Half halts are in addition to the connection, which should basically be the same in the walk, trot and canter. If the connection feels good in the trot, then it should feel the same in the walk--really taking and going to the rein without air or forced tension. When the horse is connected, flexed and ahead-of-the-leg he will start to give you the desired feeling of being "through," and that is a wonderful thing.
The neck should fall and relax softly from the withers. I like to think of the shoulder blades of the horse as a door lock with the neck as the key. When everything is straight, the key goes right in--the neck falls into that soft spot and then you can push the horse forward quite easily. If the shoulders and the neck are not lined up correctly, it doesn't matter how much force you use. As with any lock and key, the alignment must first be correct and then no force is necessary. As soon as the neck and shoulders are aligned and the horse is ahead of your leg and accepting the connection and flexion, he will give you his topline and that, too, is a delightful thing.
If you flex the horse and the key (the neck), doesn't fall into the lock (the shoulders), then you have to move the lock (the shoulders) to the center and sometimes bump both shoulders more forward to make things work. Sometimes, the connection between the shoulders and the base of the neck is vague because the shoulders do not move freely forward. The neck then waves around at the base like a flag on a pole. This horse needs steadying and forward riding. Sometimes the neck and shoulders are stiff like wood. This horse needs more suppling and needs to be more ahead of the rider with an elastic connection.
4. Test the walk. Now once you have flexion and in front of the leg, ride walk-halt, walk-halt. Can you halt connected without losing flexion? Does the rein go slack or does the horse move the shoulder into or past the rein? Does your horse walk promptly off from light leg pressure while maintaining the connection?
Most horses don't really believe that they have to be ahead of the leg in the walk. It is your job to teach them. Do an 8-meter circle in walk. Is your horse still stepping forward with purpose? The quality of your circle will only be as good as your connection, flexion and your ahead-of-the-leg responses. The shoulders of the horse should be ahead of you. Get the feeling that you can push the shoulders ahead of you by using both legs right at the girth until you get a response.
You have to monitor these connection issues constantly but with feel. Don't settle for less than the ideal in your daily rides or you'll get into a dressage test and find that you cannot negotiate your way through good walk work. Make it a rule that you monitor these connection issues until they become part of your riding habits. In the free walk and the transition from the free walk to the medium walk, keep the connection and ride the horse in front of you. Think, keep walking and keep the shoulders out in front of you. Don't let the horse change flexion randomly or on his own because everything lines up behind this proper connection.
While this work will help you in the show ring, the benefit to your future training is the real goal. When your connection is secure, you will have better transitions between and within the gaits, and your rhythm problems should disappear.
Yvonne Barteau is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist and a popular clinician and freestyle rider. Currently, she successfully shows Liberty, a 16.3- hand chestnut Dutch Warmblood stallion, at Grand Prix and Raymeister at First and Second levels. She and her husband, Kim, run KYB Dressage at Indian Hills Training Center in Gilberts, Ill. The parents of four children, their daughter Kassandra won the 2007 Young Rider Championship in Gladstone, N.J.
Don't miss Yvonne Barteau's four-part series in Dressage Today on horse personalities, September through December 2007. Yvonne is the author of Ride the Right Horse, a book about horse personality types, published by Storey Books and available at HorseBooksEtc.com or by calling 1-800-952-5813.