Last month, I told you how to perform a basic halt and explained how crucial it is to first establish a foundation of trust in your horse's training. You can read the full article here. To briefly recap riding the basic halt, I typically divide it into four stages:
• Maximize the quality of the gait.
• Use half halts in your transition to halt.
• Ask for a full halt.
• Transition from halt to walk, trot or canter.
The rules for establishing trust include: solve one problem at a time; be patient; be consistent; practice, but don't drill; never use the whip as punishment; never halt a horse when he's frightened; never halt a horse from a high speed.
This month, I'll explain how your horse's halt should improve throughout his career, and I'll give you some tools to use to help him do that. But first, let me explain the role the halt should have in your training. Early in a horse's career, practicing it will help teach him obedience to the aids. Later in his career, it will teach him a greater sensitivity to the aids, and the preparation for the halt will help him learn to engage his hindquarters, lighten his forehand and make seamless transitions into and out of movements. It's part of a series of building blocks for other movements-rein-back, canter departs, transitions from piaffe to passage, etc. For you as a rider, regardless of your level, it's a great way to fine-tune your aids and improve your timing and communication with your mount.
Perfecting the halt takes years of practice. But the best way to improve it is actually by doing other dressage work. Practice making your horse more engaged in his transitions, more supple in his lateral work and more obedient and on the aids in the walk, trot and canter, for instance. He then will become straighter, squarer and more balanced in his halts. Every horse naturally improves his halts with proper training-unless the rider makes the halt an unpleasant place for him by drilling or overcorrecting.
Your job is to be consistent with your aids throughout this process, always asking for improvement in small, understandable increments.
What to Expect
As your horse's self-carriage improves in his other work, his outline in the halt will gradually change. Early on, his frame will be relatively long and his balance will be horizontal. As he grows stronger and develops better self-carriage, his
frame will compress and his weight will shift more onto his hindquarters, making his balance more uphill. Meanwhile, you can expect him to progress through the following phases:
Phase 1: Green horse. Stand quietly. With a young or green horse who is not yet competing, this is the only criterion you ask him to satisfy. If he stands crooked and slightly off balance, looks around, tosses his head and takes a little time to make the downward transition, that's OK! At this stage, the only important lesson is that he responds to your basic halt aids.
Make your first halts out of the walk. The livelier your walk is to start with, the nicer your halt will be. While standing in the halt, try to feel your horse's mouth through the reins without confining him to the point where he feels uncomfortable. In other words, don't ask him to stay in any particular "frame."
Phase 2: Training Level. Stand straight with light rein contact. Once your horse is moving fairly straight in the trot and canter, he should begin improving his straightness in the halt. At this stage, it still may not necessarily be square or perfectly still (his head and neck may move some), but it should be relatively straight and quiet. When halting from the trot, he may need to take two or three walk steps to find his balance, straightness and squareness. At this point, he probably hasn't developed the strength and body control required to make an immediate transition from trot to halt without losing his balance.
Phase 3: First and Second Levels. Stand straight and relatively square, on the aids-nose slightly in front of the vertical. At this point, your horse should stand with his weight evenly distributed over his four feet and listen attentively to the rider, ready to respond to her aids. He should have developed enough strength and self-carriage by now to make the transition from trot to halt without taking any walk steps and without falling on his forehand or otherwise losing his balance. Collection starts at Second Level, so the Second Level horse will approach the halt from a collected trot, rather than a working trot.
Phase 4: Third Level and above. Stand straight, perfectly square-when viewed directly from the front or the side, only two legs are visible-on the aids, with immobility. Whereas horses at the lower levels are allowed some slight movement in their heads and necks, the upper-level horse must stand like a statue. This demonstrates his absolute obedience to the rider's aids as well as his excellent strength, balance and self-carriage. Transitions from and to all gaits at this stage are smooth and seamless. Before entering a class at a show, read the "purpose" and "directive ideas" on the test you're going to perform to see exactly what qualities the judge will be looking for in your halts.
Three Exercises to Improve the Halt
As I explained last month, it's important to practice the halt-but not so much that your horse grows bored and tired and learns to resent the movement. Once he clearly understands the halt aids and is beginning to halt with some straightness and balance, you can begin improving his skills with the following exercises. In each of them, try experimenting with your aids—making them a little firmer for a halt or two and then less firm a few times—in order to refine your "feel" of your horse in your transitions.
Also, try planning your halts next to a letter, so you can learn how far away from the letter you need to initiate your aids. Be careful not to practice halting too frequently at the letters where you will halt in your tests, though. To avoid teaching your horse to anticipate his halts, occasionally ride past these letters and make your halts a few strides later. Also try to practice halts in places where they aren't called for in your dressage tests.
Exercise 1: Teach your horse to stay straight and balanced without the help of the wall or fence.
1. Make two to three halts on the long sides of the arena in each direction.
2. Turn down the quarterline, concentrating on keeping your horse between your inside and outside aids, then make a halt. Think of using your legs and reins to "channel" your horse onto the straight line before the halt. If he leans on a rein or bulges against a leg, apply that aid a little firmer to nudge his body back in line. Practice this a few times in both directions.
3. Finally, practice halts on the centerline and anywhere else within the arena. Again, be careful to maintain both your right and left rein and leg aids to prevent your horse from drifting sideways.
4. While doing this exercise, its helpful to have mirrors in front and/or to the side of you, so you can check your position and your horse's straightness and squareness. Be sure not to twist in the saddle as you do so. Even better, ask a friend to evaluate your halts from the ground. I can't emphasize enough the importance of a groundperson in all dressage training.
Exercise 2: Improve your horse's straightness.
If your horse is fairly green: Pick a letter and ride a 15- or 20-meter circle in the direction in which he tends to be crooked, returning to the letter where you started. For instance, if he swings his haunches left in the halt, make your circle to the left. Return to the track and straighten him for a stride or two. If you don't allow him to travel on a straight line for longer than this, he won't have time to become crooked again. Then halt through the walk. Eventually, you should be able to go from trot to halt without any walk steps. Repeat this exercise only two or three times in one session.
Working on the circle improves straightness by engaging your horse's inside hind leg. That leg has to be more active in order to step under his center of gravity and maintain his balance and momentum on the circle. When he straightens again just before the halt, his now activated inside hind leg will stay underneath his body, rather than stepping sideways to the inside and supporting less body weight in a crooked halt. Practicing trot-walk transitions on this circle also will help correct his crookedness.
For more experienced horses: Do the above exercise on 10-meter circles. Or, instead of a circle, perform a shoulder-fore or shoulder-in to activate the inside hind leg. With an advanced horse, ride renvers (haunches-out) before straightening and halting. For example, if he swings his haunches left in the halt, track left and renvers—with his body bent to the right. Then straighten him and halt. Because he has to carry more of his weight over the left hind leg, in this case, the renvers will activate that leg, just as the circles and shoulders-in do.
Exercise 3: Improve your horse's straightness and impulsion (for horses at Second Level and above).
Ride shoulder-in in collected trot down the long side. While still in shoulder-in, ask your horse to increase his stride slightly to a working trot. Then collect again, maintaining the shoulder-in. Straighten for a stride or two and halt. This exercise also improves the activity and engagement of the inside hind leg. Be sure to do it in both directions.
Six Tips to Correct Mistakes
Correcting a horse in the halt should only be done when he is calm and confident. Most often, mistakes will correct themselves as he becomes stronger and better balanced. If you make a correction within a halt and he does not immediately respond, don't dwell on it. Stand still for a moment, then ask him to move on again and repeat the halt, trying to prepare better for it. Never try to make two different corrections within the same halt, either. This will only confuse your horse and hurt his confidence in future halts. Here are a few helpful corrections for occasional use:
1. Horse steps backward. This is the worst mistake that can be made in the halt. Just as in the rest of his dressage work, a horse should still be saying to you in the halt, "I want to go." If he steps backward, check that you are using enough driving aids and not too much rein aid.
2. Horse pushes nose out, pulling your arms forward. Adjust your reins to the appropriate length and then close your hands firmly on the reins, holding your arms in place. Be ready to support him with gentle driving aids in case he tries to step backward in response to your set rein length.
3. Horse raises head too high and loses connection to your hands. Give half halts during the halt. If he does not respond to them immediately, proceed in the trot and re-establish your connection, using half halts, transitions, circles and other bending exercises before trying another halt. The time to fix such problems is during your preparation for the halt—not during the halt itself.
4. Horse rests a hind leg. If your horse tends to rest the same leg, try to engage that leg more in your preparation for the halt by using more leg on that side. In the halt itself, to get him to shift weight to the resting leg, close your opposite leg. As soon as you feel movement in his musculature, relax your leg.
5. Horse halts with one hind leg much farther back than the other. Use the leg aid on the side on which his leg is farther back to encourage him to pick it up and step forward. Again, relax your leg as soon as you feel him step forward.
6. Horse halts with one foreleg out in front of him. Apply pressure on the rein on that side, similar to the way you would initiate a rein-back. For instance, if his right foot is forward, apply pressure on the right rein. As soon as he picks the leg up to move backward, release the pressure on the rein. If any of these mistakes occur in the show ring' and you can correct it quietly, that's usually preferable to doing nothing. You're already going to get a poor mark on the halt but, by correcting your horse's balance, you can improve the next transition and thus raise your upcoming scores.
Remember, be patient with your horse. If you make every halt a happy experience for him, each one he makes will be better than the last.
Originally from Northern Germany, Volker Brommann is licensed as a Bereiter and a Reitlehrer under the guidelines of the German Equestrian Federation. He apprenticed with Walter Christensen in Tasdorf, Germany, before moving to the United States to train for Priscilla Endicott. In 1994, he began working with Ge1man Dressage Team coach Klaus Balkenhol, for whom he has frequently translated during clinics. Now a U.S. citizen, Brommann trains, competes and coaches other riders at the FE! levels. Based in central California, he runs a training, teaching and sales business, Tannenliick Dressage (www.tannenluck. com), with his wife, Teri Lacey-Brommann.