What the Heck is a Half Halt Anyway?

Well, I’m back in the saddle again, proverbially.  Back to blogging, that is!  I’ve been learning and teaching, riding and long lining, and just generally horsing around.  I have been all over the country, and throughout my travels I have come up against a phrase again and again, that leads me to simply ask….

“What the heck is a half-halt, anyway?”

When I Googled this query, in 0.63 seconds I received 6,330,000 answers.  Yep, in less than one second, there were over SIX MILLION answers to this little question.  Videos, step-by-step how to’s, articles, other blogs; experts, journalists, back yard aficionados, everyone seems to have an explanation of this seemingly innocuous phrase.  And yet, in reading all of the various earnestly crafted responses (ok, not all of them, guys, but come on….) there was something left out, something that I just couldn’t put my finger on.

I get this feeling when I teach, as well.  Most of my clients are not new to dressage, but have had experience with other trainers, coaches, and clinicians before me.  Many are accomplished riders who have shown, or have ridden extensively for years.  Yet when I ask them to define a half-halt, the answers I get are evasive, roundabout, and unclear.  They tell me when they should half-halt, or what they “should” do with their bodies to half-halt; generally there is an expectation of stiffening the back or weighting the seatbones, along with some use of a restricting hand, from which combinations the horse is supposed to magically respond by suppling his body and getting more…something. When I question further, there is little understanding of how often these riders should half-halt, what parts of the horse they are trying to affect, or how they know when the half-halt is completed, has accomplished its goal, or what it should  feel like.

WHA………..???????

I, too, have been there.  For a long time.  With a lot of effort.  And frustration. And I thank every single horse that put up with my dumb ass.

As a naturally talented rider as a young person, I was put on a lot of different horses, usually of a less than ideal training nature (that is a whole ‘nother blog!).  I trained with many different, high quality trainers who gave it their all to instill in me their knowledge, and they all molded my riding in some form or another.  I went to school in Germany to really grasp the concept of dressage, thinking that riding in the Mecca of Dressage would somehow clear up the cobwebs.  Let me tell you a story about that…..

I was at a well respected riding establishment in Germany, working toward my National Trainer certification.  I was riding a PSG schoolmaster, and was partaking in our group lesson with our much esteemed head trainer.  I was working (very hard) to get the horse more collected and into the medium trot.  The esteemed head master kept screaming at me “MORE FORWARD!!!”  and I kept kicking the snot out of this dear old horse (thank you, Dr. Doolittle!), going faster and faster down the long side.  The well-regarded trainer kept screaming LOUDER AND LOUDER, and I kept going faster and faster. In disgust, he yelled “well, if you don’t know what forward is, we have bigger problems than I thought!” and I responded with “Well, why don’t you TEACH ME what forward is, then?”  “

“JUST KEEP GOING, you will figure it out!!”

Sigh….

While this example is a little off topic, it highlights the disconnect between what we THINK we are teaching, and what we ARE teaching.  So back to the whole half-halt thing…

What if we simplified the idea behind the half-halt?  What if we made it clear to eachperson on every horse, exactly what they should be looking for on that particular day….when they half-halted???

Let’s give it a try – here’s the plan:

Next time you ride your horse, walk around a few minutes and make sure you are both present and accounted for.  Gather up your reins into a nice basic contact, like a training level walk.  Now HALT.

Was it easy?  Was it difficult?  If it was easy, bravo!  Give it another few tries to make sure that the first one wasn’t a fluke.  If it was difficult, assess WHY:  did you ask quickly and release the request, or did you hang?  Were your reins too long for the horse to hear your request clearly and promptly?  Did you askandthenPULLLLLLL, because he simply wasn’t stopping? Or is your horse simply used to not listening to you until he must…?  For any of these reasons, come to a decision about WHY it wasn’t good, correct that particular issue, and try again (this is where the German “just keep doing it, you’ll figure it out” part comes in – they just forgot to include the directions!).  On your next halt, did you fix the first issue, or did you repeat it?  If you fixed it, was the halt better, or still only so-so?  A so-so halt means there is still another issue present, so try to take on the next thing – rein length, pulling not aiding, or did you shift your weight all over the place trying to MAKE HIM HALT?!?  Again, assess your last halt, decide on a different strategy for the NEXT one, and apply it.  Rinse and repeat until…

HE HALTS EASILY!!!!!  Really, this is a critical juncture to come to.  You and your horse BOTH now understand what you want, hopefully you are using much less aid that you needed to in the beginning, and you’re feeling pretty darned accomplished.  As you should be!

This, my friends, is a 100% halt.  Agreed?

Next exercise – since you got so snazzy with your halts, I want you to ask for another one….but change your mind just before he halts!  Because you changed your mind, you will say to him “naw, I’m good, let’s just keep going” and you will apply a bit of leg to reinforce this change of mind.  Again, I want you to play with this until this becomes kinda fun and easy – you can almost halt, but then dupe your trusty mount into going on instead.  You might notice that he becomes lighter off the leg when you do this…you might notice that he gets better in his tempo when you do this….hmmmmm!

We will call this halt a 50% halt.  Because we went half-way to the halt, but then changed our minds.  Are you with me, dear readers?

So if this is a 50% halt, what would a 25% halt be like?  Let’s give it a go!  If 50% brings you almost to the halt but not, then 25% should make the horse almost pause (Yes, my fabulous rider?  You rang?) but then decide that going on (with the encouragement of your leg aid) is the better way to go.  The beauty of this is that YOU are deciding what 50% is and what 25% is, which can change from day to day, horse to horse, and even moment to moment as the ride progresses.  You may find (oh, I hope you find!) that as you move through this exercise, that you ask with less aid and you start to get a bigger percentage of halt – so you have to minimize your aid!

To finish up the experiment, get crazy, and ask for a 10% halt.  You may not even have time to think H- before you go on – that’s how small 10% is.  Did you get a flick of the ear?  Did you notice the horse preparing for something, then going on smoothly when you say to?  That is all that is needed for a 10%, my friends – you have arrived at the half-halt.

Now wait just a dang moment!  What did we do here?  Think of it as calibrating your horse each day – know how much hand it takes to find 100% halt that day and tiptoe your way backwards until the smallest squeeze of the reins gives you his attention.   The same idea can be used with your legs:  how much aid do you need to ASK him to go (not MAKE him go, remember!).  You may start out needing quite a bit of leg, especially if he has been used to you yammering away with little purpose. 

Can you get to the point that you only need to brush him with the leg aid and he moves forward in a purposeful gait, simply awaiting your next request? Ahh, the beauty of Dressage!  I hope that a little bit of light is going on in your head, showing you why the top riders look like they’re doing…nothing. 

They have so calibrated their horses and their aids that they are able to use microscopic amounts to rebalance their horses and get what they need – what a concept!  The best part about this is that it is available to everyone who has the patience and the perseverance to get out there and halt.  Just halt, assess and repeat.  If you get into a jam, halt.  Make a list of possible mistakes you made, decide which one you want to correct first, and then go do it!  Make the simple act of balancing and rebalancing your horse into a daily part of your work, and things should move on nicely for you!

This, my friends, is the elusive, oft-maligned half-halt, in all its simplistic glory and majestic awe.  This is the basis of Dressage, so get familiar with it.  Roll around in it, try it on for size…and have fun with it! Until next time, may all your rides have great moments, and may you turn the crappy moments into learning experiences!

Stephany Fish