The all-important half halt
The half halt is like a comma in a sentence. If that thought intrigues you, read on and NICOLE TOUGH will explain.
Coaching a new to dressage rider recently, it was time to introduce leg yielding. I had previously explained and demonstrated the half halt, which said student had practised and was beginning to understand. But it wasn’t until they had to incorporate it into the preparation for leg yielding, that they really grasped its importance.
I had explained to them that with the half halt, we put an ‘almost pause’ into the horse through the combined use of all our aids – seat, leg and rein. Without the half halt, everything runs into everything else That we dressage riders use the half halt to keep us in the middle of the spirit level.
To which, she responded: “Like a comma in a sentence?”
Wow! Yes! The half halt is exactly like a comma in a sentence!
Without the comma, a sentence doesn’t make sense. Likewise, without an effective half halt, we cannot achieve the shifting of balance from the forehand to the hindquarters that enables the qualities that make the sport of dressage beautiful.
Qualities like impulsion, engagement, collection and self-carriage are not possible without the understanding and effectiveness of the half halt. Carl Hester explains the half halt as essentially building energy by momentarily influencing the cycle of energy.
Ever heard this?: Half halt on the outside rein. This is misleading and incorrect coaching language. First and foremost because the half halt is not a rein aid. It is a technique requiring the co-ordinated action of the seat, leg and hand to improve, or correct, the balance of the horse from their forehand more to their haunches. And whilst it is a blend of the go and the stop aids, the finesse of the half halt must be so refined as to not create a block in the connection or the movement.
On a young or green horse, the effect of a half halt should steady a loss of rhythm or balance. We teach the half halt in phases to a rider and/or the horse. Riders must first learn to use their aids independently of each other. The lower leg aids are for go, the seat aids make up the core and are for whoa, and the rein aids are for direction and managing the frame, similar to side reins. We practise these independently to ensure the horse understands and is responding to each without hesitation or resistance.
Then we start to blend them. For example, in walk to halt, the easiest transition of all, we should use the seat aids to achieve the halt, with the rein aids to manage the frame into halt, and the leg aids to keep the flow and finish square and balanced in the halt.
Likewise, in the transition from halt to walk, we use the leg aids to produce the forward response, the rein aids to manage the frame, and the seat aids to maintain the balance.
From this point of understanding, we can introduce the half halt. Again beginning in walk, and using a blend of seat, leg and rein, we ask the horse to almost halt, and before they actually halt, we release our half halt and walk on – in other words, half of a halt. Repeat this a few times, then try it in trot. Once trotting, engage your half halt technique and almost walk, and before the horse actually walks, trot on and reward the horse. Same in canter – but note: you will need more leg than you think to stop them trotting.
On the more established horse, the effect of the half halt should increase the activity and uphill tendency; and on an advanced horse, the effect should increase expression (air time) and elasticity (joint articulation). At these more advanced stages, the half halt can be a little bit different each time you use it. Sometimes, it’s 45 per cent leg, 45 per cent seat and 10 per cent rein aids; sometimes 55 per cent seat, 40 per cent leg and 5 per cent rein. The horse will tell you when you get the balance right, because it will work (and they will tell you when you get it wrong, because it won’t!). I can absolutely say that the more you use your seat and leg, the less you’ll need the rein; and the less you need the rein, the better and more correct your horse will go.
The better the rider gets at developing their half halt technique, the better they can transform the horse. As Hubertus Schmidt remarked: “Beautiful moments are only possible when the horse accepts the half halt.”
The half halt is a building block of riding, a technique that will improve every year in the saddle … provided you work on it; and the balancing effect of an effective half halt on the horse amazingly evolves as they become stronger.
When I look back at my riding career, the understanding and continual development of the half halt has been, and still is, a triumph. Mastering it at each stage, on each horse I’ve had the pleasure of training, is sheer jubilation.
I look forward to getting better at it, and the better I get, the better the horses will go. Better. Never. Stops.