A lot of dressage riders are confused by the dressage terminology behind the bit and behind the vertical.
When a horse is behind the bit, he’s not connected. That’s never acceptable. It means he’s dropped the contact with your hands, and there are loops in the reins.
Your horse can be behind the vertical and still be connected. However, he will be on the forehand. I’ll go into that a little bit more next.
Sometimes, riding a horse behind the vertical can be useful in schooling to give a horse the idea of staying connected during a dressage movement he’s having trouble with such as a canter depart or leg yields.
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For a short period of time, you’d ride him connected but “deep” to give him the idea of using his body as a unit during those movements rather than disconnecting and coming hollow.
But riding your dressage horse behind the vertical isn’t acceptable for competition. In competition, you always want your horse on the bit with his poll the highest point and the nose about 5 degrees in front of the vertical.
Think of the horse’s body as a parallelogram. If the nose is behind the vertical and you draw a parallel line with the hind legs, you’d see the hind legs trailing out behind the body. That’s what I mean when I say that the horse can be connected when he’s behind the vertical, but his balance will be on the forehand.
As you bring the hind legs more under, the parallelogram shifts. The hind legs come under, the head comes up, and the nose comes more forward. Eventually the poll will be the highest point and the nose will be where you want it to be in it’s finished product—about 5 degrees in front of the vertical.
Behind the bit, however, is an entirely different story than behind the vertical. If your horse’s neck is round but he doesn’t touch the reins, he’s behind the bit. This dressage term means he’s not connected.
Connection means that you’ve connected your horse’s back end to his front end. Think of your horse’s back like a suspension bridge.
Draw reins or other gadgets won’t help your horse understand how to come on the bit.
When a horse has been ridden in gadgets like draw reins, he’ll often adopt this “behind the bit” position of a round neck with loops in the reins.
Some horses even look like they have what’s called a “broken neck”. This expression refers to the fact that the highest point of the neck is near the third vertebrae rather than at the poll.
Gadgets create a false frame so there’s no real connection. The horse sees the reins as a restriction. Rather than going through them, he sucks back away from them or breaks at the third vertebrae.
You want your horse to come from behind, over his back, through his neck, and into your hand. So, if you just focus on making the neck round by using gadgets, you’ll never really have a horse that is honestly on the bit.
Also, fiddling with the bit and/or seesawing on your horse’s mouth gives you the same false head set that you get with gadgets. Your horse will just arch his neck and bring his face on or behind the vertical. There’s no true connection from back to front.