Mysteries of the Half-Halt Revealed - Expert how-to for English Riders

Mysteries of the Half-Halt Revealed

Understand and properly employ this "momentary pause for thought" through body awareness. Adapted from the book Pilates for Riders.
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More Advanced Half-Halt
The subtler half-halt can be ridden on horses well attuned to the basic version, very sensitive horses or horses working at more advanced levels of training who need to interpret lots of variations. This type of half-halt can be used to create more collection, that is shorter, higher strides, and applied for perhaps just one of the horse's steps in any given pace; or it could be applied and released on alternate steps over a number of strides to create more expression and suspension-the momentary holding of flow within your body helps your horse to stay airborne for longer.

Muscles to use

  • Seat muscles to activate: transversus abdominus, obliques, latissimus dorsi.

How to do it: Squeeze your spine.

  • Leg muscles to activate: adductors.

How to do it: Close the back of the thigh, but much more gently than for the basic half-halt, almost like scooping up the horse into your body.

  • Hand muscles to activate: trapezius, latissimus dorsi, tricep and bicep.

How to do it: Pull your elbows into your waist.

Why does riding the half-halt in this way work?
The cue to squeeze your spine relates specifically to the engagement of the latissimus dorsi, along with a low-intensity engagement of the transversus abdominus and obliques.

Engaging the lats can also be used in the basic half-halt. The difference in the more advanced version is that the strong stabilizing action of the abdominals is much less, and the gripping, vice-like action of the inner thighs is negligible. The rider's movement is focused marginally more on the upper body than the lower. The lower body should be free and fluid, and able to receive and absorb the upward energy of increased collection. The pelvis stays in neutral, rather than slightly tilting, through the action of the TA and obliques.

Bringing the elbows into the waist without stiffening the forearm or wrist ensures that the resistance passed down the rein acts in more of an upward than a downward direction on the fleshy corners of the horse's mouth. This encourages a relaxing of his jaw, lifting of the head and neck and lightening of the shoulder, and therefore the increased engagement of the hindquarters. A downward/backward action puts a lot of pressure on the very sensitive tongue and bars of his mouth.

Attune Your Horse to the Movement of Your Body
For the horse who tends to work at full throttle all the time, it is helpful to teach him to be responsive to the messages transmitted by your seat and body. Then you can use your leg to direct him without him running on or running away from it, so that you don't have to hold on to his mouth all the time for brakes. Aside from that, it is useful to train any horse to be more attuned to your body and less reliant on your hand--you will eventually be able to deliver your aids so invisibly that your horse will look as though he is doing everything of his own accord.

Response to the seat exercise
The following instructions apply to the basic half-halt in sitting trot-the aids will still work in rising trot but will not be so effective. The same principles apply in canter when, depending on how powerful and strong your horse is, you will need to ride either canter-to-walk or canter-to-halt transitions.

  1. Ask the horse to move forward in trot. As soon as he starts to pull a little by accelerating without being asked to, apply your half-halt body aids as firmly as you can for a couple of seconds, release and reapply as firmly as you can--this means the absolute maximum effort you can manage.
  2. We want the horse to make a full transition to halt. If he doesn't halt within six seconds (again, you can work on reducing the time), make a really tight fist with your outside hand and, with a stiff elbow, give a short sharp tug on the rein. Count to six, out loud if you like. By the time you reach six you should be standing still. The horse will quickly learn that the hand aid is the back-up to the body aid--if he responds in a timely fashion to the body aid, the hand aid is either applied very gently or not at all.
  3. Ask the horse to move off in trot again. As soon as he starts to lean or pull on the rein, and/or accelerate so you feel he is rushing (even a tiny bit), apply your half-halt aids with maximum effort and repeat the full transition to halt.
  4. As soon as he has halted, ask him to trot once more--he must wait for your leg aid, and not move off before he is asked. If he does, apply your half-halt aids until he is immobile again.
  5. This time in the trot, apply your half-halt aids as firmly as you can--either wait until he rushes and breaks tempo, or apply the aids anyway as a tester. The horse will be expecting to halt and should shorten his frame upwards and shift his weight back in preparation to stop. However, this time, instead of applying the half-halt aids for the length of time it takes for him to become immobile, as soon as you feel him begin the process of stopping, release your aids and touch him with your lower leg to send him on again in the trot. He should feel a little lighter in your hands, and a little more connected. If he has processed the half-halt correctly, he will be able to maintain balance and engagement for longer, staying softer on the reins. As soon as he does quicken, repeat the half-halt--this is literally half of a halt transition!
  6. Keep repeating the body-aid half-halt, backed up with your hands if necessary every single time the horse rushes. If he starts to ignore you or take too long to respond, or you have to use your hands to keep steadying the trot, you need to go back to the trot/halt exercise to reiterate what your body aid means. If you are quick to correct him when he has just slightly accelerated, a half-halt should be all that's needed; taking longer to correct him will probably mean a full halt is necessary.

Half-halt shades of gray
The more attuned your horse becomes to the basic, black-and-white half-halt, the more you can start to ride subtler half-halts, employing shades of grey.

  • Applying the same aids but for shorter periods--maybe for one of the horse's strides in any pace, or alternate strides--will have a collecting effect on his pace.
  • When he understands the language of the seat, you may find that you need to activate your half-halting muscles with only half as much effort as you did when initially training him to it. Some horses require a mere suggestion of that activation. For those horses who are incredibly sensitive naturally, or become sensitive through progressive training to the centering action of the half-halt, the basic one may be too much.
  • Sometimes particularly lazy horses are all too keen to reduce their level of energy input and will treat an excessively powerfully ridden half-halt as a wonderful excuse to turn the engine off completely, and you may find using the activation of the slightly different set muscles of the advanced half-halt more appropriate. Sometimes simply lengthening the spine or a deep inhalation of breath is enough.

To read more of this excerpt, see "Mysteries of the Half-Halt Unraveled" in the November 2010 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Purchase a copy of the book Pilates for Riders through www.HorseBooksEtc.com or www.horseandriderbooks.com.