Countless words have been written about half-halts, and yet they remain a mystery to most riders. In dressage, it is said that “’feel’ is everything and the only thing”, and this old saying may have originated with half-halts.
Half-halts are supposed to precede and follow all changes between and within gaits, between movements, and before and after corners, changes of direction, and changes of bend. Half-halts are absolutely necessary for successful transitions. They help create and maintain balance and bend, indicate throughness, and facilitate self-carriage. No half-halt is complete until the rider gives, and the horse demonstrates a few moments of self-carriage.
Riding a proper half-halt pretty much defines good riding. It reminds me of a team training session I attended in 1976. Col. Bengt Ljungquist was coach of the U.S. team that year, and we won a surprise bronze medal at the Montreal Olympics. In observing the team hopefuls, he didn’t ask to see their piaffe, passage, and one-tempi changes. He asked to see them ride a proper half-halt. I wish all trainers, instructors, and judges would require as much. The definition of dressage is “training,” after all, and not “fancy movement."
How does one ride a proper half-halt? This is where it gets tricky. It’s difficult to explain a feeling and can be confusing.
Simply stated, a half-halt begins with the rider’s legs and seat, the resulting impulsion is “caught” with the hands, which shift the balance back to the hindquarters, and then the hand gives to demonstrate self-carriage. This is the point at which the rider can ask for the previously mentioned transitions.
Half-halts don't always work right away. The horse usually comes above the aids at first for all but the already skilled rider. That’s OK as long as the balance shifts back, although many riders give up or change tactics when the horse goes above the aids. Eventually, the rider must be able to keep the horse on the aids throughout the half-halt to prevent losing the all-important back. This is really no different than when any new movement is introduced. Remember that the horse can be above the aids not only at the poll, but also at the withers.
Ideally, the half-halt starts by using the upper inside leg into the outside rein, with an opening inside rein, which takes (to support the inside leg and bend) and then gives while the outside rein picks up any slack offered (to keep the balance shifted back). The outside leg stays slightly back to guard the haunches.
Tip: Remember NOT to follow your giving hand forward with your body. Sit back so you can use your seat, not your legs, heels, or spurs, for forward movement.
While I just described an ideal half-halt using diagonal aids, the rider might need a unilateral half-halt (e.g., on the stiff side), using leg and rein on the same side, when riding a greener, more one-sided horse.
Sometimes it takes an all-out, two legs, seat, and two hands half-halt (e.g., when a horse is leaning in the hand or running through the bridle). Still, the rider should try to use the outside rein straight back through the elbow and a more or less opening inside rein, because giving in the poll is a function of bend.
A thinking rider should be riding in position right or left most of the time. Position right or left can be thought of as half a shoulder-fore, which likewise can be thought of as half a shoulder-in. This lines the horse’s shoulders up in front of the haunches, which are wider than the shoulders. If the shoulders and haunches are equi-distant from the rail, the horse is actually crooked. A crooked horse cannot attain the needed impulsion for extended and collected movements.
If done consistently, the horse will begin to respond to the upper inside leg and come on the aids before the hand even engages, and thus the rider will be riding from back to front instead of the other way around. It is the rider’s goal to push, not pull, the horse where he or she wants it to go.
At first half-halts need to be used more often than the rider believes possible to accomplish, but soon they can become less frequent and less intense until the smallest of movement of the upper inside leg into the steady outside rein and a tiny squeeze of the fingers on the inside rein (checking the softness of the lower jaw) will suffice. The rider will then enjoy the ride, and the horse will demonstrate softness and thoroughness and balance and self-carriage, resulting in the biggest movement possible for that
particular horse. WOW!!!
-- by Suzanne May