In dressage our goal is to improve the horse’s ability to carry the rider’s weight by making him stronger behind. When the horse carries more weight behind, he lowers his croup, lifts his back and elevates his forehand. That’s when you see that beautiful outline when the horse is put together in collection.
The way you achieve this is by giving the horse two opposing commands. You give the aids that tell him to go forward and at the same time give the aids to restrain him. The correct combination of aids will put the horse in balance and on the bit. That is your half halt, a combination of forward aids and restricting aids. The driving aids are your leg and your seat, and the restricting aids are the rein aids. The half halt always finishes when you release all your aids.
Half Halts Explained
To begin understanding the half halt, think of slowing the horse down and as soon as he slows down speeding him up again. Then you get a sense of using not only the rein aids but also the seat and leg aids. However, the half halt doesn’t just slow the horse down. Each half halt could be used to improve the horse’s frame, change the tempo, engage the hind legs or rebalance the horse. For example, every corner you do, every figure you ride, every transition you make and every time you bend the horse, it all starts and ends with a half halt. It is a tool that solves many problems and works on many different levels.
You need to ride half halts constantly. Sometimes you must be stronger, sometimes you must be more persistent, but developing the correct timing and strength requires quite a bit of feel on the rider’s part and quite a bit of training on the horse’s part as well. The more trained the horse is, the better he can respond to those signals you give him.
Novice riders will sometimes find half halts difficult to understand because they are such small aids, but they are extremely important ones. The biggest mistake I see in the half halt is too much rein aid with the driving aids completely forgotten. If this occurs, the horse becomes stiffer, heavier and harder to stop.
Think of your aids like the pedals in a manual car:
The brake. To use the rein aid for the half halt, feel your hand squeezing the water out of a wet sponge, holding onto a dry sponge or a feeling in between the two.
The gas. In the moment you are squeezing with the hand, you apply more pressure with the legs. Imagine sitting on one of those big exercise balls you find at the gym. You squeeze the ball a bit with the leg. That is about the right amount of pressure applied to the horse.
The clutch. The seat always has a forward-driving effect on the horse. Use the seat like a clutch to coordinate between the restricting and the forward-driving aids. When you feel the horse respond, you back off and release the aids. Even if the horse doesn’t respond, you back off then give another half halt.
The art is knowing how much rein, seat and leg to use. The amount changes from moment to moment. Some horses are sensitive and don’t need a whole lot while other horses need more. However, there is never a long pull back or shove of the horse forward. The half halt is always a relatively short aid, so sometimes you need a succession of many half halts and many releases to get the response you want.
The best exercise for half halts is transitions. Start with simple transitions such as trot–walk–trot. From the working trot, do a transition to six steps of medium walk and immediately trot again. Then try four steps of walk and two steps of walk. When that is easy, from the trot do a transition almost to walk but right before you feel that the horse is about to walk you already push him forward again into the trot.
When you have the feeling that this “almost walk transition” works, try to prolong that moment of almost walking for two to five steps before returning to the working trot. You don’t want the horse to fall to walk or run off in the trot for these steps. You will feel the combination of the driving and restraining aids to maintain those small trot steps. Then you have developed control of how much forward or how little forward the horse goes, which is your basic half halt.
Jan Ebeling immigrated to the United States in 1984, after growing up in Germany and apprenticing with the late German master Herbert Rehbein for many years. He has competed for the U.S. in several World Cup Finals and in the 2012 Olympics with the mare Rafalca. Ebeling conducts clinics nationally and internationally and has a full training and sales business in Moorpark, California. His family is an important part of his life and he enjoys spending time hiking, biking, snorkeling and traveling with his wife, Amy, and their son, Ben.