Horse Riding Lessons Blog

Above or Behind the Bit: Dealing with the Evasive Horse

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We discussed earlier how to get your horse on the bit, a vital part of horse riding training. But horses sometimes take advantage of their riders, and avoid seeking contact.

A horse can do this by going above or getting behind the bit. What should you do if you run into these problems?

Above the Bit

This is when the horse raises his head and uses his jaw and the muscles under his neck to lean on the bit without softening.

To make him seek the contact, move the bit slightly in the horse’s mouth with your fingers. Avoid see-sawing, as this will only aggravate the horse further.

Ride him forwards with your legs. He should drop his head, but if not, ask for bend on an active 20 meter circle. When he ‘gives,’ lighten your contact as his reward.

It will take patience and repetition, but eventually your horse will understand that he’s more comfortable dropping his head and accepting the bit.

Behind the Bit

Here the horse curls in his head and neck to avoid contact. Easing your hands won’t bring out his nose out.

As with most problems in horse riding training, the answer is to drive him forwards with your legs and seat, maintaining a soft yet firm contact. The horse will realize it’s more comfortable for him to accept contact with your elastic hands, than remained curled up.

As soon as you feel him wanting to stretch down and out, reward this behavior by allowing it.

If your horse is evasive, check he’s not in pain. The bit may hurt him, he may have problems with his teeth and gums, the saddle may be pinching him, or the girth may be rubbing. Always make sure your horse is able to work comfortably.

Bending Your Horse the Correct Way

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As we saw last time, flexion is necessary for bending your horse and correct bending is necessary to ride a turn or circle properly.

You can turn your horse without correct bend, but it will be awkward - he won’t be balanced, and the movement will be difficult for him.

Make it easier on your horse by getting that bend right. Look at photos and videos of dressage horse riding online as the riders turn, to see examples of correct bending.

Description of Correct Bend

This is when your horse is bent laterally, with his whole spine curved round your inside leg. His neck mustn’t be more bent than his rib cage, and his hind legs must follow the tracks of the forelegs on a curve.

What is ‘Lateral Bend’?

Lean sideways to touch the outside of your knee with your hand. You are now bending laterally.

Your Horse’s ‘Chocolate Side’

Most horses bend more easily to one side than the other, usually the left. Their muscles are shorter on this ‘chocolate side’ as the Germans call it (Schokoladenseite) including their neck muscles.

With correct bending, the muscles will become even on both sides of your horse.

Aids for Bending

  • Increase your inside leg aid on the girth
  • Place your weight on your inside seat bone
  • Flex the horse to the inside, with your outside rein controlling the neck bend and your inside rein creating the flexion
  • Hold your outside leg behind the girth to prevent the horse’s quarters from swinging out.

A horse that wants to avoid bending in the rib cage will overbend his neck, and his shoulders will continue on the original track without turning. Straighten him up, flex him again, and maintain a stronger outside rein as you ask him to bend.

Correct flexing and bending keep your horse supple and easy to ride. Use your horseback lessons to flex and bend your mount the right way and you’ll have a comfortable, controllable horse.

Flexing Your Horse

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In order to progress when learning to ride a horse, you’ll need to understand the terms ‘flexion’ and ‘bend.’ There is an important distinction between the two and they have separate functions.

In this post we’ll look at flexion.

What is Flexion?

A horse is flexing when he turns his head sideways in the joint between his head and neck, called the axis joint.

This is the only part of the horse to change: the rest of the horse’s spine stays straight. If you look at a horse flexing to the right, you’ll see the back part of his right cheek bone slide under the parotid glands, closer to the neck muscles.

(The parotid glands are part of the horse’s salivary system. They are the fibrous bulges you can see between the base of your horse’s ear and the back of his lower jaw.)

When your horse flexes to one side the crest of his mane flips over to the side of the flexion: his head stays straight with both ears at the same height. You can see a glimpse of his inside eye and nostril if he is flexed correctly. 

Why Flex Your Horse?

Flexing teaches your horse to accept the outside rein - allowing its close contact on his neck – and to submit to the inside rein aid. It’s the beginning of suppling your horse, important for general submission and later for bending your horse in turns. Learning to ride a horse correctly means being able to flex him.

How Do You Flex Your Horse?

The horse should first be moving forward from your seat and legs into a steady contact. Exert more tension on the inside rein (the side the horse will flex to) while yielding almost the same amount on the outside rein. As soon as he flexes, your inside hand should lighten.

If he tilts his head – with one ear higher than the other – the outside rein is too tight. If the inside rein is too tight, your horse’s neck will be shortened and he can’t move freely forward.

Practice gradually flexing him to one side, straightening his neck then flexing him the other way. If he does this easily, he willingly accepts your inside and outside reins and you have reached an important milestone in your riding.

 Next we’ll look at bending your horse.

How to Dismount From Your Horse in an Emergency

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As part of your horseback riding training it’s useful not only to know how to stop a horse in an emergency but also how to dismount in a hurry if you’re not able to stop the horse in time to avert danger.

Times when this would be necessary are if the horse is going at a fair pace. But since dismounting at anything faster than a walk is in itself dangerous, it is best to practice this first in halt.

Only you can decide if you are able to do this. Otherwise, take note of the steps below and be ready to carry them out if need be!

Dismounting in an Emergency 

Step 1: Take your feet out of the stirrups.

Step 2: Let go of the reins and put your hands on the horse’s neck or the front (pommel) of the saddle. Alternatively, hold the horse’s mane.

Step 3: Lean forwards as for regular dismounting.

Step 4:  Swing your outside leg over the horse’s rump, at the same time pushing yourself upwards and away from the horse.

Step 5:  Land on your feet (hopefully!) facing the direction of travel. Take a few strides forwards to steady yourself before coming to a standstill.

How to Fall Off

This is also a good place to explain the best way to fall off a horse – as opposed to deliberately dismounting – when you lose balance and are unable to stay in the saddle.

  1. Let go of the reins. Yes, the horse will be able to run off if he wants to, but more importantly you won’t get dragged along or have your arms pulled out of their sockets.
  2. Tuck your head in and roll yourself into a ball
  3. Relax as best you can and let yourself fall.

 It won’t be nearly as bad as you think!

You don’t want to worry about how to respond in an emergency riding situation. File away in your mind how to react in such events, and you’ll relax when you ride.

Stopping Your Horse in an Emergency

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A common worry about horseback riding, for beginners, is what to do if they need to stop the horse.

If beginner riders feel confident of being able to stop a horse, they can relax in the saddle. 

How to Stop Your Horse

Event riders use a less drastic version of this to check a galloping horse when it approaches a cross-country fence with a little too much speed. I’ve used it many times and it’s a very effective way of slowing a horse down as well as stopping him.

Step 1: Brace yourself against the horse’s movement by jamming your heels down and pushing your legs forwards.

Don’t let your heels come up, as the horse can yank you forwards.

 Step 2: Hold one rein on the horse’s neck, keeping it very taut.

 Step 3: Hold the other, shortened, rein in your strongest hand.

If you’re right handed, your left hand should hold the taut left rein on the horse’s neck, with the other rein in your right hand.

Step 4: Push your left hand (with the rein in it) into the horse’s neck for leverage…

Step 5: ….while your right hand pulls hard on the right rein. That is the reason for doing this with your strongest hand.

This will stop your horse.


Clearly during a lesson on horseback riding for beginners you won’t be put into a sticky situation simply to practice an emergency stop!

However, gently practice the above steps while your horse is halted, and use a softer version when he’s walking, just to reassure yourself that you really can stop him.

Knowing you have this ‘weapon’ available to you will calm any fears you may have about controlling your horse.