Horse-Riding: Longitudinal Flexion

“The horse on the bit” is a misleading expression, yet it is one we are accustomed to using and, by consent, we pretend to understand, in spite of its mischievous suggestion that it has to do with the rider’s hands and the horse’s bit exclusively.

Being on the bit is the most important concept in classical horsemanship. Only a horse that contacts and accepts the bit and moves toward the bit is athletically correct. Using a human analogy, let me suggest that there is a great difference between people who are moving about in a grocery store buying mustard, for example, and those working out in a gymnasium. Both are moving and are engaged in some mental activities, but only the one working out in a gymnasium is improving himself physically and mentally. He will show muscle development and skeletal coordination that one cannot acquire by shopping for mustard. Likewise with horses; just by moving a horse around, the rider traveling, the horse covering ground without using himself properly, no improvement can take place. One can only make athletic and gymnastic improvements if the horse is longitudinally flexed. Therefore, the horse must be flexing toward the bit before any gymnasticizing can take place.

Being on the bit, or longitudinal flexion, as it should be called, has to do with the total horse. When a horse is on the bit, his skeletal position as well as his use of his muscles changes. To be on the bit connotes relaxation, suppleness of muscles, elasticity in the joints, elegance, and obedience. That is both the foundation and the substance of all dressage work. The most important feature of a horse on the bit is that he is longitudinally flexed, thereby becoming a shorter horse, capable of moving deeper under his own weight with the hindquarters, lifting the weight up rather than pushing it forward. The longitudinally flexed horse is well poised to carry his rider, and therefore will be able to surrender his haunches to the rider’s will and become obedient rather than subservient to force.

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