Trainer Tuesday: How Do You Work with a Horse Who is Frequently Above the Bit?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: How do you work with a horse who is frequently above the bit?

Here are their answers: 

“A horse that is resistant and above the bit needs to learn to soften across their back. Traditionally, a horse that is inverted needs to learn to soften their body through suppling exercises.  A horse learns to move forward into the contact because they are being ridden forward from behind and are supple in their body. Working to bring a horse down on the bridle from the rein contact will only lead to greater tightness in the back, and more tension.” – Kari Briggs, Otterbein University. 

“All the obvious things first: be sure teeth are checked, bridle fits well, and use a mild bit—a loose ring 3-piece snaffle is my go-to. Then, it is about correct flat work. Working the horse back to front in a rhythm and being certain your arm is an extension of the rein. Maintain a straight line, bit to elbow. And most importantly, when the horse meets your hand and accepts the contact reward them verbally and by a softening of inside rein. The key is that the rider has to be stable and committed to riding the back end—not the head.” – Angela Moore

“The age-old mantra of riding a horse back to front always rings true. Oftentimes, when we see something appear up in the head/neck, it’s actually a symptom of something else being wrong/weak/incorrect in the back end.

When thinking about riding from back to front, I use the analogy of riding the horse forward into a slightly ajar door. How much contact the horse needs and wants will be very individualistic (how ajar the door is), but it must be ajar. You have to give them somewhere to go, horses don’t like feeling trapped.

The common, albeit incorrect, tendency is to try to ‘wrangle their head down.’ This will just result in more bracing, lack of thoroughness, dropping of the topline, and/or a false frame and contact. Sometimes you may get it to look ‘decent’, but it still won’t be proper work and proper biomechanics because you’ve just put an aesthetic band aid on the issue rather than solving the root cause.

So, what’s the program? Well, each horse can be different. But overall, riding a horse forward into the amount of contact you want, lots of sideways movement (leg yielding steps on circles, on serpentines, etc.) and a little bit steadier/guiding of a hand rather than an assertive/strong hand. Lots of changes of direction, always bending, some overbending, moving sideways, and trying to avoid straight lines because the straighter the line (and the horse) the easier it is for them to brace and the stronger they are to resist. Suppling with lots of turning and sideways motion will avoid, as much as possible, the opportunity for bracing and coming above the bit. It will gradually teach them to accept the contact and be softer. But while progress will be made in a single ride, this is often a weeks/months long process, sometimes even years long depending on the foundational reason the horse is coming above the bit.” – Michael Willham, Equine Academy.

“When the horse is higher in the neck than normal and carrying their head with the nose out well in front of the vertical, this is what’s known as being ‘above the bit.’ There are many reasons for this, from conformational defects to a misunderstanding of or resistance to the aids. If it is a conformational defect, we must look at how best to help the horse carry himself in a more correct way given the body they have to work with.

Horses that are ‘hollow-necked’ or ‘ewe necked,’ for instance, often have difficulty understanding what good carriage is. Sometimes the prescribed solutions can be worse than the original problem, so don’t be in a hurry to try to correct it. 

Assuming that the problem is not one of conformation and can be corrected through training, we should aim to do so as part of educating a good contact. Being correctly on the bit is also necessary to achieve thoroughness-a correct representation of being between the leg and the hand. 

If a horse is above the bit as a result of a misunderstanding or resistance to the aid, then ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Has the horse been taught the subject?
  • Have they been asked the question in the right way at the right time? 

If, when a rider’s leg is applied, the horse responds by going above the bit, then we must re-educate the response. The response of “leg to rein” must always produce a softer, rounder, and more secure outline. When the leg aid initiates a request, the reins must always make it clear that it is not acceptable for the horse to go above the bit. They do this by holding against this tendency. Meanwhile, the leg aid continues to ask the question until the horse finds that a lower, softer, less resistant contact on their end produces the same from the rider. This will now enable the rider to allow the horse to answer the question the legs were asking (for example, a transition). It also sets the tone of future requests–that is, leg to rein means acceptance of both before answering the rider’s question.” 
– Eric Smiley in The Sport Horse Problem Solver. Read the full book here.

Read last week’s Trainer Tuesday Article here.