When a horse carries his rider forward in brilliant collection with no apparent effort, he’s proud, happy and free. The secret to that special quality of collection is simple: Free, forward collection is the natural result of forward half halts and forward downward transitions. It’s simple in theory and not difficult in practice, but the rider needs to be persistent and open to thinking in a counterintuitive way. Here’s how:

Normally, when riders think of downward transitions and half halts, they think of coming back from something more to something less. They might go from a lengthened stride and half halt back to a working trot. They might do downward transitions from canter (12 mph) to trot (8 mph) or from trot to walk (4 mph). The frequent scenario is that the rider thinks of coming back to walk from trot. She puts the brakes on with aids that say, “Stop trotting.” Then, with another combination of aids, the rider says, “Walk.” Those half halts work in a rudimentary way, but they tell the horse what not to do rather than what to do. Forward half halts tell your horse what to do. Can you, instead of thinking of coming back to the lesser gait, think of going forward to it? Let’s try, for example, a transition from trot to walk.

The Trot–Walk Transition

Here’s how to do that transition in a forward way:

1. Ask for smaller trot strides with a smaller seat aid.

2. At the same time, half halt in a forward way: Close your fingers and push with your legs into your fixed hand. That will have the effect of retaining or even increasing the energy, closing the horse from back to front and lifting the forehand. Your hands say, “Cover less ground,” and because your horse’s strides are smaller, they will be higher and more active—or more collected!

3. Finally, as the trot strides get smaller, your miles per hour will decrease until you’re trotting at 4 mph, the speed of walk. At this point your horse will ask you if you want him to walk. Say “Yes.” Or, alternatively, you can go back into an 8-mph trot.

Does this sound like collection? Yes. You can dance your way between trot and walk or between canter and trot. Note that the half halt in walk and canter is slightly different from the half halt in trot. There is a forward moment of the walk and canter strides in which the horse reaches with his head and neck. The rider’s arms normally accommodate in order to follow the horse’s mouth. In the restraining moment of the half halt, the rider’s hands should stop following and the rider pushes with her seat and legs into her fixed hand. In the trot, because there is no natural movement of the head and neck, the rider’s hands are relatively steady so the rider closes her fingers to half halt. It’s important that the rider’s hands are soft to begin with or the horse won’t feel the rein aid.

A peek into the future: When your horse can easily trot with activity and rhythm at 4 mph, he’ll be stronger. He might then be able to trot actively and rhythmically at 3 mph and then 2 and 1. And then you have half steps and piaffe, which are a natural extension of the training in forward half halts and forward-thinking downward transitions. Forward half halts develop the horse in a way that he feels just as free and unrestricted when he goes from working trot to walk as he is from working trot to lengthened trot. He’s just as free when he goes from walk to piaffe as he is in an upward transition from walk to trot.

Energy Flow

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see extremely good dressage riding, go online and look at videos from the recent FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final in Omaha or other comparable footage of great riders. You can see there is a flow—an actual flow of energy from back to front.

If energy had a color, you could see it always cycling through the horse in a circle from the hind legs, forward through the body and neck, all the way to the bit, where it is then recycled back to the hind legs seamlessly with invisible half halts. This energy always moves from back to front. The rider is part of that circle of energy, which flows forward from her center through her elbows to the bit and recycles back to her seat. Be sure that your personal energy is going in the same direction—toward the bit—even in half halts.

Downward transitions and half halts that are done in a forward way are part of that circle of energy. The aids ride on the circle of energy, and the horse bounces from bigger strides to smaller strides in the same way that he bounces from smaller strides to bigger strides.

Very Common Problems

Sometimes riders use too much rein aid and forget the leg and seat aids. When half halts are ridden backward in this way, the circle of energy is broken and the horse’s throughness is lost. Backward half halts cause physical tightness in the horse’s back, neck and jaw, which shuts down the hindquarters. Mentally, the horse feels restricted. The rein aid should always be combined with and should be less than the seat and leg aids. The seat and leg drive the hindquarters into the fixed (not pulling) hand. These aids should bring the hind legs under the horse toward his center of gravity so he closes the frame from behind, putting him in better balance. The half halt reduces ground coverage without stopping the circle of energy or curtailing the horse’s reach for the bit. He remains relaxed yet responsive in the body and does not feel restricted during the half halt.

If the rider is out of balance, she cannot ride from back to front. The most common problem is the rider who leans back and doesn’t go with the forward motion of the horse during the half halt. Thrust from the horse sometimes puts the rider behind the motion. That’s just physics at work. Then the rider restricts the horse by sitting against the rein with her shoulders instead of her seat. If the rider’s leg goes too far forward, then it is not supporting her weight and it is out of position to help the horse engage. When the rider’s upper body is behind the vertical, the direction of force from her seat and back drive the horse’s shoulders downhill, making engagement and throughness impossible. Try this:

1. Sit in vertical balance with your head over your shoulders, hips and heels during every phase of the half halt. The rider must remain in balance for the horse to achieve balance.

2. Touch the withers with both hands. This is a form of release that will make your horse comfortable. Why? First, it assures that you aren’t providing a fifth leg to help carry your horse. Many riders aren’t aware that they’re providing more support than they ideally should. If your horse lowers his neck during this release, it means that you’ve unwittingly been carrying it. That small release allows self-carriage, and the neck will go to whatever height it is earning relative to the engagement of the hind legs. Second, it assures that the energy is going from back to front. If it’s hard to touch the withers, it means that the energy has been going from front to back. If it is hard for you to release, it is because you’ve been balancing against the flow. Many people have this problem and the simple test of briefly touching the withers will help resolve it.

3. Ride a transition from working trot to medium walk. From a steady trot tempo, half halt several times in the rhythm of trot until the strides get shorter but the energy is still coming back to front. When the trot is shortened so that the horse is going the same miles per hour as at the walk, ask for walk. The transition will be smooth. If the horse learns this way, he will use himself correctly and he’ll understand how to go forward into collection as you move up the levels. If, as you shorten the strides, your horse shuts down behind or even stops as if you’re going to get off and go shopping, persist. He might be used to snoozing in the walk. You might not get those smooth transitions right away. Try again and again to help your horse understand.

Keep the goals of the forward half halt in mind as you ride your horse at any level. Your horse will develop the strength for collection while remaining happy to work for you because of the enhanced throughness, free of mental or physical constriction. When you get to the upper levels, the half halt for higher collection needed for piaffe or pirouette will not be a new skill but a well-honed part of your horse’s repertoire—and yours, too!

Beth Baumert operates Cloverlea Dressage LLC, where she trains horses and riders from Training Level to Grand Prix in Columbia, Connecticut, and Wellington, Florida. She is the author of the best-selling how-to-ride book, When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics. Baumert is a USDF Certified Instructor and an “L” Program graduate with distinction of the USDF judging program. She is the technical editor for Dressage Today and president/CEO of The Dressage Foundation.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Dressage Today.