Articles > The Half Halt


The Half Halt
By Paul Kathen
Photography © Kelly McChesney

     Erika James is one of my best students, a great rider, and dear friend. She has a new horse that she trains herself and last year qualified for the Young Horse Championships. During one of her qualifying rides her horse lost balance in a corner, which then caused him a problem in the next transition. After the ride Erika asked me, “What should I have done to prevent it?” I answered that she needed to ride a more effective half-halt to prepare him better for the corner. Erika joked, “A half-halt, what a concept!” 

     Imagine yourself in a magic time machine traveling about ten thousand years into the past. You are now with your ancestors that still live in caves and communicate through grunts, gestures, and facial expressions. You are highly educated, speak three languages, and yet you cannot communicate with them. It is impossible to teach them your language because they cannot even form sounds. So, you must get down to their level, grunt, point, and let your feelings show on your face. After a while you begin to realize that you could not discuss the theory of relativity in this manner but you can be very precise in communicating your daily needs to your fellow cavemen. The situation of a rider is very similar. 

     Our goal in riding is to elevate our communication with our horse from shouting commands to a constant dialog in which both horse and rider are focused on each other, listening, and talking. The rider talks by signaling through the aids and listens by feeling the horse’s response. The horse listens to the rider’s aids and answers with its actions. The language the rider uses is the aids. Like the time traveler, the rider has to adjust to the level of the horse’s ability to communicate and use physical signals to express her wishes. 

 
In this picture Erika James has her horse, Wunderland, correctly prepared to travel a circle or a corner (one fourth of a circle) in balance. You can clearly see the even bend through the horse’s body. It is the result of a half-halt that traveled from her inside leg into the outside rein which determined the amount of bend Wunderland can have. Erika’s inside hand has moved back a bit thus helping the inside leg to bend the horse. Her outside leg behind the girth keeps the hindquarter from stepping out and this way forces the inside hind leg to step under the center of gravity and accept a greater load. This bending half-halt has prepared her horse mentally and physically to stay balanced and ready to obey any demand that may follow.

      Sitting on the back of the horse creates an additional problem in talking to it. The horse cannot see the rider and, therefore, gestures and facial expressions are of no use. The rider in turn also cannot see the actions of the horse and must rely on the sense of feel to “see” if the horse reacted correctly. 

     This position on the back of the horse is the cause for one more communication problem. It requires an independent seat to be precise in the application of an aid. Only if a rider sits relaxed and in balance can she effectively feel the actions of the horse and interpret them for their meaning. The rider’s eyes and ears are thus replaced by her ability to feel. Of course, she must also be able to correctly understand what she feels. My friend, Eckart Meyners, calls this the “inner eye” of the rider because it is the device with which the rider sees her horse. 


Definition of Terms 

     At this point I believe it is wise to define three terms that have already been mentioned


This is Joan Ehrich riding her Trakehner, Balou. Joan demonstrates a very correct seat. All the lines are straight. Shoulder, seat, and heel form a straight line and so do the bit, hand, and elbow. Joan’s neck stretches upward out of her shoulder with her head slightly inclined forward in order not to tighten the occipital joint. Her seat is deep yet relaxed, the perfect condition to swing with the horse and to be able to influence the horse. I have only one correction for Joan. Place your foot a little farther into the stirrup so that the ball of your foot, not your toes, rests on the stirrup iron. This creates a much more secure leg position and gives your leg more strength to apply an aid.

and will be written about again many times in this article. First, there is “the aid" (singular). It is an action of the rider’s seat, leg, or the rein. The voice is also an aid and plays an important part in the training of the horse. We do not, however, consider the voice an official part of the language. It, just like the spurs and whip, only acts in a supportive role and we categorize these as artificial aids. For the purpose of this article we must assume that our imagined horse is trained and understands these aids.

     The seat is often divided into a “weight aid” and a “driving aid.” It could be compared to the caveman’s facial expressions or body language. Here the rider uses the distribution of his weight to indicate to the horse to either travel left or right, move stronger forward, or step farther under his body. The driving aspect of the seat is created by bracing the back, thus pushing the weight forward-downward in order to activate the horse’s hind legs. The rider may drive with both seat bones evenly and simultaneously or choose to push one-sided according to the need of the situation. As we will see later, the canter exemplifies that use of the one-sided aid. 

     We distinguish between three leg aids. Their difference lies in the position of the legs at the body of the horse and their activity. Pressure at the girth tells the horse to move forward. Although in most cases both legs will act simultaneously and it is considered just one aid. Leg pressure behind the girth tells the horse to move sideways. A leg resting passively behind the girth says, "Stay on this line." With a horse that naturally wants to swing out in the hindquarter, that leg may have to become an active sideways driving leg to keep the horse on the line.   

     The rein aid has the greatest number of applications. We determine between a giving rein, a softening rein, a firming rein, a taking rein, a sideways showing rein, and a limiting rein. If the rider moves one or both hands forward it is called a giving rein. Another good example of this rein action would be the, “letting the horse chew the reins out of your hands” exercise. When softening the rein, the rider only relaxes the connection without changing it. Often this softening happens when the horse gives to the rein. The rider then must be sure to reward the horse by staying steady with her hands and not pulling back. Should she miss the moment and continue a strong contact the horse may drop the bit and move behind it.  

     The firming rein means that the rider takes some of the elasticity out of a connection and makes it steady, creating a mild resistance. In contrast, the taking rein acts much stronger in that it increases the pressure either on both or on one side of the horse’s mouth. The taking rein aid on both reins would be used to, for instance, slow a horse down. One-sided it will bend or turn a horse. The sideways showing rein does just that, as it moves away from the horse’s neck to the side the rider wants to turn. The limiting rein aid determines how far the horse may bend in the neck. It is, therefore, a function of the outside rein.  

     Above, I have defined the various aids and their actions. In communicating with our horses, we rarely use one aid at a time. We combine aids of our seat, legs, and reins to tell the horse what we expect it to do. That defines “the aids" (plural). Certain combinations of aids constitute “the aids” for a command that the horse understands. For the purpose of this article we will use the aids to the canter depart as an illustration. Since the canter is a one-sided gait, we will decide to canter on the right lead. The inside rein flexes the horse to the right, the riders weight is shifted slightly more over the right seat bone and the outside leg rests behind the girth. The transition is triggered by the inside leg pushing forward at the girth and the inside seat bone driving downward-forward simultaneously. It is the task of the outside rein to keep the shoulder from falling out while the outside leg of the rider controls the outside hind leg of the horse and makes sure that it steps under the horse’s center of gravity.

 

There are clear guidelines in the use of the aids. They should always act from the back to the front, meaning that the leg and seat aids precede the rein aids. I like to explain this to my students by telling them that the increased energy created by the driving aids of seat and leg will move the horse stronger onto the bit and thus produce the rein aid. The driving aids should, in most cases, also act stronger than the regulating or controlling aids of the reins. This is to make sure that the horse will continue to move forward with energy.

     Earlier I mentioned that we want to elevate our communication while

 

 
Both horses, Roncally on the left and Balou on the right, are moving to their right. Their diagonal pair of legs move parallel to each other indicating that front and hind legs cross in the same amount. This keeps their bodies parallel to the rail. The positions of the riders are also similar; both have their left leg behind the girth and their right leg at the girth. Both are actively driving sideways with their left leg. Roncally, however, is executing a half-pass while Balou works at a leg-yield. The main difference lies in the bend of the horses. Balou is not bent, but flexed or positioned left, while traveling to the right. That makes Joan’s sideways driving leg the inside leg. In order to help Balou balance, Joan also sits to the inside. Roncally is bent and looks to where he is going and my sideways driving leg is the outside leg. I sit to the inside, both to help him balance and to encourage him to step to the right. The aids I just described are the aids for the respective exercises. Any other combination of aids the rider uses to maintain the horse’s focus, balance, and energy are considered half-halts.
 

 riding from merely shouting commands to a constant dialog with our mounts. From the many misunderstandings in communicating among ourselves, we know how important it is to consider the context in which things are said. So it is when talking to our horses. The context for our commands in the saddle is provided by half-halts. They prepare the horse for the next command. Other purposes of the half-halt are to gain a horse’s attention, to improve its way of going, and to maintain a positive connection. The German definition of the half-halt is as follows: “The half-halt consists in briefly ‘enclosing’ the horse a little more between the seat, leg, and rein aids, and then yielding with the reins again.” You can find this definition on page 87 of the German handbook, The Principles of Riding. To me it is very interesting and telling that the giving is emphasized by saying, “briefly enclosing,” and then adding the need for yielding.  

     On page 86 of the same book, the tasks of the half-halt are enumerated, just like I did in the last paragraph. I particularly like the wording of the last task: “To improve or maintain the horse’s collection and carriage within a movement.” Combine this statement with the fact that we expect our horses to travel in an artificial direction, forward-upward, while the horse’s natural desire is to move forward-downward. This then makes it obvious that we as riders must continually communicate our wishes to the horse or it will gradually shift back into its natural direction. The means of this communication is the half-halt.

Practical Application

     Just looking at the theory of the half-halt it seems straight forward and uncomplicated. The difficulties begin when the seat meets the saddle. The complexity lies in the fact that no two horses are alike and the reaction to an aid differs from horse to horse and sometimes even from day to day on the same horse. I am sure that the horse feels the same way about different riders. There is always a period of fine tuning between a new horse-rider combination. The level of experience of a new team will determine the length of time it requires to achieve an adequate understanding.  

     I mentioned earlier the importance of applying the aids evenly from the seat and legs to the reins. In the half-halts, with a straight horse, this is correct. A horse ridden “in position,” however, we ride with our driving aids increasingly into the outside rein. On bent lines or in lateral movements the inside driving aids move the horse into the outside rein. The situation dictates just how much or how little the rider must push or control to achieve the desired result. Whenever I write about a “situation,” I mean the degree of what the rider needs, the receptiveness of the horse, and the strength of its reaction.  

     I hope it is clear by now just how complex this system of communication with our horses is. It is impossible to just train a horse a series of commands and ride even a simple Dressage test. This is why I earlier described at length the individual aids and their effect on the horse. The rider must create her own combination of half-halts to be able to deal with all the various situations she will face in her ride. That explains why riding is a “thinking person’s sport.” Because it would take volumes to describe just a small percentage of possible situations and the correct responses to them, I can best help by explaining a few do’s and don’ts.  

     First, develop an independent seat. The minimal standard will be for you to be able to sit your horse at all gaits without the use of a gripping leg and without balancing off the reins. You will need this seat to be able to tell what your horse is doing and to apply the necessary aids. It is painful to watch a rider bouncing on her horse’s back and pulling on the reins to maintain herself on the saddle. Horses are extremely generous and will try to do what they think we expect of them even though it may cause them more abuse. As we rise through the levels our seat must also become more secure since the demands on the rider grow with a greater need for more complex combinations of aids and a more rapid sequence of exercises. As the movements become more difficult the need for the rider to help her horse increases accordingly. The horse cannot tell the difference between a deliberate pressure from the rider or an inadvertent one and, therefore, an insecure seat will cause confusion in the horse.  

     Second, learn to feel. It takes a great deal of concentrated saddle time with an already independent seat to know exactly what is happening under you. The more precise your feeling is, the more precise your ability to develop the correct response to help your horse will be. You will be glad to know that with time you will develop a muscle memory that will respond to the horse automatically. It is precisely this instant and consistent answer that gives the horse confidence to work in a relaxed manner. While you must think all the time when riding, do not ride with your head alone; it leads to overcorrecting and mistakes. 

     Next, practice harmony, the absence of pressure and corrections. It is like the moment of silence in a dialog, yet it speaks to the horse. It is the half-halt that says, “Great job”. Keep this up, it is just what I want.” Go back to riding exercises that are easy for your horse and create moments where you can experience such correctness and reward your horse with harmony. I like to be positive in the process of training and I will, therefore, at times allow for the still little imperfections and reward a clear improvement with harmony.

      Also experiment with various combinations of aids to find out what works best in a certain situation. This is like increasing your vocabulary in a language and soon you will be able to communicate with your horse in a much more precise manner. One might fear that this is confusing to the horse. It is not as long as you do not punish or correct him unfairly. Your horse too is trying to learn and he attempts to follow your lead. Keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to create in your horse throughness and self-carriage which equals lightness. Speak softly until you feel you are being ignored, only then become firm. 

     Most importantly, do not ride beyond your own or your horse’s ability. You know which one in your partnership is the weaker link. This partner determines the limit to which you can ride. If it is your horse, push him against his limit in order to raise it, do not push through it.  He will tell you when he has gone as far as he can. Should you fail to recognize the signs, you will at first notice evasions followed by tension and then outright resistance.

Merino was working exactly the way I wanted him to so there was no need for any correction at the time. As a result I relaxed all the aids and told him in this way, “Good boy.” This picture was taken in November and it is now January of the following year. Merino must like these moments of harmony because he gives me many opportunities to just relax and enjoy our progress. A trainer’s temptation might be to ask for more every time a ride is going well. That is like punishing the horse for a good effort. Of course, the purpose of working a horse is to progress and rewarding the horse while he is working hard is creating progress. The horse will gain in knowledge, strength, and coordination and, most importantly, he will stay motivated to continue to work hard. I cannot think of a better way to destroy a horse’s positive attitude toward work than to push him until he is either exhausted or past his ability and send him back to the barn frustrated.

An experienced trainer will settle the horse, return him to his comfort zone, and again push him against his limit and work him at that level. In this manner she will raise his limit and improve the horse without fights and damage done to his body and mind.

     Should you be the weaker link, establish your priority of weaknesses and begin to improve them. It will most likely be either your seat or your hands that you need help with. If it is both, start with your seat because until it is secure your hands can not be steady. If your rides just are not going well ask a knowledgeable and honest person to evaluate your rides and determine whether it is your horse or you that needs the most help. Unless you are a beginner or your horse is green, it will most likely be a little of both.   I have taught riding, trained horses, and been a student of the sport for the last forty-five years and there are two aspects I have not yet mastered. First, my frustration with riders who blame their horse for all problems although they are often the result of the rider’s own lack of skills and their own mistakes. Second, how to explain to a student that there is no exact relationship in the length and strength of the two reins during half-halts or the aids in transitions and exercises. They depend on the situation of that moment. I have spoken to many other professionals and realized I am not alone with this problem.

     In our language, we have given certain tasks to both reins. The outside rein controls the tempo and determines the carriage of the horse. It also limits the amount of bend in the neck the horse can have. The inside reins bends and turns the horse. The outside rein clearly has the bigger job and, therefore, we want the horse on it at all times. When it comes to the degrees of the use at any given moment, we the teachers are reduced to advising, guiding and, most importantly, encouraging the student to experiment and feel the reaction of the horse. Thus, the horse has become the teacher. I, as the teacher, must allow the rider to make mistakes and then help her learn from them. 

     When I advise to experiment with the aids, I am not saying that anything goes. We still must use the aids the way they were designed to function. It is mostly the relationship in strength between them that we should give a try. Please keep in mind that tomorrow somebody else may need to ride your horse and your horse must be able to understand her also.

     I hope I have made clear that in our dialog with the horse the half-halt plays a major role. It allows us to maintain the horse’s focus, to keep him balanced, and to prepare him for the tasks ahead. Because we ride the half-halt according to the need of the moment, it allows us to create the context for the command that is to follow and provides us with a horse physically and mentally ready to execute that command. It thus reduces misunderstandings between horse and rider. Let me add that in our daily riding we must be absolutely consistent in our application of the aids, in our expectation of the horse’s responses, and in our effort to ride with the lightest aids possible. Remember, we want to talk to our horse at all times but the conversation should not be heard or seen by anyone else.

 

 

 

 


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