Good Basics II
5-Half-Halt for the Green Horse
Like everything else in the horse’s training, the half-halt is taught. Easier to teach is the half-halt in trot than the half-halt in walk and canter. A correct halt-halt is delivered through an erect upper body, contracted lower back, and momentarily restraining, but ‘breathing’ contact. The correct response is a more engaged hindquarter and a lighter forehand, in other words, collection. The half-halt can be applied in varying degrees, depending on the desired response. Lasting only a couple of strides, the half-halt is a subtle and effective way to rebalance or collect a horse.
Teaching the half-halt in the trot is done through trot-walk-trot transitions. The number of walk steps between trots is decreased until it reaches only one stride, which becomes nearly undetectable throughout the movement. Eventually, the rider gives the aid to walk but keeps the horse in trot, and as a response, the horse shifts his balance to his hind end, collects a little, while keeping the trot.
The half-halt in canter is taught differently. As you canter on a 20m circle, brace your lower back a little and close your outside hand at the moment when the leading foreleg is on the ground (which is just before the outside hind comes forward). It is the same moment when the neck is lowered. Nine out of ten times, the horse that is not familiar with the half-halt will break into trot. That is perfectly fine, but you must correct it instantly. It is not important to rebalance the trot, unless it is completely falling apart. Just as the horse breaks into the first stride of trot, your outside leg would already be asking him to canter again, preferably supported by a verbal ‘no’. Ride another circle in canter, then repeat the half-halt. Most likely, the horse will break again, but your response will be instantaneous, asking him to canter on. After several corrections, your horse will realize that you do not want him to trot, and will try something else, usually a few slower or collected strides. As soon as that happens, praise your horse and canter forward, then try again. It is important to refresh the canter by doing a few medium strides in between half-halts to prevent loss of impulsion. It might take just a couple of corrections, or ten minutes of circling for your horse to understand your request. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a really long time because the more frequently you work on it, the easier it gets. Make sure you change the rein and work the other side equally.
This going forward and coming back teaches the horse to be more responsive to your aids, in addition to building his muscles, improving his self-carriage, and introducing collection. It is the building block for all the work that is about to follow.
The half-halt makes it possible to ride good transitions. Without the half-halt, upward transitions may be hollow, and downward transitions on the forehand. A good transition guarantees that the following gait or movement will be good, too. With your horse on the bit and responsive to the half-halt, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t do a perfectly balanced transition.
Upward transitions, like walk to trot, or trot to canter, must exhibit a willingness to go forward. For example, the transition to canter must show a clear uphill jump into canter, not a flat, dragged depart. This is achieved by proper balancing of the horse through a little half-halt, alerting the horse that something is coming up. If the horse is not adequately prepared, he will probably throw his nose up in surprise, thinking, “Oh! What? Ah, canter. Okay!”
Downward transitions require even more preparation. The trot to walk, for example, needs an active hind engine that keeps stepping through actively. A faulty trot-walk transition looks abrupt, as though the horse hit a wall, with the hind engine taking a nap. Instead, you should feel that the energy in the hind end generated in the trot is carried forth into walk—almost as if the forelegs step into walk while the quarters stay in trot. Of course, this feeling lasts through the transition only, as the next walk steps must be smooth and fluid.
Canter-trot transitions need a clear half-halt. Since the horse will already be familiar with the half-halt, willingly collecting his canter stride upon request, this transition should be fairly easy:
1. In a nice, forward canter, half-halt and let the horse collect a little.
2. Follow the collection for two or three strides, then merely think ‘trot’, giving a very slight indication on the outside rein if necessary.
You should also practice transitions within gaits, such as working trot-medium trot-working trot. At this stage, these can be done on a 20m circle, by lengthening the trot for a circle, then gently bringing it back to working trot for another circle, and so forth. The same can be done at the canter. Trot lengthening across the diagonal are to be attempted after the horse is comfortable changing the rein in working trot, accepting a new outside leg and hand as he reaches the opposite side in a confident and relaxed way.
Transitions within the canter are also an integral part of the horse’s basic training. As the horse becomes familiar with the half-halt in canter, it is time to practice some medium-working canter transitions, or even medium-collected transitions. On a 20m circle, start with in a nice working canter, then ask the horse to lengthen for half or more of a circle. Do this by applying the outside leg when the horse is in the last canter phase with the neck lowered and the leading inside foreleg about to leave the ground. This causes the outside pushing hind leg to engage deeper and facilitate the lengthening of strides. Then half-halt and collect the stride to working canter. If you have thoroughly familiarized your horse with the half-halt, this exercise should be a piece of cake. To make it a little more difficult, half-halt in medium canter to working canter, then half-halt again to collected canter, and soften and harmonize, allowing the horse to carry himself in a collected canter for half a circle or more. It is important to ride smoothly out of it into working or medium without jetting the horse forward with your leg, as that rings like punishment to the horse.
A lengthened stride is not the same as a medium stride. In dressage tests, you may find ‘lengthened strides’ in lower levels, but as you move up, the tests ask for ‘medium strides’. Many horses can lengthen without showing a truly medium pace. I believe that lengthening can come out of a working pace, but a medium comes out of a more collected pace. This is because a lengthened stride is merely longer, while a medium stride is active, uphill, with a lighter forehand that flicks forward.
A few steps of collected trot before asking for medium strides help elevate the forehand and activate the quarters. The better the quality of the collection, the better the extension that follows. Riding plenty of medium trots throughout a training session keeps the horse alert, light to the leg, and active. It also supples the horse, builds muscle, and frees the shoulder. With your horse relaxed, on the aids, round, and obedient to the half-halt, the medium trot comes through naturally.
The medium canter can still look good on most horses even if preceded by a working canter. You can safely ride an energetic medium canter down the long side when you are confident your horse will answer your half-halt before the corner. Of course, if the horse ignores you, go back a step and work on transitions on a circle until the horse is happy to half-halt on request.
The seven steps in these articles form the base that supports further training. If your horse is trained up to this level, you can be sure you will receive no less than a 60% score on a First Level test regardless of your type of horse. Any horse that was thoroughly familiarized with these concepts is a horse with very solid basics. While training these basics can take up to two years of hard, patient work, progressing from this point should be fairly easy. The seeds have been planted and nurtured, now you can watch them blossom.