Half – What?

Posted by in attention, back, balance, Blog, body, calm, get your horse going, get your horse listening., half halt, softness, softness of the back on Feb 9, 2013


Most riders have heard about a half halt but do you really know what it is – or why you do it? A half halt is just like a tap on the shoulder to tell your horse to listen up. It sounds easy when you put it like that – but is it?


Done well a half-halt will rebalance your horse by putting his weight back onto his hocks. It can set him up for a movement or transition. Done incorrectly it’s guaranteed to confuse him and make him more tense and unbalanced than he was before!


The simple answer is “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” If you’re just learning to half-halt it’s likely you feel you should be using them before every turn or transition. There’s no need. Your horse has more than enough to think about and listen to. If you’re worrying about the aids for the next movement or where you want to go the last thing you need to do is start putting in a half halt!


At its finest a half halt is just a squeeze or tightening of the seat – it’s not even visible. However, subtlety is only possible if your horse understands your aids. For the novice horse or rider it’s asking too much. To make a half-halt understandable you’ll have to be too firm with your aids and that’s far more likely to make your horse hollow, crooked or tense. A transition down a pace is often more effective.


In many dressage tests you have trot-walk-trot transitions designed to teach your horse to listen to your aids and stay relaxed. These are one step closer to a half-halt. Practise them at home whether you’re competing or not. They’re a great way to settle and rebalance a horse. If your horse likes to tank off or ignore your aids they’re a great way to break his concentration and get him focused on you too.  


A half halt really is just a gentle reminder to tell your horse to listen. What it isn’t is a pull back on your outside rein to say “Oi!” Use your whole body – not your reins – and you’ll get his attention without creating tension.


Ride trot-walk-trot transitions on the long sides so you concentrate on staying straight. A crooked transition will lack energy. If your horse’s body isn’t pushing up behind his shoulders his back can’t round. Make sure your shoulders and hips are square to the end of the school and you’re looking directly ahead – not down to the inside. Sit up, tighten your seat and squeeze your knee and thigh into the saddle. He will slow down.


To bring your horse down into walk close your fingers around both reins but don’t pull back. The more pressure you put on his mouth the tighter his back will be. Your body has down all the hard work – your fingers are just the finishing touch. Using both reins keeps the pressure in his mouth even which stops him tipping his nose to one side – and swinging his quarters to the other!


Too many riders pull their horse back into walk which is why they hollow. As your horse walks push on so he steps forward into the contact and relax your body so he does the same. Allow him to take two or three steps in walk before relaxing your fingers and using a nudge with the side of both heels to ask him to trot.


So the perfect trot-walk-trot involves the following three stages –

  1. Tighten your seat, thighs and fingers to ask your horse to walk
  2. relax your body and push him forward in walk  
  3. use the side of your heels to trot on again


Your long term aim is to lose Step 2 – slow down for half a stride and send your horse forward again before the lower pace is reached. By using your body more than your reins you’ll keep him relaxed in his back. By slowing down you put his weight back over his quarters and rebalance him before he moves into a new pace or movement.  


Treat half-halts as you would any lateral movement – take your time and practise. Make sure your horse understands your aids and you’re not just pulling the outside rein and hoping for the best! Next time you think about using one ask yourself:  “Will it really help?”


Good luck and enjoy your schooling.


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