The Half-halt

Half-halt in canter. Horse is attentive but is a little short in the neck. Photo from 'Dressage Masterclass with Dane Rawlins.'

The half-halt is often a confusing term. Most of us know its purpose, and many of us ask for it their own way. Back in my riding school days, my instructors used to ask me to half-halt, telling me to ‘almost halt, then go’, ‘urge with the legs and restrain with the hand’. But is that all there is to the half-halt? As I recall, the horses didn’t seem to like it much. They leaned on my hand and dragged the rear end behind. So there must be another way to do it because experts use it all the time effectively. And in order to learn how to achieve it, we have to look into all the details and aspects of it.

What is the half-halt?

The half-halt is a call for attention. Of course, it has to be much more subtle than it sounds. When we ask the horse for a half-halt, we ask him to generate energy ‘upwards’ - that is, elevate, become rounder, balanced, and lighten the forehand without changing the rhythm.

What purpose does it serve?

It’s a balancing tool. It tells the horse to prepare for the next movement. It helps him organize his footsteps so that he doesn’t stumble when you ask for the next move or transition. It allows him to bend his hocks and step underneath, therefore preparing him to strike in balance. Summarized into two points, the half halt:-

Balances the horse, and Asks the horse, “Listen, something’s coming up."

When it is useful?

You can use the half-halt before transitions from one pace to another and within the pace, before corners, before lateral movements, and before changing the bend. It can also be used after movements to re-balance the horse.

The Big Question: How?

To begin with, lets summarize the aids to the half-halt before we get into details. The half-halt begins in the rider’s seat, back, and legs. These run the engine (i.e. the hindquarters) allowing the horse to animate his steps. The rider’s hand receive the energy and channel it accordingly. If that sounds confusing, the points below should clarify it.

The back, seat and legs:

Upper body erect, tall, and proud, shoulders relaxed, chest open, stomach leading.

Elbows bent, relaxed and heavy at your sides.

Breathe in and expand your diaphragm.

Broaden your hips and turn your hip joints fluid with suppleness. Soften your seat.

Think of leading with your hips by very slightly tilting your pelvis. Lighten the pubic bone but don’t raise it off the saddle. Don’t lean back, compress your stomach, or collapse your shoulders. This is your energy generator.

The hands:

Hold the inside rein. ‘Hold’ does not mean restrain, pull or sponge. It merely implies that you should close your fingers around the rein. This supports the horse’s neck.

Close, then open the outside rein. This is your active rein aid and should last no more than a stride or two.

Think of asking the horse to stay in rhythm with your hands.

Soften both reins instantly and equally after the half halt. The release should be towards the horse’s mouth.

Tip: If you are still confused, have someone read out these directions to you while you are on your horse at halt. Practice your aids and your position.

The Half-Halt in Practice

If your horse is not familiar with the half halt, your aids may not be as effective as they should be. Of course, all horses need time to learn, so give your horse a chance to understand what you are trying to ask of him.

After warming up and loosening your horse, perform many walk-halt-walk or walk-trot-walk transitions. Besides collecting your horse, these will help him anticipate a transition.

When the horse begins to anticipate a downward transition, you should only think of making the transition and the horse will respond. In other words, you’re telling the horse to prepare to walk and when he almost does, tell him that you changed your mind and would like to keep going at a trot. My instructors were telling me this all along, except that I didn’t know how to ask for it.

The rider must understand, however, that this is an exaggerated effect. Ideally, the change in pace during the half halt should be very subtle and the horse should stay in rhythm. Use your body as explained above to help your horse, and only half-halt when necessary. Do not half-halt every few steps or your horse will begin to lock up and become rigid. Eric Herbermann said in his book Dressage Formula the following:

“To half-halt as often as necessary does not mean that we should fiddle endlessly and aimlessly with the hand; that only makes the mouth insensitive, as a result of which ever more and stronger aids need to be given to achieve any effects. The half-halt should only be used deliberately, when necessary, not just for good measure.”

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

Don’t block your horse with your hand. The reins are your refining aid.

Generate the energy from your seat. If the horse is not responsive, bring your legs closer against the horse’s sides to encourage him to step forward.

Don’t half-halt excessively. Use it occasionally to balance your horse.

Do not actively hold both reins at the same time. Use the inside rein to support the horse’s neck, and the outside rein to ask to horse to stay in rhythm and take the energy upwards instead of forwards.

Yield with your hand after the half halt.

Do relax because any tension in your body will cause tension in the movement.

Do use the half-halt before transitions as this will lead to a clean transition and better strides at the next pace.

One last note I would like all riders to be aware of is to understand the essence of the half-halt - the cycle of activity. It should always be ‘drive > receive > lighten > drive > yield with the hand’.

Drive - seat.

Receive - hands.

Lighten - horse.

Drive - seat.

Yield- hands.



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