How to half halt – the eternal question that keeps dressage instructors up at night, searching for a better way to explain to their students (No, just me?). Half halting is notoriously subtle, notoriously misunderstood and also notoriously necessary. In the last two parts of this series I have discussed the types of half halt and what you need functioning before you can effectively half halt. Now we move onto the half halt aids. Keep in mind that there are many types of half halt so the half halt with one horse and rider will be different that another horse and rider. You might need to use more or less of your leg, or abdomen or back than me or the rider next to you. That is fine and normal.
We understand that the half halt is the aid to reunite your and your horse's centers of gravity when they deviate from one another. If your horse falls onto the forehand you must reunite his “too forward” center of gravity underneath you (the seat). At the same time there is an injection of energy (the calf) to step the horse's hind legs underneath his belly more, to prevent his center of gravity from separating from you again after the half halt is completed. When the horse's hind legs reach more underneath his belly, they act as a lever to lift the front half of his body (aka his shoulders, neck and head). With the front end lifted by that little butt of his stepping under, then his center of gravity rolls back underneath you.
Aid Number One: Your seat must continue to swing. No matter the gait you are riding, your seat moves at the walk, trot and canter. There is a swinging undulation that occurs constantly. The biggest mistake that I see when a student is learning the half halt is that they mistake a deep seat for a stopped seat. They have heard that the half halt needs a “deep” seat and so they jam it down into the saddle with the zeal of a espresso-filled jack russell. The seat should not brace or stop or you will disrupt the rhythm of whatever gait you are riding, the canter will break, the trot will distort. And remember what everyone says about half halts being invisible? The seat aids for your half halt is an emphasized swing in whatever gait you are riding. Don't make it a longer stroke, or a shorter stroke (unless you are trying to lengthen or shorten the stride), emphasize or “deepen” the stroke you are riding. That means your thighs cannot grip like you are putting your saddle in a head lock, they must allow your seat to slide closer into the saddle.
Aid Number Two: You maintain neutral spine and vertical alignment. The way I describe it to my students is that you pretend your whole core is a barrel filled with little particles (I imagine them like evenly dispersed fish in a barrel). When you are riding, and especially when you are half halting, those particles in your core, or barrel, must stay evenly distributed. They are not allowed to all float to the back, or the left, or the right, or forward. When you apply your seat and emphaize then there is the very strong temptation for your back to round or hollow as your seat drops in and swings, especially if the horse's center of gravity is waaaaaayy over there. The toning of the back muscles, and stomach muscles that everyone has talked about is the rider maintaining the even particles in their barrel.
Think about it like this, if you put your seat into the horse and swing deeply, you cannot pinch with your thigh, right? If you squeezed your thighs together too much then you would lift your derriere out of the saddle. So you need to leverage or balance that seat with SOMETHING, and that is where your core comes into play (The core is the whole of your torso by the way, not just your abdomen.) You leverage that swinging seat off of your core and you must tone it to resist changing shape while it is being used as a leverage point. Are you still with me? Great! You can have whatever you want for dessert tonight.
Aid Number Three: The calf closes. If the horse does not give you enough of an energy jump then you make your point with a touch of the whip or the spur. But the calf must close “into” your seat. That means your seat is busy “emphasizing”, your stomach is busy “maintaining” and then your calf adds energy to that mechanism. Again, the thigh can get in the way of this. If you cannot use your calf without your thigh, then as you apply your calf, your thigh pinches and out of the saddle goes your seat. Then your horse just goes faster in the current balance, or falls into your hand, rather than uniting with your balance. Repeat after me: Must. Use. Calf. Without. Thigh.
Aid Number Four: Speaking of hands....as you get better and better at the half halts then your hand should be less and less necessary to the aid. We always want to think of the hand as “not allowing”, rather than pulling back. So if your horse misinterprets your aids and falls into the rein, then keep your hand in position and not to pull against the horse. Eventually your horse will get used to your seat receiving the energy from your calf and will not take it forward into an over-strong mouth, but that takes repetitions. Keep it your goal though. The seat is a half halt mechanism and the hand a misinterpretation fail safe. So here is the short hand version of the above explanation:
The Half Halt: Your seat will emphasize whatever stride you are riding by dropping closer to the saddle in the swing – same swing equals same stride, shorter swing equals shorter stride, longer swing equals longer stride, no swing equals stop. Your upper body will tone whatever parts are necessary to remain unchanged as your seat uses it to swing deeper, no rounding the back or hollowing the back, no leaning forward or back. As this is happening, your calf squeezes to add fuel to these aids, without squeezing the thigh. Your hands will take whatever weight the horse might drop, but will not pull on his mouth.
Finally, here is a video of Conrad Schumacher giving the best explanation of a half halt I have ever heard, showing that hands are not necessary in the long run. Now, gentle readers, go forth and half halt!
Bonnie Walker is a dressage trainer out of San Diego who has earned her USDF Bronze and Silver Medals as well as graduating the "L" Program with distinction. She is notable for her work with adult amateurs and her knack for improving her students. Currently, she is enrolled in the instructor certification program and actively shows, trains and writes. Check out Bonnie's blog here!