Horse-Riding: The Half-Halt
The half-halt is almost synonymous with dressage riding. Classical riding idealizes the perfecting of the horse’s balance under his rider, without the force of hands. When properly done, the half-halt is a rebalancing aid without pulling.
The success of a half-halt is dependent on the rider’s steadiness and coordination in the torso, for it is based on the anchorage of the seat. The driving aids, so intimately at the heart of a proper half-halt, cannot propel the haunches forward without the restraint of the forehand by a firm anchorage of the seat. The half-halt is an interlude of briefly doubling both the restraining and the driving aids.
A rider must perform half-halts often. Rebalancing the horse, especially to increase his weight-bearing in his haunches, is at the heart of gymnastic progress. Therefore, half-halts ought to precede all changes required of the horse. These include the very frequent changes from bending to straightening and straightening to bending, such as when riding through corners, followed by the straight lines along the walls of a manege. Also, rebalancing is necessary prior to all transitions, whether they be within the same gait or from one gait to another.
The term “half-halt” carries by suggestion its true meaning and hints at its performing skills. The rider’s “upper half,” or torso, including upper arms and elbows, acts as a passively restraining force toward the horse’s forward progression. Simultaneously, the rider’s “lower half” drives the horse’s haunches powerfully forward with the lumbar back and legs. Therefore, the slightly backward-leaning torso, with its braced abdominal muscles, restrains the horse’s forehand, while this very position enables the lumbar back and legs to drive more powerfully forward.
The rider’s “upper half” is always the primary controller of the horse’s “front,” which includes the forehand as well as the neck and head. The rider’s “lower half” is the primary controller of the horse’s hind end, that is, everything behind the saddle: the haunches, the lumbosacral joint, the croup, the lower back, the hind legs—basically, all the propelling mechanisms and the seating mechanisms of the horse.
During the half-halt, the rider’s activities also “split into two halves,” not unlike the way he “splits” the use of his body into two halves. The first half of the rider’s activities concerns the slowing of the horse’s forehand in its forward horizontal progression, basically conveying to the horse the desire to halt. As soon as the horse responds appropriately to the invitation to prepare for a halt, the rider conveys to the horse that he “changed his mind” and would rather drive on. It is this creation of a momentary hesitation, followed by an outpouring of reserved energy, that makes the half-halt a dynamic rebalancing gesture.
While a rider might perform thousands of half-halts in a relatively short period of time, no two of them will be quite the same. Only the essence of the half-halt—that it results in an improved balance of the horse—will be constant. The rider’s talent, “feel,” knowledge, practicing of skills, and experience will determine for how long a half-halt will be performed. The variables are many. The first half, the passively resistant half, can be sustained for one stride or longer. The second half, the one urging a resurgence of energy from the haunches, can also be brief or prolonged. Beyond the timing of these phrases of the half-halt, the severity of the requests for rebalancing will also remain variable. A rider can nearly stop a horse and suddenly pour his energies forward or a rider can just barely straighten and stretch his posture to create a new favorable condition for the haunches to move more forward or upward.
The half-halt is at the heart of the art of riding. It is based on skills and feelings that allow the rider to use himself simultaneously as a transformer of the horse’s “staying power” into an “explosion” or renewal of energies. The same torso that speaks of “restraint” to the horse’s forehand is the very torso that must be the “propellant” for his haunches.
Finally, the half-halt is only intensifying the rider’s influences for the first half of its performance. The second half must consist of yielding and relaxation, to confirm to the horse the rider’s satisfaction with his new balance and allow it to be maintained in self-carriage. The first half of activities is by “commission” while the second half is by “omission” of actions. This relaxing second half of every half-halt allows the readjusted energies of the horse to “flow through” him unhindered and to lead to his self-carriage. Appropriate driving must, however, be maintained in both phases of the half-halt.
The half-halt is the result of the synchronized use of all aids in an exaggerated form. Simply stated, it is “doubling everything”! When performing a half-halt, the rider should increase appropriately his leg, torso/back, and rein aids.
The rider will increase his driving leg aids to facilitate improved impulsion, more engagement of the hindquarters. Against this, he will use a retarding back and rein aids. As a result, a shorter but taller-moving horse—moving with more athletic resolve—is more prepared to change something in his position.
Half-halts should be performed prior to all major changes requested in the horse’s position. In good riding, half-halts should be performed with great frequency. To emphasize their importance, we could say that riding is synonymous with the perpetual variation and interaction of half-halting, driving, and harmony through relaxation.
Half-halts are performed in order to make changes easier for the horse and to allow him to change his position without reducing his athletic involvement. Without a half-halt, the horse cannot make transitions (changes in longitudinal position), nor can he bend (change in lateral position), without compromising the major requirements of his athletic performance: relaxation, suppleness, balance, elasticity, and maintenance of rhythm.
Prerequisites to Half-Halting
The rider should be able to ride with an independent and balanced seat. Also, he should have developed effective and coordinated use of his musculature. Because the half-halt’s success depends on well-synchronized and appropriately strong or mild aiding, the rider must be faultlessly “on time” with it, as gentle as possible, yet effective and perfectly capable of coordinating it with the movement of the horse.
The horse should be well on the aids, that is, longitudinally flexed, using his back supplely to transfer the energies of the impulsion from the hindquarters to the absorbing forehand. He should have an educated mouth that will respond elastically without resistance to both yielding or passively restraining reins. He should, above all, be eager to engage his hindquarters when driven forward, without reluctance or sluggishness. Maturation of both horse and rider must have reached a level at which both are toned and elastic enough to expect of each other smooth, harmonious coordination and partnership.
Half-halts in any movement serve the purpose of suppling. Usually, a horse will have a stiff side and a hollow side. As he moves, he will lean on the rider’s hand on his stiff side and not accept the bit on the hollow side. The rider should perform half-halts on the rein that is heavily contacted by his horse. Through his torso and reins, the rider should gently resist the forward progress and then relax contact on the heavy side. The activity should be rhythmically performed to the beat of the hind leg on the stiff side. The most important feature of the half-halt is the fact that it is “half,” and therefore terminates each time the horse responds by yielding. For example, when the left leg drives, the left rein contacts, then follow with both left leg and left rein relaxing.
Half-halts in transitions are necessary for a supple arrival from one gait to another. The sign of such suppleness is that the horse needs to change neither his rhythm nor his length when going from one gait to another. When going from a potentially faster gait (canter or trot) to a potentially slower one (walk or halt), repeated half-halts will make for a “soft landing,” as the horse moving with considerable impulsion will settle down lightly to a slower tempo without “falling” into the new gait. The first stride of each gait has to be as pure and impulsive as any that would follow it. Only by increased engagement, bending of the joints prior to a new gait, can the horse gather his quarters under the weight to support it correctly. The half-halt allows for repeated yielding, which will ensure an elastic entry into the new gait, uninhibited by a paralyzing, continuously resistant pull.
When the transition occurs from a potentially slower to a potentially faster gait, the half-halt serves as a preparatory warning device. It also facilitates improved engagement of the hindquarters. Thus, the prepared horse will be making a few more engaged steps which make him more capable of lifting up into a trot or canter, rather than merely pushing forward and falling through the forehand into these gaits.
Half-halts in lateral work should be employed to prepare each bending. Actually, every corner should be preceded by executing a half-halt. Without this, a horse usually does not bend, but instead falls through each corner stiffly. On lateral half-halts, diagonal aids are used. Thus, a half-halt before a corner should be performed with the inside leg driving and the outside rein maintaining contact.
Depending on the horse’s natural suppleness and elasticity, on his gymnastic development and on his responsiveness to the aids, half-halts may be repeated more or less often. An advanced horse that is moving well in a full bridle will respond to half-halts before they transmit from the seat to the hands, which is to say, the horse will respond to the leg and seat aids primarily.
Half-Halts Lead to Self-Carriage
When an improperly trained horse leans on the bit and over-contacts, he will be forced to bid the musculature of his body against the rider’s stress-causing hands. No human athlete could develop his body if it were engaged to force a locked door open by constantly leaning against it in a paralyzing brace.
Riders must insist on a contact so light that their hands merely transmit the isometric conditions and the position of their torso through the reins to the horse’s muzzle. The horse should be able to read the rider’s mind through the bit rather than being either held or steered by it. Self-carriage is a very serious requirement in classical equitation. If a rider cannot control the horse’s haunches, tempo, and balance with his seat alone and without the pulling actions of his hands, he cannot gymnastically improve his horse. At all stages of training, the horse should remain in perfect balance without the rider’s powerful connection to the bridle. Neither the rider nor the horse should hang on to the bit. It takes two to pull: if the rider blames the horse for pulling, he must remember that his horse is blaming him for the same. No one can pull on a string with force if the other end is not tied to something. An untied string cannot be tightened because it will follow the puller.
Training a horse without confinement and restraint through the reins will allow him to balance in self-carriage. This is the foundation for the future sophistication of the self-carriage concept. When a horse matures and develops gymnastically in self-carriage, he will volunteer to maintain the gaits without the rider’s prompting. Therefore, the most sophisticated manifestation of self-carriage is when a horse can be asked to perform any gait, any figure, and any level of engagement that he voluntarily maintains until aided to change out of it by his rider. A sophisticated horse will maintain the gait, proceed on the figure, and maintain his posture just as his rider asked, as if by himself. He will not need step-by-step prompting and continuous pressuring by his rider. He will continue to perform “by himself” voluntarily because he is free from fear and inhibition and knows that he can trust his rider to not disturb his balance or impede his motion. A horse trained in such a manner, one in self-carriage, will always be free to engage his haunches and, as a consequence, remain light in the forehand. Such a horse will be free to engage for maximum performance his haunches, carry his neck in the most graceful posture, and work as if his proud performance were his own idea. A horse in self-carriage may be asked for passage and will maintain it until his rider asks him for a change, to perhaps a halt, or canter, or trot.
The horse in self-carriage is one working on his four legs, without borrowing the rider’s hands as a “fifth leg.” He is allowed freedom of carriage limited only by the accomplishments of his haunches. He always maintains his balance, with his rider’s mild assistance, through half-halts. He promotes and prolongs his gaits, figures, and level of engagement willingly without the rider having to labor.
Self-carriage verifies the purity of the horse’s schooling. If a rider cannot yield one or both of his reins without his horse rushing, breaking gait, or diminishing engagement, the horse is not trained correctly and is leaning on a “fifth leg.” Self-carriage can be developed only by riders who are anchored in the horse’s movement on their seat rather than connected to their horse through the hands, anchored in his mouth. Horsemanship has always been evaluated by the rider’s ability to present his horse in self-carriage, hanging down from his seat and torso without any stress on the reins.