Question: I am an adult rider and have been taking dressage lessons for several years. I hope to show at Training Level soon. I watch experienced riders at shows and wonder how they make riding look so effortless. I think it may have to do with their development of half halts. I'm trying to learn how to use my back and seat with my leg and rein during a half halt but often feel uncoordinated or too late in communicating with my horse. I think that if I get the feel of this important skill, I will be at a new plateau in my riding. Please give me some suggestions for getting the hang of it.
Answer: You are absolutely right: Coordination and timing are essential to half hats. I like the fact that you list back and seat before leg and rein. You already have an excellent intuitive understanding of the effect, importance and sequence of half halts. Like everything else to do with riding, half halts will vary according to the ability, level and physical development of both rider and horse. Riders begin with slower, larger, more basic actions, then refine them as they progress.
A half halt is nothing more-and nothing less-than a signal that prepares a horse for a new demand by saying "get ready, something is coming." Do as many half halts as are necessary when preparing for a new movement or during a transition to get your horse's attention and improve his carriage within a gait.
If you watch a military unit drilling, you'll notice that the words that tell the troops what to do always come after a preparatory word that alerts the troops to the fact that there is an order coming. You won't hear just "Halt!" but "Company ... Halt!" The word "company" is a verbal half halt. It says, "Get ready, something is coming." Similarly, your nonverbal half halts tell your horse to become more attentive, balanced and ready for whatever you may ask next.
The best way to learn the half halt, in the beginning, is to use a combination of seat, leg and rein aids as if you were planning to halt. Deepen your seat slightly and relax your buttocks. Take a deep breath, and as your chest lifts, let your pelvis tilt slightly, allowing your seat bones to "plug in" to the saddle. Use your legs-a brief "pulse" with both calves will ask the horse to use his own hind legs with more energy. When you feel your horse step more deeply under himself with his hind legs and his back comes up into your seat, close your fingers more tightly for the space of a heartbeat and then relax your hands again. This part, the yield or release, is too often overlooked, and it is essential.
Yielding the rein tells the horse that he has answered your question correctly. For riders, this if often the most difficult part of the half halt because they are reluctant to release until they are entirely convinced that the half halt has gone through. The problem with this kind of thinking and acting is that by that time, it's too late. The rider has already held the horse for far too long. Restricting, frustrating and confusing the horse prevents the half halts from going through. In a correct half halt, your horse will feel lighter in your hand, even before you release the reins.
Tell yourself, "Create the energy, contain the energy, release the energy."
A correct half halt will have several physical effects. If the horse steps under himself, engages more and carries slightly more weight with his hind end, you can feel his hind feet step more deeply under him and his back round under your seat. Even before you release the reins, he will feel lighter in your hand.
Pay close attention to your horse's attitude. If he is cheerful and confident and seems pleased with his own ability to comply with your requests, congratulations. Your half halts are making perfect sense to your horse. If he seems confused, unhappy or resentful of half halts, then your half halts are not making sense to him. Most often you may be releasing too late or perhaps not at all.
Think of the half halt as a doorbell you are pressing to get the horse's attention and to get him moving in the direction you want. If you ring a friend's doorbell and hear him get up and come toward the door, do you continue to lean on the doorbell until he opens the door? Of course not. You release the bell and wait politely until the door opens. If you aren't certain that he heard you and you feel the need to ring again, you press the bell again, gently and briefly.
The amount of pressure on the doorbell doesn't force your friend to come to the door, it gives him a signal to which you must then allow him to respond. If you summon your friend by leaning on the doorbell, don't expect him to be smiling when he finally opens the door, if he chooses to open the door at all.
Similarly, if you half halt your horse and then continue to hold him with hands that should have tightened for only a heartbeat, he won't be happy or comfortable, and he won't have the chance to offer you a moment of increased lightness.
If you become frustrated because your half halts are not yet perfect, remember that you and your horse are both works in progress and that the partnership between you is another work in progress.
When you begin to acquire a new skill, there is always a learning curve. At first, it takes longer for you to apply your aids because you have to think about what to do, when and for how long. It takes longer for your horse to respond because he is not yet in the habit of responding and, even when he understands what you want, it will take time for him to become strong and balanced enough to give an instant correct response.
As your seat improves, your half halts will improve with them and your horse will become stronger and more responsive. This in turn will make him more connected through his body, better able to lift his back and, thus, better able to respond with eagerness and energy. The better you ride, the better your horse will move. The better your horse moves, the better you will ride and the more easily you will be able to use your aids.
There will come a time when you will just think about a half halting and your horse will respond to the slight changes in your seat and the tiny movements of your muscles. Then, someone will be watching you at a show and will say to herself, "It looks so easy when she does it. I wonder if it has anything to do with half halts?"
Jessica Jahiel, Phd, is an international clinician and speaker whose system of teaching and training, "Holistic Horsemanship®", is based on classical dressage training, emphasizing clear communication between horse and rider. The author of Riding for the Rest of Us: A Practical Guide for Adult Riders, she lives in Sidney, Illinois, and maintains the Web site www.prairienet.org/jjahiel.
This article is excerpted from Dressage Today, February 2002.