Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Having our horses on the bit, having them round or in an outline is something that seems to be something all dressage riders focus a lot on especially at the beginning of their dressage journeys.
Getting your horse on the bit is almost always the first big goal I find riders set themselves at the beginning of their dressage journey but it’s nearly always a much longer process than people think, especially if you want to do it correctly and not create issues later down the line.
So we’re going to start by looking at what round or in an outline or on the bit really means, how to get your horse on the bit and round and a few big ’donts’ too.
What does it mean?
On the bit, being round or in an outline basically all refer to the same thing that the horses back and neck are making that round shape from the poll all the way to the tail.
At the beginning a young or weaker horse starting it’s dressage journey will need a longer outline to achieve this round frame. As the horse becomes stronger and goes up through the levels they will become more compressed and more uphill, with their hindquarters taking more weight behind and their shoulders and poll coming up more so they are able to perform those harder movements in the more advanced tests.
But the starting point of all of that is getting your horse round in that longer frame. To do this is a much more complicated process than just getting your horses head down and their nose in. For a horse to be truly round they need 3 things. The first is an active and engaged hindleg where the horse is stepping underneath his body and pushing forward. The second is a swinging and supple body and the third is a consistent, even and elastic contact.
When you get these three things together you end up with a horse that is connected and through. In more simple terms it means that your horses hind end is creating the energy and that energy is able to push all the way through to the bit without restriction anywhere. If you have a rhythm issue you won’t have that energy creation in the hindlegs, if you don’t have that free and supple body the energy won’t be able to travel through the body and if you don’t have that elastic and even contact the energy won’t travel through to the bit.
These 3 things should sound quite common for those of you that read these articles or listen to the podcast. Because those three things are ultimately the first three scales of training. Rhythm is the first scale which, when you get it, will get you a horse that creates energy in the hindlegs and takes you forward by stepping under and through with active hindlegs. The suppleness is the Second scale which gets us the swinging soft body and the third scale is contact which gets us the consistent even and elastic connection.
Put these three things together, these three scales and we end up with a horse that is round, in an outline, through, connected; all those good words we like to hear!
How to achieve roundness
So if roundness or getting your horse in an outline is something you are working on those 3 things of rhythm, suppleness and contact are your 3 steps to achieving it.
This process revolves around you going through each scale and making sure those 3 scales are established for the level you’re at.
Rhythm pt 1 : does your horse move correctly in a 3 beat canter, 2 beat trot and 4 beat walk?
Rhythm pt 2 : can you control your horses tempo; increase it, decrease it and keep it the same?
Suppleness: does your horse move freely over his back, free from resistance and tension?
Contact: does your horse maintain a consistent, even and elastic contact ?
If any of these things are an issue or problem you need to prioritise this and work on and improve these things first. And this is a long process, it takes time and often it’s very hard when you’re main goal is to get your horse round, to actually go back and work on those basic building blocks first - it takes a lot of patience and dedication. And it’s a hard pill to swallow I do appreciate that. Especially when you are losing marks for your horse not being round the quick fix can look really really tempting.
What happens if you do the quick way?
So let’s take a look at what happens if you go down the route of finding the quick fix, because there are many out there and many do get your horses head and neck down but that doesn’t mean that your horse is round.
A lot of riders, especially at the lower levels use many tactics to try and get their horses head and neck down. Whether that be moving the bit left and right or holding your horses nose in or using different gadgets. What happens when we do this is that our horse drops the head and neck low but keeps their back flat and rigid. This teaches the horse to have to brace and tense their muscles to hold their neck in that position, in other words your horse has to be tense to put themselves into this position and as we all know tension is something we don’t need in dressage and because of this tension, suppleness cannot ever be achieved. And without suppleness we cannot have a good contact, correct impulsion, a straight horse or begin to collect our horse correctly. Other problems might start creeping in like the horse coming behind the vertical too
Not only that but it’s also a very fragile way of riding; any small change like a transition or circle or serpentine will cause your horse to pop his head up. This is purely because there will ultimately be an issue with the horses rhythm, suppleness or contact that is being ignored.
If those scales were achieved and established you would have a round horse, if your horse isn’t round that usually signifies an issue with one of those 3 scales. This issues will creep in and become more and more of a problem as you go through the levels and the work ultimately gets harder. And that’s why, when you reach the stage where those 3 scales of training; rhythm, suppleness and contact have been worked on and are established to the point where your horse naturally goes round and over his back its a really great sign that those basics are in place and you are correctly training your horse. So it ends up being a really great milestone to tick off when done correctly.
So if your current goal is to get your horse working round and over his back have a look at those first 3 scales of training; do you have a correct rhythm, can you control the tempo; is your horse supple with their muscles free from resistance and do they have an even, elastic contact. Work through these in order and get each scale established for the level you are working at and you will soon have a horse that naturally and correctly goes round over his back and remember the quick way isn’t always the best way.