Sunday, June 12, 2016

Demystifying the Half-Halt

One of the hardest things I ever had to learn in dressage was how to do a half-halt and use it effectively, and I don't think I'm alone on that! The half-halt seems to be somewhat of a mystery in the dressage world. When we are learning it we think "am I doing it?", "was that enough?", "am I blocking the horse?" - just constant questioning of whether the half-halt is happening or not. It is good to question your aids, as that means you are conscious of what you're doing on the horse. But when your half-halt works, you will know, and think "Ohhhh...... ok, right I get it".

The way that I like to think of a half-halt is to imagine I've build a solid brick wall just in front of the horse's face. The wall moves forward with the horse, and I am in control of how far away from my body I want it to be. I move the wall closer to me when I am collecting the horse, and push it further away when I want to extend or stretch the horse's neck down.

The moment is captured where the half-halt
 is keeping the horse's balance uphill

The key is that the horse must never touch this wall. If you start to feeling that he is pulling a little long on you, his nose will be pushing onto that wall which means his balance is too much on the forehand and he isn't waiting for you. But also, if his nose is retracting away from the wall and his face is no longer parallel with it, he is behind you and not accepting the contact, so you need to ask him to move towards the support of the wall in front (created by your contact).

It is so true when dressage masters say that you should ride hundreds of half-halts in a session. When I first read that when I was younger I was like "what? How do I fit that many in? That's gonna be a long session with a lot of stop-starting and not much being achieved!" because I didn't realise how to use my half-halt effectively within my work. Because I didn't understand it, I saw it as a separate thing to the paces and movements. But it is absolutely vital to include it in EVERYTHING you do in dressage, because the main thing it does is it helps balance the horse, and without balance, we have nothing.

In dressage our goal is for the horse to be moving uphill and in self-carriage, but the natural balance of a horse is on his forehand, so what do we do to shift that balance back onto the hind leg? We don't pull them back, we don't hold them up, and we don't shake them off the contact... We half-halt. Every 2-4 strides in between half-halts the horse will slowly start to let his balance fall onto the forehand, moving into that brick wall we have put up. This is why we constantly need to check in with where he is in relation to that wall and sit the horse back on his hind legs with a brace of the core and a squeeze with the hand and leg. When he comes back to you on your aid, you must immediately give and push them forward keeping that new balance to keep them in front of your leg and create impulsion and expression. But remember you can't force them to hold that balance, they need to feel they can keep it for a few strides by themselves (hence "self-carriage") until you put in the next half-halt to recreate that balanced feeling.

The horse must be submissive to the rein and leg
aids together to create an effective half-halt
Annoyingly, the half-halt is just "a feeling" you create with your entire body that helps the horse stay in the balance you're asking for, and is so difficult to put into words so you do need to play around with what feels effective for you. Also, before anything, you need to make sure the horse comes back when you ask him to and doesn't run through your contact (or past that brick wall) all the time. The most simple way to test this is do walk-halt transitions. When you squeeze the rein and close your leg to halt, the horse should obviously stop and not tense his jaw and just keep walking ignoring what you asked, making you pull on his mouth even harder. If he does this, keep doing the transitions keeping him in front of the leg and soft in the neck until he learns acceptance of both leg and hand together, and perhaps be a bit stronger with the rein for a quick moment (always giving after restraining) if he tries to push past your brick wall so he learns it is not allowed. If you feel he is halting a little too easily - i.e. you ask him to stop and he comes to a grinding halt with his face sucked back into his chest, then you need to use your legs to push him towards the contact. Keep your legs on in the downwards transition and don't let him drop down behind your contact in the halt. Keep his face balanced on that brick wall using your legs and hands for support. Keep working on the submissiveness in the walk-halt transitions and when you've got that happening then you can move onto a half-halt - almost halting then asking him to go forward again in self-carriage.

If the horse doesn't accept your restraining aids or moves off your leg, feeling a half-halt can be very difficult, so make sure these two things are happening right from the beginning of your session. It's literally stop and go, and then the half-halt is just a bit less stop and a bit less go - whatever it takes to keep him parallel to that imaginary brick wall.

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