On the Bit

Posted in Life Lessons from Dance on Jul 19, 2012

The moments of being fully engaged in a sport are what keep us coming back. I remember that moment in every ride where my horse had warmed up and went ‘on the bit.’

Being on the bit starts from the ground up. First my horse must engage his hocks enough to push off the ground and create spring in his step. He must reach underneath himself with his back legs and track into or past the tracks of his front hooves. He must soften his belly and start to lift his spine and finally he must round his neck with his poll (the space between his ears) being the highest point. His mouth accepts the bit as he begins to chew and he develops an even, thick white foam around his mouth. To be on a horse as he engages and goes on the bit is exquisite. The reins feel like butter, the bounce is cushioned and the horse’s belly between your legs is soft and firm all at the same time.

Once a horse is on the bit, he can more easily do what you ask of him, whether it is lateral work such as a shoulder-in or half pass, or transitions between gaits or within a gait. The rider and horse become one and the rider’s directions to the horse become almost imperceptible.

Being on the bit evolves as a horse’s training evolves. At first it means lightly rounding his neck and accepting the bit; eventually it means a high level of athletic engagement with a condensed and elevated neck.

I can see that it is the same thing in dance. As the women presses off from the floor and engages her legs and hips and maintains her frame (the dance equivalent of being on the bit!), the man’s lead becomes imperceptible and the man and woman move as one across the dance floor.

At first the woman’s frame is relatively upright but as her training evolves, her frame becomes more engaged and athletic as she stretches out in a seemingly gravity defying frame.

If you force a horse into a frame, he will round his neck but his poll will not be the highest point and he will not be engaged with active hocks, a soft belly and an accepting mouth. The same thing is true for dance, you can force a frame and lean back and out but your feet will not feel the floor and your knees and hips will not be engaged and your frame will be artificial. I wonder whether the dancer’s smile is the dancing equivalent of the horse foaming at the mouth. If the horse has not relaxed and settled into his work he will either have no foam, uneven foam or it will be too thin and drippy. Those frozen smiles I saw on some of the dancers at the competition were forced and some even looked a bit ‘thin and drippy’; they didn’t start from the floor.

Dancing to the Viennese waltz with my instructor today brought back all those wonderful feelings and memories of riding my horse. The connection between horse and rider leads to an incredible bond. I would feel so grateful to my horse after a great ride that after unsaddling him and hosing him down, I would take him up to the best meadow and hand graze him as my way of saying thank you.

Now here I was feeling that same depth of gratitude to my dance instructor. Although I am not sure he’d appreciate being hosed down with cold water, I wanted to offer him the human equivalent of hand grazing him in the best meadow.