We all dream of achieving collection, the state in which the horse carries his rider with power and balance. No matter the level, dressage helps improve the horse’s balance so he can carry the rider with ease. The half halt is the key to shifting the horse’s balance onto his hind end and lifting his forehand. I will teach you simple steps to practice and perfect the half halt.
The half halt is essential to change the horse’s balance because it creates engagement. Engagement has two parts. First, the horse carries more weight behind by shifting back onto the hind end. Then, because he activates his core muscles, he is able to lift the forehand. When he pushes forward in motion, he keeps the hind end lowered and maintains an uphill carriage. When the horse engages, his hind legs mechanically move in two ways to carry more weight: First, he narrows his footfall so that his hind legs move closer together. Second, he steps more forward toward his center of gravity. To achieve this ideal balance, we create power by making the horse responsive to the leg, directing the power through the right channels with straightness and then redirecting the power with half halts to create engagement.
To help riders improve the horse’s balance, I ask three questions: First, is the horse forward and light to the leg as a state of mind? In other words, is he reactive to the light use of the rider’s leg and does he feel eager to go forward? He should be traveling in a steady rhythm and relaxed tempo, not a fast pace. Second, is the horse straight? When the horse is straight, he is in the position of shoulder-fore. Shoulder-fore position is when the horse’s outside hind leg tracks directly behind the outside front leg and the inside hind leg tracks between the two front legs. The horse’s inside hind leg is narrowed stepping toward his center of gravity and can then be in a position to carry the horse’s and rider’s weight. Third, is the horse listening to half halts? The half halt creates engagement and improves balance.
Entire books can and have been written about each aspect, but I want to focus on the half halt. We will discuss how to ride the half halt and how to choose the right aids to get the best result. Then you can make sure your horse is listening to the half halts.
Before you begin, not only should the horse be in a forward state of mind and traveling straight in shoulder-fore, but you need to make sure your seat is in balance. I use the term “balance box,” which is where the rider’s vertical axis intersects the horse’s longitudinal axis. Sit evenly on your two seat bones and your pubic bone so you maintain alignment of the ear over the shoulders, elbow, hips and heels. By maintaining this position, the rider will not come out of the balance box laterally or longitudinally. Only then can the horse maintain his balance longitudinally (from front to back) and laterally (from left to right). By sitting in this position, the rider can be the seat and balance the horse needs before he needs it. Because of the half halt and good timing, the rider can either correct the balance issue or prevent a balance issue.
I train riders to think about the half halt as a way to connect the horse’s hind end forward toward the front end. The way we use our body in balance connects the horse’s back half to the front half.
The half halt is made up of four steps:
1. The rider uses a combination of the lower back, seat and leg to bring the horse’s energy evenly into both reins without changing the rhythm or tempo of the gait (see Photo 1). This step brings the horse’s energy forward toward the bit.
2. When the horse is going forward to the bit, the rider then closes the fingers of both hands simultaneously with the same weight so that it communicates symmetry to the horse’s mouth (see Photo 2). At times, one rein may be used more than the other depending upon what the rider feels. I recommend keeping the correct hand position but squeezing the fingers softly downward, which is commensurate with the way the horse’s poll is designed to come softer and rounder.
3. The rider softens her reins (See Photo 3). When done correctly, the half halt allows the horse to reach more over his back so he is not just flexing his poll but connecting over the withers from his hind end all the way to the bit. The reins should give a soft feeling to the horse in this step as opposed to dropping him. When done correctly, he stays soft in the back, poll and jaw.
4. Repeat Step 1 and plan your next half halt.
When you follow these steps, keep in mind that the half halt is only one-quarter use of the rein aid and three-quarters use of the body.
Pick the Perfect Half Halt
When you do a half halt, ask yourself the following questions: How long should the half halt be? How strong should it be?
How often should I do it? When is the correct timing?
How long and how strong depend on how much is necessary to make the desired difference in bringing the weight more onto the hind end. I describe half halts in sizes 1 to 10 with 1 being the lightest and 10 being the firmest. Determine what is needed to make the desired change in the horse’s balance. Sometimes it is correct to hold Phase 2 of the half halt for two to three strides if the horse needs it. If you make the mistake of using a small-sized half halt that the horse ignores, then you need to try a stronger one to make a difference. No matter what, make sure the horse is soft in his back, poll and jaw. His topline needs to stay soft to connect the hind end to the front end. If you come backward with your rein aids, the horse will drop his back and lose the connection, making it impossible for him to engage.
Space your half halts in such a way that you improve the balance. Remember, your horse needs time to react to your half halt. For example, it might be every three to four strides as long as it is in rhythm with the horse’s balance.
The timing of the half halt is integral to its effectiveness. In the walk and trot, we usually half halt to the inside hind leg because it is in a position to carry the weight. In other words, you do the second step of the half halt and add weight to the inside hind leg once it has landed on the ground. In the canter, you usually ride the half halt during the first beat of the canter, when the outside hind leg is engaged.
Remember, half halts are simple—though not easy—and essential to increasing engagement and, therefore, improving balance and ultimately, achieving collection. With a combination of the horse’s center of balance and the rider’s balance aligning in the balance box, the desired improvement will take place and you will find the magic feeling of the horse carrying you with ease.
Kathy Connelly is an international dressage rider, trainer and coach. She was a member of the United States Equestrian Team at the World Cup in Sweden and trained extensively in Germany with Herbert Rehbein and in Vienna with Ernst Bachinger, the former director of the Spanish Riding School. She trains out of Elysium Farm in Harvard, Massachusetts, and at Havensafe Farm in Wellington, Florida.