Training a dressage horse, year after year, results in the enhancement of his natural paces. The freedom and regularity of the horse’s walk, trot and canter should improve, and the half halt is the trainer’s tool for balancing the horse and enabling that development. During the half halt, the rider may apply one of countless combinations of the seat, leg, rein and weight aids. The seat and leg are the primary driving aids that make the horse more active and bigger moving. The hand (with support from the weight and leg aids) is the primary stopping aid, making the horse’s frame more uphill as the hindquarters carry more weight. Over time, the horse learns to respond to the weight aid in the half halt, as I will explain later.
The Circle of Aids
The relationship between the leg, the seat and the hand makes a circle of repetitive and invisible driving and half halting aids that are very unique to each individual horse, rider and situation. Within the circle of aids, little invisible drives and half halts happen by themselves, balancing the horse constantly and automatically every stride. This circle of the aids serves to make him responsive to the half halt and put him in front of the seat and leg.
The key to successful half halts is, first, to have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve: Do you want your half halt to create more balance? More collection? More flexion? Self-carriage? Roundness? Second, you need to recognize—with listening aids—when your horse responds correctly so you can soften or give at the right moment. During your softening moment within the circle of aids, your whole body rewards the horse and tells him, “That’s what I wanted.” The horse feels this instantly. The quicker you notice your horse’s positive response, the better trainer you are.
Over time, the rider teaches his horse how to respond to balancing half halts by using upward and downward transitions. Here’s how:
1. Everyday training repeatedly emphasizes the use of the driving aids that push the horse to the hand in upward transitions.
2. Anytime the horse gets too strong in the hand from the driving aids, the rider does a downward transition. These upward and downward transitions, such as walk-trot-walk, trot-canter-trot and walk-canter-walk, teach the horse to listen to the rider’s body aids to achieve a harmonious balance.
3. Finally, with listening aids, horse and rider develop a high level of understanding, so the rider doesn’t need strong aids. Instead of riding transitions to balance the horse, an invisible half halt will balance him. The rider gives little driving and restraining aids without doing the actual transition. The horse is relaxed, the rider’s hips swing with the horse and his legs breathe with the horse’s body.
Probably no two riders have the exact same circle of aids. Some riders—depending upon body style, the horse’s build and temperament and the situation—will use more seat and some will use more leg. I can’t say that one is better than the other. However, if the rider has swinging hips and quiet hands that don’t disturb the rhythm of the movement, he can recognize whether or not his horse is responding to the seat, leg and rein aids. With a well-trained horse, the rider has to do very little in order to achieve a positive result. When the horse and rider are listening to one another, it looks like the rider is doing nothing, and it feels that way, too.
How the Circle of Aids Works
Use of the word “circle” seems to help the rider increase the roundness of the whole horse. When I ask my riders to make a horse rounder, they are always inclined to make the neck lower or deeper. Remember that every significant change you make in your horse’s shape—whether it is to make the neck very deep or to make the horse very short—changes the horse’s balance tremendously. The point is to make the whole motion roll in a rounder fashion within the circle of aids. Within the collection, I want my horses to move as big as possible with elevation and swing through the back. Within a nice, big, self-perpetuated collected canter, my half halt doesn’t prevent my horse from moving big behind. Although it would be easier to see the circle of the aids live or on video, my horses’ self-perpetuating, round motion is visible in these photos. Here’s how the circle of the aids works:
1. I sit quietly with the movement of my horse in walk, trot and canter. He is moving in rhythm. As a result of my relaxed swinging hips, my seat creates a natural and effortless driving aid, and my horse responds in the desired direction by stepping to the hand.
2. Within this same circle of aids, I do a half halt by making myself a little bit tall and heavy during one point in the stride. It works the same as the strong half halt, but I don’t need much rein because my horse has learned to respond to my weight. He waits for me and becomes slightly more uphill within the movement. The key, in my opinion, is to restrict the horse only until he responds to the restriction in the desired direction. Sometimes the horse’s response happens a lot quicker than we give him credit for. When the half halt connects and goes through, the horse is rhythmic, easy to sit and comfortable in the hand.
3. The moment my horse responds to my half halt, I reward him within my circle of aids. That is, when my horse comes back to me, I make room or space in my hands for his hind legs. This is part of the listening hands, which are careful to never restrict with a rein at the moment when the hind legs are willing to come under. People sometimes say I’m a natural rider, but that’s not true. I worked at it and was constantly in training with good people hitting me over the head about how to ride a half halt. Now, after years of training, it is automatic for me to ride invisible, effective half halts. It’s the same for the horse. When a young horse first experiences a half halt, he won’t naturally respond correctly until he understands it. However, once he is trained, the preparatory half halt will automatically cause him to anticipate the next movement or command.
The Anticipation Factor
It’s the rider’s job to make his horse sensitive enough to anticipate half halts, for it is the anticipation factor that makes horse and rider harmonious. The use of the horse’s anticipation should work greatly to your advantage in daily training and in riding a dressage test. For example, most dressage movements follow the riding of a corner in the arena. When you ride a half halt before every corner throughout the course of a horse’s life, he anticipates that he is going to be more balanced and uphill before, during and after every corner, and then the corner becomes the half halt. Because the horse’s brain and body are already in harmony with the rider in the corner, all you have to do is concentrate on the movement that follows.
Ideally, half halts should bring the horse to a self-perpetuating, rhythmic flow. Usually, the half halt should be invisible to the eye—not only because it looks good, but also because it doesn’t disturb the rhythm and flow of the horse’s movement. If the half halt is consistently too strong or uneducated, the stopping aid predominates and restricts the horse’s hind legs. The half halt then interrupts the flow of the natural paces and makes the horse move less, rather than more, which is counter productive to our end goal. Over-ridden or poorly ridden half halts, after a period of time, result in a reduction of the horse’s natural paces instead of the improvement of them. The idea is to make invisible half halts within a “circle of aids.”
Within this harmony, the rider can make many different kinds of half halts: one that asks the horse to flex more in the jaw, one that makes the horse more balanced, shorter or more uphill and so on. Here are a few other examples of how anticipation helps my horse work cooperatively with me:
1. During the half halt, if I sit with a little emphasis on the inside seat bone and increase the flexion to the inside, my horse knows he will be doing a half pass.
2. During the half halt, if I emphasize straightness, the horse knows he’s going to do an extension—at walk, trot or canter—or a line of tempi changes.
3. As we canter down the centerline, if my half halt flexes him a little more to the inside–and makes sure he’s very through and connected on my outside rein–he knows he’s going to do a pirouette. These little understandings help the horse anticipate what he is doing next. It works to the rider’s advantage in creating a harmonious balance. Anticipation, together with those invisible half halts, can make the execution of your dressage tests easier and, of course, more beautiful.
Instructor’s Tip: The Strong, Visible Half Halt
In reality, the achievement of harmony is not always as simple as it sounds in the books or in articles such as this one. The strong, visible half halt is sometimes necessary and is key to teaching your horse about invisible half halts. When your horse is so out of balance that invisible half halts won’t succeed in bringing him back to a better balance, you can do a downward transition or a strong half halt as I am doing here.
The strong half halt teaches or reminds the horse to respond to invisible half halts in which he balances himself from only the rider’s weight with very little or no hand. When I use my weight by sitting tall and heavy in every half halt during the training, the horse learns to respond with very little rein. Riding with strength should not become a normal way of riding. When I give a strong half halt, such as this one, it’s so I do not have to ride strong half halts again.
Instructor’s Tip: The Ideal Point of Thrust
The half halt that doesn’t disturb the horse’s rhythm—whether in dressage or jumping—brings the horse as close as possible to an “ideal point of thrust” in which the horse’s hind legs send the right amount of energy in the right direction through the horse’s whole body in a flowing, self-perpetuating, comfortable balance. Every horse has a slightly different ideal point of thrust, and the rider who can recognize that point is most capable of achieving maximum movement and balance in a harmonious fashion.
American jumper rider Todd Minikus is effective, not because he is the strongest rider physically, but because he knows how to put the horse in an unbelievable balance. By the time he comes to a fence, he will have half halted the horse to the ideal point of thrust to enable him to jump higher than anyone else. Some horses stay in the air too long, some jump too quickly while others are inclined to hit the fence with their hind legs. Depending on these factors—along with the size, shape and situation of the fence—Minikus can tease the body of the horse to jump the most efficient way. These numerous factors explain why there are countless kinds of half halts. It’s not that the half halt is such a mystery but that its variations depend on what the rider has and what the rider wants, and these possibilities are endless.
Finding the ideal point of thrust is the same in dressage. The best riders of piaffe and passage are not the strongest but those who can channel the impulsion with half halts to the ideal point of thrust and get the most out of each stride. Instead of fighting the horse to carry more weight on the hind legs, they tease the horse into a balance in which he reaches the ideal, self-perpetuating point of thrust. Each step makes the next one possible. The half halts do not disturb the horse’s self-perpetuating situation. On the contrary, they cause it.
If a rider tries to change the ideal point of thrust by force, it will make the horse lose his movement and could eventually make him lame, in a worst-case scenario. For example, if you wanted to make the hind legs move farther under the horse, it would have to be done within the integrity of the entire horse—within the “circle of the aids.”
Instructor’s Tip: Keep the Forward Flow in the Half Halt
When I help a student balance a horse that has become too strong in the hand, I am careful to ask for half halts that encourage the rider to keep the forward flow. For example, I might say, “Your horse is moving beautifully. Ride the half halts just enough to get the control you need without disturbing the rhythm and the movement.” In this case, the rider would give the half halt by sitting tall and heavy and, if necessary, restricting the horse with the hand without disturbing the natural motion and swing of his horse. The result of this invisible half halt is a horse that continues moving in rhythm but with enhanced balance and movement.
If I were less aware of the importance of retaining the forward flow, I might tell my student, “Your horse is running away with you. Bring him back.” In that case, my student would probably use too much hand in comparison to the driving leg and seat aids, and then the horse would come back too much and lose the rhythm. Instead of being unbalanced because he’s too forward, the horse would be unbalanced in a backward way. The rider who brings his horse back too much—as a normal way of riding—not only restricts the movement but also takes away from his horse’s fun and willingness to please.
At Home with Oded Shimoni
Like many of his peers, Oded Shimoni goes where the action is. For six months of each year, he is based in Wellington, Fla., where he trains, teaches, competes and travels to give clinics. For the last four years, he has spent the remaining six months of the year working with German Olympian Hubertus Schmidt in Etteln, Germany, near Dusseldorf. Currently, he has five horses there. In the past, Shimoni has worked extensively with Georg Wahl in Switzerland, David Pincus in England and Ellen Bontje and Conrad Schumacher in Germany.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Shimoni was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. At the age of 13, he rode Arabian horses in a local park as part of an after-school program. While studying dressage and jumping initially, the ability to develop a horse’s gaits appealed to Shimoni, and he decided to focus all his energy on dressage. Then, at 15, he spent two weeks in Germany as part of an exchange program and was introduced to what he calls “real dressage.” He credits the experience with his first realization of how dressage horses should be round. He returned home to experiment with creating roundness in the local horses before entering the Israeli military at 17.
After serving three years with the Israeli Defense Forces, Shimoni returned to Europe to study dressage in earnest. He has represented Israel at two European Championships—at Arnhem, the Netherlands in 1999 and at Verden, Germany in 2001. He also competed in two World Equestrian Games (WEG) as the first, and only, rider to represent Israel. In the 1998 WEG in Rome, he rode the Dutch mare Amora, and in the 2002 WEG in Jerez, Spain, he rode the Dutch gelding Glenstern. In addition, Shimoni qualified Glenstern and Falco for the 2004 Olympic Games.