move.
At best, your horse ignores noisy hands, becoming desensitized to the static. At worst, erratic hands will scare your horse. He’ll learn to preserve himself by avoiding the bit in some way. And it’s no picnic trying to develop balance and clarity aboard a rooting, inverted horse – the cycle of confusion rolls on.
Keep your hands still!! I can still hear my riding school instructor “coaching” me. Like any novice, while I focused on keeping my horse going or identifying the right diagonal, my hands would elevate and bounce around. If your seat is jostling in the saddle, you won’t be able to keep your hands from jostling, either. Building core strength and stability from the foundation upwards is the next step in exiting the confusion cycle.
Renowned show-jumper, Bill Steinkraus, said the rider’s position “is a stable platform from which the skilled rider can apply his aids with the precision of a surgeon.”
2. Rigid arms. Despite my riding school instructor’s limited explanation, I eventually discovered that still hands come from elastic arms and elastic arms from supple joints. Strength alone locks your lower back, with the jarring effect of a hay wagon versus a Cadillac ride. Learning to follow, not brace against, the horse’s motion builds the secure foundation for delivering your aids with clarity. Imagine holding a cup of coffee and driving over a speed bump. Shock absorbing elasticity keeps you from spilling coffee on your lap. Suppleness in the shoulder, elbow, wrists and knuckles follows the movement of the horse’s neck in the walk and canter, opening and closing in the posting trot. The same elastic arm helps you follow the motion of the horse’s neck at the canter or over a jump.
3. Abrupt aids. These bit operators come in several forms: riders lost in their strategy, spiking the tension as their own adrenaline spikes -think Remington’s cowboys; assertive riders – physically strong and self-confident in the saddle and out; and equestrians who are simply unaware of the signals they send. All styles take a toll on the horses’ welfare.
When I’m judging speed events, I must admit, I note grabbing reins and gapping mouths more often than I’d like. With speed comes excitement, quick steering and the will to win.
Sadly, for a prey animal, adrenaline triggers a flight response. When a horse is tense, he can’t think, learn, or sometimes even feel. He learns to associate the competition ring as a place of surprise – a scary place. I’ve also noted that in equestrian sport, and I’d venture to say, in all sport, smoother is faster.
Smoothing out communication is NOT jumping numbers on a figurative pressure scale of 1-10. I counsel my riding students to feel their horse’s lips first with one of my pearls of wisdom – “Don’t miss your 1/2s”.
4. Poor timing is missing the moment – failing to release the pressure when the horse responds. Conversely, by relaxing the pressure when a horse hasn’t responded or responds with the wrong answer, a rider accidentally rewards undesirable behaviour.
5. Overly firm contact is relentlessly holding the horse in place or in pace. Horses held with tight reins don’t develop self-carriage. Instead, they hide from, or brace against, relentless contact. When a horse’s correct response isn’t rewarded with freedom, he feels trapped with no option to escape the pressure. We owe it to our horses to answer clearly – What behavior will turn off the pressure?
Next post: What does contact really mean?