What is a half halt and how do you ride one? Aside from the timeless human query of "why am I here?" this may be the most commonly asked question amongst Dressage riders. As with any widely asked question, there are a myriad of answers. In this article I will be addressing just a few of the many insights into half halts.
Half halts come in many forms, and are used for a range of reasons, from rebalancing a horse to making transitions, to redirecting a horse's focus. Distilled down to bare bones, however, you want to remember that the half halt is a sequence of aids from the rider to the horse designed to increase engagement of the back.
The aids themselves are:
- A quick, light closing of the calf or spur
- Followed by a tucking action of the rider's gluteus [butt] muscles
- Into a temporary restraint from the rider's hand over the rein
- Immediately followed by a release [without dropping- that's the hard part!] of the hand
- Supported by an immediate repetition of closing the leg.
Aside from being able to keep a continuous flow of energy from the horse's abdominal muscles into their back, allowing a deeper step of the hind leg and creating a stronger bascule over the topline, the rider must be able to allow this energy unimpeded through their own body in order not to block the horse. This requires feel, and it actually can be both taught and learned by those not naturally gifted in this area [and believe me, very few riders truly have this degree of natural feel]. The answer lies in teaching yourself "timing".
Ideally, a half halt is ridden within the space of time that it takes a horse to place one of his feet on the ground and lift it back off again. Half halts timed to the moment of impact influence and create transitions, one's ridden while the leg is airborne influence lateral yielding.
To understand this, first teach yourself to feel each of the horse's legs as they impact the ground. Start at the walk and learn one leg at a time- for example, start with the right front. Once you know the feeling of the leg hitting the ground, start the sequence of the half halt as described earlier. Be sure that by the time the leg is leaving the ground you are ending with the last, light closing of your leg. All within the moment of the right front leg impacting the ground, bearing weight, and preparing to lift, you close your leg, tuck your seat, restrain the rein, release the rein and close your leg again. That is how quick you will become.
Teach yourself to do this with the movement of each leg- right front, right hind, left front, left hind. Start with the walk, then move to the rising trot. Then the sitting trot. Then the canter. Really! Like watching a Karate Master whose hand seems to move faster than light, as you practice this sequence and learn to feel each leg in each gait, you will find it more easily each day, until eventually it does not seem fast at all.
Now that you know the sequence and the timing, what is a half halt used for? Done correctly, the half halt stimulates the horse's abdominal muscles, causing the back to be lifted and allowing an increased range of motion for the hind leg. An active hind leg enables the horse to become more round through his back and lifted underneath your seat, which you can feel underneath your sit bones and thighs. In the beginning stages of warm up this is often accompanied by the horse sneezing, coughing lightly, releasing gas or passing manure. This is due to the fact that engaging these muscles stimulates the horses muscle memory, and at the beginning, these are the actions the muscles remember. As time goes on [or the warm up continues] the memory of lifting the back to sneeze is replaced by the memory of responding to a half halt.
In this fashion, the half halt, much like engaging the clutch in a car with a manual transmission, is used to engage the horse's back to help with their balance during a transition, to aid the balance during a stronger moment of bend, to cultivate carrying power from the hind leg, to maintain balance and focus, and to direct the horse's attention even during an actual halt.
The other mystery surrounding the half halt comes with these questions:
- How long?
- How strong?
- How often?
These are some general answers-
- Try to keep it to the moment of the footfall, although this will change as training develops the horse's carrying power.
- Play with the intensity of your individual aids to determine this answer. You must experiment in order to learn! Try adding more leg- next time more seat- next time more rein- ideal responses result in the horse coming rounder in his back and neck without bracing. The topline lifts and engages rather than flattening. The bascule of the neck where it emerges from the shoulder gets wider immediately in front of the withers [the trapezius muscle].
- On an attentive horse, half halts can be ridden anywhere from one to three times in a row. Try not to ride more than three half halts in a row- even interspersing one stride of "leaving them alone" will often allow a horse to rebalance even when you did not think they were ready.
Perfecting the half halt is part of every rider's routine, from the world class trainer to the starting rider. None of this is remedial! Only practice will lead you to the answers- so, off to the barn and give it a try!
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