For many riders the half halt remains not one, but TWO four letter words. And believe you me, I understand. If you read texts describing the aids, you will see paragraph after paragraph of ambiguous references to “bracing the back” and “closing of the calf”. This is not a criticism of those authors. The half halt is notoriously opaque. In order to achieve an effective half halt you must execute a series of seat, upper body and lower leg aids within a VERY small amount of time, almost simultaneously. You also must manage to do this within correct timing of the stride phase. And as much fun as it is trying to learn to half halt with your body, it is equally joyous to teach your student. There are moments where both student and instructor stare at one another with blank eyes and slack jaws. Eventually the instructor might deteriorate into saying “half halt” without having ever managing to convey its meaning to the student. On the other side the student might then kick the horse while pulling on the reins and just decide that this is what a half halt means.
In this article I am going to attempt to describe the half halt from the outside in. If we can think about why and when a half halt is necessary from a theoretical stance, perhaps both student and instructor alike will be one step closer to achieving a thorough understanding.
The “Heads Up” Half Halt: This particular flavor of half halt is generally used before you do anything other that what you are currently doing. It re-balances the horse and ensures he or she is on your aids before you ask for whatever movement comes next. These movements might be anything, a transition, a lengthening, lateral work and so on. What I have noticed is that particularly at the canter, adult amateurs have an uncomfortable relationship with the half halt. When a rider is working in the trot and freezes their seat or lets energy drain from the system, then all that happens is that the horse trots more slowly. This is acceptable to most adult amateurs, since their alliance to big, bouncy trots is tenuous at best. At the canter though, it is a different story. When a rider forgets themselves, or energy drains from the system, or even if their seat is not yet developed enough to maintain the energy, the horse does not just canter more and more slowly. Generally the horse will break to the trot. While a slow trot might be acceptable, breaking to the trot and bouncing around like a sack of potatoes certainly is not. And so at the canter when the rider is working toward understanding a half halt, the horse will oftentimes break. This negative stimuli is enough to make most riders scrap the entire half-halt-at-the-canter project. Unfortunately though they will soon hit a wall, because without half halts the canter will not achieve the balance necessary to advance up the levels. When the rider attempts to rider a simple change, for example, without having established an understanding of the half halts, there will be any number of problems, from trot steps to a heavy hand to an abrupt and jarring appearance. Again, the “Heads Up” half halt serves to notify, prepare and re-balance your horse before a new movement.
The “Re-balancing” Half Halt: Technically all half halts are re-balancing half halts, if you read the last sentence of the above paragraph you will see that. That being said, sometimes you are cruising along and you feel your horse move ‘out of synch’. It could be that you feel the rhythm deteriorate or that the trot becomes slightly move difficult to sit. It could be that your horse starts floating above the connection or begins leaning on the rein a bit. Whatever the symptom, the half halt is generally the cure. Even if you need to add energy, afterward you must re-balance that energy. Whatever you are doing, at whatever gait, your horse’s balance must constantly be maintained and corrected. By being on his or her back, you artificially affect your horse’s balance. This can be for the better with a skilled rider, or it can be for the worse, as with a beginning rider. This re-balancing half halt unites you and your horse under a single balance once more and allows you to move forward as a unit. That is why within movements half halts are still necessary. Many riders feel that they have worked so hard to put a horse into a leg yield or a half pass that they are afraid to shatter the fragile little snowflake they have created by attempting a half halt. But within (and without) every movement, you and your horse must consistently be reunited under a single balance and the half halt serves to do that.
The “Just Checking” Half Halt: And on the other side of the spectrum there are times when things feel awesome, things feel fantastic, this is the best feeling ever! Why in the name of Zeus would I mess with this perfection? Because you always want to test it. If it is authentic, your half halt will come through and do nothing but improve what is already wonderful. If you and your horse have both of your balance points united and you are truly moving as a unit, then a half halt will illustrate that. If however the power you are feeling is not truly correct then you will feel your horse have to make a significant change in his body to reset his balance with yours. It is absolutely possible to feel good on a horse that is not quite through. But the honesty of the moment will come when you attempt to manipulate that feeling. If you cannot then that “perfection” you had was never yours to begin with. But this discovery is an excellent one, because the last thing that you want is to learn to enjoy a false feeling. Remember, if a horse is truly through then he is manipulatable. Your half halts will reenforce what is already existing – that you two are working as a pair with a united center of balance.
I titled the post “The Thirty One Flavors of Half Halt”, but to be honest with you there are many more than thirty one. You have feather light half halts that you are working toward having your horse understand as the norm. You have heavier half halts for those moments when your center of gravity is here and your horse’s is waaaaaaaay over there. And of course all of those shades of gray in between. There are half halts that take a bit more leg, ones that take a bit more seat, ones that make your stomach burn. It really depends on where your horse’s balance is in reference to yours, and what musculature works best to bring them back into union.
So at the end of this article you are staring at the monitor thinking, “But I still don’t know what the hell I am doing with the half halts!” I understand. But how about this? We will fill the void around the concept of the half halt and like one of those Victorian profile etches, it will help you see the shape of what half halts are and how you build them into your program. But for right now think of them like sprinkles (to extend the ice cream metaphor to the breaking point), they need to be all over the place. No one likes just a few sprinkles on their sundae, load them up baby! The next entry in the half halt series – The Prerequisites To The Half Halt.