The half-halt is one of the most essential tools in a rider’s repertoire and possibly one of the most misunderstood. What do some of the masters write about the half-halt and its application?
In his book, Dressage in Harmony: From Basic to Grand Prix, Walter Zettl asks, “What is the purpose of the half-halt?
It improves the frame and rhythm of the horse when in motion. Or it gets these back again when they have been lost! The half-halt is also used to make the transition from a higher to a lower gait, or from a lower to a higher gait. Here specifically the half-halt engages the hindquarters of the horse. It is used before riding a volte, before riding through a corner, etc. It is used to prepare for every exercise. It means that the horse should pay attention; something new is coming!”
In the eyes of many of the great dressage masters, including Reiner and Ingrid Klimke, Walter Zettl, Alois Podhajsky and Bengt Ljung-quist, the half-halt forms the basis of all transitions and is an essential lesson in training a horse. So, what makes the half-halt so essential to perform and yet so difficult to perfect? Here are the excerpts from several books explaining the importance of and how to execute the half-halt like the masters.
Execution of the Half-Halt (from Ingrid & Reiner Klimke’s The New Basic Training of the Young Horse: From the education of the young foal to the first competition. Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT, 2006 revised edition)
How do we ask a young horse for half-halts? Certainly not by pulling on the reins. The aids are a combination of weight, leg and rein aids. The rider braces the lower back and drives the horse with even leg aids on both sides into a steady contact. In this moment the rider (for example in trot) keeps the contact equal in both hands, and then instantly softens the inside rein. This encourages the horse to take more weight on his hind legs and (in canter, for example) to lower his haunches. This is the ideal scenario. At an earlier stage of training, half-halts have to be given somewhat more obviously and frequently.
A simple example of a half-halt is to ride tran-sitions from trot to walk and vice versa, and a more difficult exercise is from canter to walk, and walk to canter without any trot steps. The aim of this training is that the aids must be always clear to the horse, and almost invisible to the onlooker.
With young horses, the reaction to the half-halt can be reinforced by the voice. It takes a long time for a horse to properly understand and accept half-halts and it is impossible to say that these will be fully developed in a short space of time. The rider needs the experience and feel in order to establish the precise aiding required for half-halts. Driving too strongly with the weight and leg aids brings the horse too strongly into the reins so that the brief moment of giving the rein is passed by and he ends up pulling against the bit. Should the horse have no respect for the driving aids or giving of the inside rein, and tries to lean on the bit, this is best corrected on the circle with new application of the aids.
It is important that the horse is given no support from the reins should he try to lean against them. The rider must have quick reactions in order to correct this. It is necessary to vary the contact between holding and giving and at the same time support the horse with the weight and leg aids to limit the resistance. After a short interval, the aids should be re-applied and the horse rewarded once they are successful (especially with young horses) in order to achieve a light and easy response. The horse will then thank us again for being patient. One of the mysteries in dealing with horses is their readiness to try to follow the rider’s aids when they are not prepared enough or asked at the right time. Over time, the lighter the half-halts given, the greater influence the rider has over the horse, which results in harmony between rider and horse.
It is most important to maintain a soft wrist. With progressive training the bracing of the back and a light flexion of the wrist are enough to ask for a half-halt that is barely visible to the observer, who simply sees a change in the overall picture of the horse—improvement of the outline, tempo, gaits, etc. It is then that riding becomes an art.
Preparing for a Transition (From Bengt Ljungquist’s Practical Dressage Manual, Whittet & Shepperson, Richmond, VA, 1976)
Let us ride a transition. A smooth transition must start from behind with engagement of the hindquarters. If you go from a halt into walk, from walk to trot, from trot to canter or vice versa, you must use your seat and your legs in the same way. Sit deeper and firmer (tighten your seat, brace your back) and feel that you grow taller. Your knees and heels are lowered and you grip your horse with your lower legs behind the girth. If you want to go forward, or into a faster pace, relax your hands. If you want to slow down or ride a halt, set your hands.
Using the aids in this way within a pace or changing from one pace to another is called a half-halt. Half-parade is a more adequate expression, since you should not think of a halt at all…
A half-halt is a call for attention to make the horse alert and ready for action. The activity behind is increased. A half-halt performed with a pulling hand and no driving of seat and legs is more damaging than helpful.
The half-halt is an excellent means of developing the horse, as well as the rider’s seat and use of the aids.
There are many degrees of half-halts and the requirements should be increased as the training of the horse progresses. A green horse should not be asked for much engagement, and will probably resist the bit in the beginning. Do not hang on stubbornly. If the half-halt does not work, repeat it. Inhale-exhale, that is the length of a half-halt. After the half-halt resume the rhythm. Never let the horse go faster and run away from your aids.
Prepare for every exercise by using a half-halt. If the horse is sluggish or goes too fast, use repeated half-halts. Gradually, when the horse is supple and obedient, the half-halts are refined and almost invisible. On a well-schooled horse the half-halt consists of a firmer seat and a slight squeeze of the reins. Invisible, but the horse feels it and understands the signal which says: “Be alert, listen to me.” Throughout all training, use half-halts frequently.
A half-halt forces the rider to sit correctly and coordinates his aids. A well-executed half-halt proves that the horse and the rider are correctly trained.
The Hands (from Walter Zettl’s Dressage in Harmony: From Basic to Grand Prix, Half Halt Press Inc., Boonsboro, MD, 1998)
It is important that the rider’s hands act slowly, almost in slow motion. Both the taking and giving should be measured and deliberate. Too many times, I hear riding instructors telling their students to “give their aids quicker.” The horse has gotten out of balance, or off track, and the student waits too long to fix the situation. The instructor is partially right, but he should tell the student to give their aids “sooner,” not “quicker.” We must learn to watch for and anticipate the need to give our aids, so that we can make them sooner, slower, and much less strong—and not surprising for the horse.
The hands are held as fists not to provide strength and power to be rough on the horse’s mouth, but exactly the opposite—to provide the sensitivity to be softening and giving. The proper rein length is also essential for maintaining contact. My teacher, Col. Aust, always said “A loose rein is as wrong as a too tight rein.” When the rein is loose, it is impossible for the rider to use the rein for any reason without bouncing the bit into the mouth. Instead of a light constant contact that becomes slightly firmer, the horse feels nothing, then a bump, then an instruction. The “soft” loose rein is perceived by the horse as a set of random bumps in the mouth. By holding the hands in fists, with the fingers closed, but the wrists soft and supple, the rider can cradle the bit in the horse’s mouth, exerting only the finest pressure when needed to make the half-halts or other adjustments.
Balance (From Alois Podhajsky’s The Complete Training of Horse & Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship, Doubleday & Company Inc., Garden City, NY, 1967)
A horse will be able to master the various paces in full harmony only if he has been blessed with good natural paces and is in balance. Perfect balance is given partly by nature, but can be improved by systematic training.
The horse carries his weight on all four legs; the center of gravity is not directly supported, and the weight is unequally distributed over all four legs. By nature, the forelegs have to bear the greater proportion as they have to carry the neck and head. Therefore, it is more difficult for the horses than for the human to obtain and maintain balance, but balance is the basic requirement for pure and impulsive paces. Moreover, the weight of the rider throws additional weight on the forehand, which makes matters still more difficult for the horse.
It is the rider’s art to balance the centers of gravity of horse and rider so that the former is not disturbed in his movements. Any rider who has had the opportunity to break in a young horse will know how clumsily he moves when first mounted. The reason is that the horse must readjust his balance to the unaccustomed weight of the rider.
Few horses are naturally balanced, that is to say, carry an even proportion of their weight on forehand and hindquarters. Such horses make work much easier for the rider. Most horses, however, will carry a greater proportion of their weight on the forehand, a fact which will be still more noticeable when the rider mounts. The hind legs will push the weight more than carry it, a fault which must be corrected if the paces are to be made as light and elastic as is expected from a school horse.
The object of training will be to correct the balance by making the hindquarters carry a greater proportion of the weight and to relieve the forehand by transferring the weight from the shoulders to the quarters. The former will be obtained by collection; the latter, by raising the forehand through lowering the quarters.
Compiled by Elizabeth Shoudy