The term “pushing away from the bit” is often misunderstood and is not to be confused with the situation in which the horse drops or evades the contact in any way. In fact, when the horse is pushing away from the bit, he responds to the leg aid with absolute, ever-present willingness to go perfectly to the bit. The horse that is pushing away from the bit has a finely established understanding of contact from a leg aid and he never feels apprehensive about reaching out to the bit again and again. In order to get the correct feeling of pushing away from the bit and the resulting circle of energy, the rider needs to understand the rein aids.
The Rein Aids and their Functions
The Aids. Dressage riders rarely talk about the rein aids, so in my years of training and teaching, I often find myself explaining how the reins work and how they—through the rider’s hands—affect the horse during application.
I’ve ridden a lot of jumpers on the flat and have come to understand the rein aids as they are explained by the likes of Bernie Traurig and George Morris, who are masters of the jumper world. They and the German Federation’s manual explain it like this:
The inside rein is a flexion and a direction indicator. In simple terms, the inside rein is like the blinker in your car. In our sport of dressage, we indicate flexion and direction at the same time. The inside flexion is indicated by the rider bending her wrist or closing her fingers softly into the palm of the hand. The inside direction is indicated by the rider moving her inside hand slightly away from the neck with what we call (in a young horse) a “leading” or “opening” rein. The hand moves in the direction you want the horse to go. Later, when the horse is more educated, the hand doesn’t move more than, perhaps, three inches away from the neck, but if the horse is properly trained, he understands that it means, My rider is indicating the direction.
The outside rein is like the steering wheel because it executes direction. The rein rests against the neck as the hand is positioned next to the wither. As such, that rein:
1. ...sets boundaries to prevent over-bending in the neck;
2. ...guards and aligns the shoulders to make the horse straight. Once the horse is straight and aligned...
3. ....it positions the neck longitudinally to develop roundness within the alignment and then the rider can move the shoulders to turn the horse.
Later this leads to the rider’s ability to move the shoulders or the front end into the direction of the horse’s motion in movements such as shoulder-in, half pass and pirouette.
The Rein Functions
The Following Rein stays in contact with the horse’s mouth and follows the horse’s motion with sensitivity and feel in the direction of the horse’s mouth. When the rider’s educated hands follow the mouth with elasticity and consistency in the contact, it creates a horse that is supple through the topline and in beautiful balance and self-carriage.
The Stationary Rein. When the horse leans on the bit, runs through the hand or grabs the bit, the rider responds with the stationary rein to establish the respect and submission to the bit. The stationary rein is fixed; it stops following, and in so doing, it has a direct effect from the corners or the bars of the horse’s mouth, through the topline, all the way back to the hind legs. The rider’s hands, positioned on the left and right sides of the withers, form a straight line from the horse’s mouth to the rider’s elbows. The stationary rein is the one you use in teaching the young horse to stop and, later with more sophistication, to halt. Later, it is applied when the rider half halts and asks the horse to push away from the bit. As the horse understands the stationary rein aid more finely and with greater sophistication, the aid becomes nearly invisible, which indicates the horse’s growing understanding of pushing away from the bit.
The stationary rein is a vital part of the aids for the half halt. The driving aids send the energy to the stationary direct rein, which restrains in a passive way because, instead of following, the rein becomes stationary. When the horse pushes away from the stationary (direct) rein, it causes the horse to shift weight to a hind leg and engage, or bear weight on a bent hind leg. Because the weight shifts back, the rein contact gets lighter in direct relation to the lightening of the forehand. The stationary or direct rein in all its functions can come through all the way to the hindquarters only if the horse is longitudinally supple over and through his back.
The Giving Rein. The rider’s hands soften in the contact to the horse’s mouth when he responds to the rein aid.
Contact and Connection
In our sport we talk about contact and connection. In my mind contact refers to the relationship between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. Contact is developed from the driving leg aid to the contact-permitting and contact-receiving hands, thus teaching the horse to accept the bit.
Connection is the relationship between the horse’s hind leg and the bit as the hindquarters send energy through the topline to the bit and (through recycling) back to the engaged hind leg. The ideal connection enables rideability between leg and hand and the harmonious blend of aids with throughness.
Pushing away from the bit is frequently defined by the fact that the horse is fully accepting the contact and has a proper connection; that is, the boundary-setting or passive restraining effects of the direct rein do not back the horse off the contact. Rather, the horse accepts it even more so as the driving aids repeatedly send energy to the contact and it bounces off that “retaining wall,” adding weight to a bent hind leg—which gives the horse even greater ability to thrust forward again.
- Sometimes the connection is light in the hand, but that lightness can be manufactured if the horse is backed off the contact due to the way the horse is bridled.
- Sometimes you see loops in the rein, which means there is no consistent or elastic contact. This cannot lead to a cultivated connection and the horse cannot understand pushing away from the bit when he feels he dare not touch it.
- Sometimes the horse’s mouth is gaping because the lower jaw is trying to get away from the pressure of the reins and the effect of the rider’s hands. That horse is also not pushing away from the bit.
- Sometimes the horse leans on the bit or he goes past the rider’s hand to evade self-carriage and suppleness.
The Half Halt
By its classical definition, the half halt reorganizes and reframes the horse between the driving and the restraining or containing aids to prepare him, in proper self-carriage and engagement, for the next task at hand.
Sometimes a horse may be bold and confident in a good way, but he feels very strong in the hand. The half halts with this horse (considering that the aids are leg, seat and hand) need to be applied with stronger application of the direct, stationary rein with support of the seat. Because the horse is moving boldly forward, the leg would be rather neutral in the moment of the half halt. Applying the direct rein aid in this strong half halt makes pressure in your hands, but that pressure is not caused by pulling; rather, it is caused by the energy that the horse initiates. The hand stops following and is simply stationary. It says to the energy, Go here and no further.
In reality, the rider wants the horse to accept the bit as much as he wants the horse to respect the bit. It is very important to understand the seat as the mediator between driving and restraining aids. The seat is always ready to assist and support either the leg aid or the rein aid. Whereas some half halts are stronger than others, ideally, the horse becomes lighter from the half halt, making strong half halts ultimately unnecessary.
An Important Prerequisite
An in-front-of-the-leg attitude is a prerequisite to the half halt and to the resulting situation in which the horse pushes away from the bit. The half halt will not work unless the horse unconditionally accepts the driving aids and has a forward attitude. The in-front-of-the-leg situation never refers to senseless speed, but rather to the horse’s understanding that the rider’s leg aid always creates a forward attitude. When that’s the case, the half halt influences the whole horse.
If the horse is inclined to get behind the leg, there is nothing to half halt, and if you attempt that half of a halt under those conditions, the horse shuts down. In this case, the rider needs to develop quickness rather than speed. A proper half halt addresses whatever you need to recreate in a horse in order to continue well prepared and in proper balance with the horse’s attention physically and mentally; it is the finest form of the art in riding.
The Evolution of Connection
If you apply the term “pushing away from the bit” to all stages of riding and all levels of sophistication, we might begin with the 4-year-old who may not be afraid of the bit, but the contact is not yet finely established. He might grab the bit occasionally and be unruly. At that age, a bit of submission training is appropriate, and the rider’s hand becomes stationary (in a direct rein aid) as part of the half halt so the young horse learns that pushing away from the bit means “go no further.” The same is accomplished by longeing the young horses in side reins.
As the horse advances in his training, we want his schooling to always represent an evolution toward the perfect cycle of energy. At some point, the horse accepts the boundary-setting moment without causing the energy to stop at the bit. He pushes away from the bit, allows the energy to be recycled back to the hindquarters, lightens in front during the moment of engagement (weightbearing behind) and carries himself with elegance and lightness.
Christine Traurig is the USEF Young Horse Coach. She was born and raised in Germany on the farm where her father bred horses. It was there that her passion and skill for riding young horses developed. “I could put a horse on the bit, make him supple, improve the walk, trot and canter and make a horse feel trusting and confident in the rider before I ever knew the importance of a shoulder-in,” she says with pride. Traurig works constantly in this country to help today’s Young Riders and horses develop the same commitment to basics. At the age of 12, Traurig started riding at the National Riding School at Hoya with the legendary trainer Otto Meyer. As a young adult, she rode and trained young horses for the famous Hannoverian Auction in Verden. She rode sale horses for German National Trainer Holger Schmezer before moving to the United States in 1982. In 1998 Traurig began training with Johann Hinnemann and in 2000 she competed at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, as part of the bronze-medal-winning U.S. dressage team. She lives in Carlsbad, California.