What is a half halt?
It is the aids a rider uses to communicate with their horse. It is used to prepare a horse for a transition, or a change in direction. It is used to engage the hind legs. It is used to balance a horse. It is used to control tempo. The half halt is a tool that enhances the effectiveness of the rider. Makes the horse more responsive and concentrated on what is being asked of it.
What are the aids?
To ride a correct half halt there are a sequence of commands given by the rider in a short succession of time. Now most people are mystified by the term “half halt” and make it far more complex and difficult then it needs to be. Firstly the horse is asked to go forward from a leg aid (more often than not inside leg) to encourage it to step more forward. Then the energy that is created, is captured into the outside rein and the contact is supported there. The outside rein feels like it holds more contact and for as long as it takes to get a response from the horse, be it to slow and engage or round more in its top line, whilst softening its jaw. Only when the horse responds correctly and this may be after a split second or anything up to several strides, do we ride the horse forward again from another leg aid as we soften the feel in our rein and allow the horse forward again. So it is leg ,hand,leg ,in that order.
Now I haven’t discussed the “seat” of the rider yet. The seat is also part of the aid of the half halt. This can only be effective if the horse is “round,” over the back and the rider has a good independent seat. Hence it can only be used by an accomplished rider and more educated horse. When using the seat during the half halt, the rider needs to momentarily stop riding the movement at whatever pace the horse is in. The rider holds their core firm and no longer goes with the feel of the horse, making them tall. This part of the aid should happen whilst the hand comes into play. Once the horse feels like it comes “back” to the rider, he applies leg and goes along with the movement of the horse once more. Once very educated, a horse will respond to the seat so well, that often this becomes enough rather than the bracing hand aid.
A half halt often looks invisible to the spectator. If ridden correctly, it goes through the whole body of the horse, from the hind quarters to the poll. When riding, it feels like the “breaking or slowing” comes from the horses back legs as opposed to the mouth. The end of the half halt feels like the jaw of the horse is elastic and not set.
On the other hand if ridden too much from the hand, the horse will feel like it pulls against the feel and as this happens will also brace and hollow its back which doesn’t profit the building of correct muscle tone in the horse. This creates a set mouth and often the horse will run through the hand of the rider. Of course any hollowing of the horses back creates tension in the horse and this is what causes resistance and or running. Also a result of bad timing of the combination of leg and hand aids.
Sometimes I like to think of it as a moment of hesitation. The more effective the half halts are, the more the horse will shift its weight to its rear and lift the forehand, appearing “uphill”.
This is called collection.
Why do Half Halts?
We ride half halts to improve the horse’s posture balance and engagement. Think of it as preparing the horse for your next command. Without preparation, how is the horse meant to know what you are thinking next? It takes time for your signal to be applied and then for the horse to react and respond. In fact it is often over several strides. As the partnership grows between the horse and rider, it comes quicker and the horse starts to feel your body language and thoughts. This is what training is all about, developing harmony between the team of horse and rider.
So we need to half halt our horses to “wake them up” and say “get ready” we are about to do something! Horses need to be warned before every change of gait, be it within a pace or from one pace to the next and for every change of direction. This includes riding on the long side and then coming around a corner, as this is a change in direction, requiring balance.
So in essence a “trained” rider uses many half halts during every lap of the arena and this has the effect of helping the horse to stay in a rhythm with good posture. Hence a good performance in the ring looks polished and flows from one movement to the next. The more transitions ridden the more half halts also, the more the horse will engage their hindquarters. This in turn will create cadence and flashy movement that flows.