One of the issues that our members in the Artistic Dressage Community on Facebook wanted to learn more about is the Half Halt. It is one of those terms that everybody seems to USE (sometimes for no other reason than that it makes the user sound knowledgeable) but nobody seems to EXPLAIN. That’s why it is shrouded in mystery for many riders. But it doesn’t need to be. The theory behind it is actually quite straightforward.
The purpose of the half halt is to flex the grounded hind leg more under the weight and to keep it on the ground longer, so that it supports a larger share of the body mass of horse and rider.
The aids can only work with the natural movements of the horse and accentuate or diminish those movements. Each hind leg reaches forward through the air, touches down in front of the vertical, receives the weight, flexes its joints, then passes the vertical, as the body moves forward in space, and extends its joints again when it starts to push the body mass forward.
The job of the half halt is to increase the flexion of the joints of the hind leg, and sometimes to prolong the weight bearing phase by keeping the hind leg on the ground longer and slowing the tempo down.
From the job description it is obvious that the only moment in the footfall sequence that is suitable for the half halt is the weight bearing phase, i.e. when the hind leg is on the ground and in front of the vertical.
If you apply the half halt when the hind leg is in the air, it is unable to respond to it.
If you apply the half halt when the hind leg is on the ground behind the vertical, it is already extending its joints again and pushing the body forward. The half halt would then be diametrically opposed to the natural movement of the hind leg: the horse would fight against the aid because it would be physically impossible to comply with it. And in the long run the hind leg would be at risk of developing wind puffs and spavin.
There are several possible aids that you can use to apply half halts.
- With your seat (pelvic floor or your seat bones) you can use your own body weight to load the hind leg and keep it grounded longer.
- A stirrup pressure on the same side and at the same time that the targeted hind leg is on the ground will also send the rider’s weight through the horse’s hind leg into the ground. So, if you want to half halt into the outside hind leg, you could apply a little pressure against your outside stirrup when the outside hind leg is on the ground.
- A rein pressure from either rein will take the weight and the leverage of the horse’s head and neck and transfer it to the grounded hind leg. You can use either the rein on the same side, or the diagonal rein for this half halt. The diagonal rein frames the diagonal shoulder, if it would otherwise escape sideways. Rein aids can therefore act as weight aids.
All these aids will only be successful if the rider engages her core muscles more.
Depending on the horse’s conformation, temperament, training level, and the rider’s weight and height you can use one of these aids, or a combination of two (seat + stirrup, rein + stirrup, seat + rein), or even all three. You need to experiment with which aid produces the best result. Some horses have sensitive or weak backs and will invert right away, if you try to sit deeper or heavier in the saddle. They will respond better to stirrup and rein pressure.
Horses with a very strong back and strong, straight hind legs may need a much stronger aid from the pelvic floor and the seat bones, especially if the rider is small and lightweight. The intensity and composition of the ideal half halt will also change through the horse’s career because the horse’s needs and abilities change.
How Do I Feel The Right Moment?
The moment for the half halt is relatively easy to feel. When the hind leg touches down, the hip rises slightly, so that the rider feels a little bump in her seat bone on the same side. If you don’t feel it, check if you are sitting straight. If you are leaning forward or hollowing your back, your seat bones will be too far away from the horse so that you can’t feel the movements of the hind legs with them. Another reason why you may not feel the touchdown of the hind leg is if the horse is not moving with enough energy.
You can also feel a slight “pulse” in the rein on the same side. When the hind leg travels forward through the air, it fills the rein on the same side. This culminates at the moment when the hind leg touches down. This feels a little like the pulse of an artery. If you can’t feel it, check if your reins are too long or too short. If the reins are too long, there will be no connection and consequently no communication between the reins and the hind legs. If the reins are too short, the horse will not be able to move his body freely enough, so that the movement of the hind legs is stifled.
If you still can’t feel it well enough, you can glance down at the horse’s shoulder blade. When the shoulder blade moves forward, the front leg is in the air, and in the walk and trot the hind leg on the same side is on the ground. In the trot it’s easiest to see because the horse’s legs move in diagonal pairs. When the outside shoulder blade moves back, the outside front leg and the inside hind leg are grounded. Glancing down at the horse’s shoulder can be a good way to develop one’s feel for where the horse’s feet are.
In the canter the outside hind leg is on the ground during the highest point of the canter stride. The inside hind leg (+ the outside front leg) is on the ground when the rider’s seat gets pulled forward in the saddle.
This is a brief overview over the purpose, timing, and aids of the half halt. I hope you find these explanations useful. You can try these things out the next time you ride your horse.
Let me know what you find out and contact me with any questions you have.