On the Bit… or on the Buckle?

By Jec A. Ballou

Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on-the-buckle OR on-the-bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time. Whether on trail or in the arena, they would ensure their horses were either working on-the-bit or traveling on-the-buckle on a loose rein.

It is the middle ground between these two states where horses’ bodies suffer most. When a horse is neither fully engaged and carrying himself on-the-bit (as we call a rounded topline posture in dressage), nor stretched out in utmost relaxation, problems arise. When a rider carries the reins somewhat vaguely, with what I call a kinda-sorta contact, the horse pays a price. Why? He is neither engaging his musculature for healthy biomechanics, nor is he on the other hand entirely at ease throughout his body.

This is when kinks in his muscles arise: when he uses the wishy-washy rein contact as a fifth leg to balance on. In the absence of clear cues and support from his rider’s seat to flex his spine and tone his ring of muscles above and below it, the horse falls forward with his weight and bumps into the kinda-sorta rein contact. He will often become rigid through the bottom neck muscles, which in turn stiffens his jaw and poll. After a few moments, this stiffness reciprocates throughout the body. The result is system-wide rigidity, a dull mouth, and most often a hollow spine.

Am I saying, then, that horses should go down the trail in a dressage frame? I do want to clarify that, yes, by all means they can spend time traveling in this posture over the course of a trail ride. Obviously, you are not going to go out and ride for 10 or 50 miles this way. But remember, if you’re not asking the horse to be on-the-bit, then you’re asking him what? To be on-the-buckle! And this is a great way to spend many hours on the trail.

For me, riding on-the-buckle is defined as offering the horse a long and loose rein to stretch his neck out and down toward the ground. Think of a cowboy/cowgirl moseying along across an open prairie with reins drooping. The horse should be fully relaxed with his ribcage gently swinging from side to side as he walks. His head should be at or below the level of his chest.

For a horse to use his body productively when ridden, it is best for him to always be in one of these two states — on-the-bit or on-the-buckle. The best approach to your ride is to spend time in both of these states. Whether you are on the trail or in the arena, spend several moments riding on-the-bit, and then ride for a period on-the-buckle. Continue alternating like this and you will do right by your horse. Just avoid getting stuck in that vague middle ground.

Main article photo: Shutterstock/Horsemen

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Jec A. Ballou
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