Rider Training: Learning the Feel for Half-Halt. Step by Step Exercise for novice riders.

I have been asked to describe my way of teaching the feel for half halt to novice riders some time ago so apologies for the delay but here we go!

halhalt blog
Ability to rebalance the horse in a basic way is in my view absolutely necessary in all horse friendly school work, whether it’s dressage or jumping focused, whether it’s a young horse or an older horse.

The exercise I am about to share with you today is a progressive, introductory one that I like to use when teaching the concept of half-halt to riders unfamiliar with the idea or who are confused with what they need to be doing. I tried to keep the explanations fairly detailed but please feel free to ask any questions in comments below if there is anything you are unsure about.

The not so mysterious half-halt

I love simple explanations although they are the most difficult to formulate…In the most simple theory I can think of, the half-halt is an action of the rider’s body which aims at rebalancing the weight shifts in the body of the horse.

I also like Polish translation of this action (half halt = pol parada) which is described as “on your marks”/”prepare”.

From classical dressage point of view, this rebalancing is aimed at progressive increase of flexion in the joints of the hind legs (hip & hock).

At more advanced level and when done skilfully with great timing, the half-halt can affect flexion of a chosen hind leg – i.e. the rider feels which hind leg needs more flexion (or in other words which one needs to step deeper under the horse’s centre of gravity) and when and uses the corresponding rein on the side of that hind leg at the right time (when hind leg is forward) to act on it. Working on the latter is not for novice riders and doesn’t form part of the below exercise.

The A B C of a Half-HaltΒ 

I like to think of an effective Half-halt as of a sophisticated sentence – nobody is able to build sentences before they learn words. Nobody can write words before they know the letters. Usually large letters.Β 

When I first teach the rider to make friends with half halting I start with those large letters. In schooling language those letters are the aids, words are “ways of coordinating the aids” and sentences are the actual movements or actions. If a rider doesn’t know how to coordinate the aids (for example when and how to hold with the seat, how to ask for more activity with the leg & seat, when to close fingers on the reins to hold the forward momentum etc) and the horse doesn’t understand them (for example lifts the head and neck when feeling fingers closed on the reins) then it’s not possible to play with sentences and “write a nice novel” …

hold t-shirt

STEP 1: “Big Half-Halt” in walk

In order to ride a reasonably good transition to halt, you need to coordinate the holding motion of own pelvis with a soft yet holding hand. I start with walk to halt transitions every 5-6 strides, then every 3-4 strides. I like the rider to feel in absolute control of their upper body and that means absolutely no rocking backwards-forwards when the horse moves off or stops. The more fluid and relaxed the joints of the rider (hip joints, knee joints, ankle joints) and the more correct, vertical upper body posture, the easier this exercise is.

Some riders find it hard not to rock in the saddle when transitions come quickly one after another. If this is the case I tend to hold the back of the rider’s clothing to the cantle so they immediately sense if they are being thrown about.

I find that the upper body stability is very important for novice riders if they are to remain supple and relaxed through their elbows and hands when they use the reins.

Another bonus of this upper body discipline is that most novice riders are substantially dependent in their balance on horse’s balance. A ‘downhill’ moving horse will cause the rider to tip forwards. By teaching the rider to keep their upper body directly over their seat bones at all times I find it helps the rider detect downhill tendency in the horse quicker.

During this first step, we test how you prepare for your transitions, both downwards and upwards (we check your knowledge of the alphabet). There is no rush or immediate stop required at first. The key is to achieve forward motion from light touch of the leg and a halt from holding pelvis action and a softly closed hand. It’s important that all halts are ridden “forward” and by that I mean that the rider remains in neutral pelvis position and is not letting the horse drop behind the leg.

If done well, this exercise will increase horse’s sensitivity to the aids and will activate the hind legs of the horse (they will become more alert to the commands).

STEP 2: Transitions within Walk

Second step is focused on preparations for halt only without actually halting. I let the rider seek the feel of a lift through their thighs as they prepare to halt so with each step of the horse they feel as though each thigh is lifted by the motion of the horse’s hind leg/back. This prevents the rider from leaning forward or squeezing the saddle with their knees. I also ask the rider to feel the left to right swing of the horse’s ribcage so the rider allows the movement to happen as they prepare the halt. I ask the rider to think about bringing the horse’s hind leg forward under their own seat bones with each leg aid.

As the horse reacts and attempts to halt, the rider asks for forward motion again. We do this every 4-6 steps again paying attention to upper body position and closed and gently holding but not restricting hand. The difference between hold and restriction is in duration.

Before I teach half halt I teach the rider to feel which seat bone moves when as the horse walks. The rider will have felt when left seat bone moves up and other down and vice versa as the horse moves. The hold on the rein is only for the duration of one seat bone movement or even shorter.

At this stage this is by no means precise and the riders will hold for too long or not long enough or with too much tension etc but I feel it starts the process of feeling for hind legs in relation to rein aids.

[We do the feeling for hindlegs/back motion this on the lunge so the rider has ample time to just relax and feel their seat before rein aids are added.]

Back to Step 2, we practice those mini-transitions within walk until the rider feels that the horse shortens the steps without becoming lazy or sluggish, then moves off back to previous length of walk steps without hesitation.

We proceed further once the rider can ask for those transitions without becoming tense or lose their upper body posture. It takes anything from 1 day to a month for the rider to start feeling the difference between good and not so good reaction in the horse.

STEP 3: Where is more weight inside my horse (walk & trot)

Once the rider feels the difference between a horse that steps forward into a halt or into shorter walk steps without losing activity and a horse that steps “down” into halt or short steps, I start the game in feeling for the weight in the horse’s body throughout various exercises like turns, circles, figures of eight, serpentines. In walk and trot.

I ask the rider to tell me every time they feel as if they are going downhill or as if they were being pulled forwards or as if they no longer felt a lift through each thigh (each rider feels “uphill” or “light” movement differently, we get to the point when we both know what we mean before going ahead). I also ask the rider to feel for lateral weight shifts – when they feel the horse “leans” and which way.

It’s a “seek the feel” game and as such is full of trials and errors. There are ways to help the rider to build the feel for example if the rider tells me “now my horse feels light, in front of the leg and uphill” I ask them to do a trot or canter transition to verify their feel. If they were wrong the transition was messy and they learn to file that feel as a wrong one. Then they seek again with some pointers from me.

Once the rider can identify moments of more quality steps in the horse and moments when the horse loses engagement and becomes unbalanced and heavy on the forehand we move on to the next step.

STEP 4: Acting on the feel…Walk & Trot

I ask the rider to ask for transitions when they feel the decrease of quality of the walk or trot (in relation to being ‘light’ or ‘heavy’). We somewhat go back to Step 1 here but this time the rider acts on own feel rather than on an interval of pre-determined number of steps. I Β film the rider now and then so they can see the horse and themselves and put together the “how it looks” with “how it feels”. I find this helps with developing rider’s skill as opposed to only developing theoretical knowledge.

Example of an exercise within Step 4 for more experienced rider on a young/green horse: I like to use the corridor of poles to help straighten and focus the young horse and give rider clear boundaries. As a result the rider can use the same spot each time (red on photo above) to rebalance the horse via well prepared transition. She changes his flexion at the poll to assume balanced movement in new direction each time she crosses the middle of both circles. By applying her aids at the same spot as she repeats the pattern, she is helping the horse “to put letters into words and words into sentences”. She is also being helped by the discipline of the exercise so she is clear when to do what.

We work towards the rider consciously maintaining the best possible balance in themselves and the horse via transitions and later half-halts. It’s a long process and with each horse the hide and seek game starts all over again but that’s what makes schooling interesting πŸ™‚

I find this method makes it relatively easy for most riders to feel when they need to rebalance/half-halt and why. It also means the riders are not surprised to find out they need to half halt or transition 200-300 times in a short session on an unbalanced, crooked horse. After some practice the rider becomes less passive and less reliant on my instruction. They also become less frustrated, less annoyed with themselves or the horse…

It makes it clear to the rider that half halt is not about “squeezing the rein” now and then and I find it also makes the rider less focused on the head of the horse and more on what they feel under their seat. This in turn will make it easier for the rider in the future to ask for greater collection in the horse without blocking the movement through strong hand.

This process might seem lengthy but I find riders really enjoy “seeking the feel” and being able to grow more and more confident in own actions. Having said that, there are many ways of teaching the same thing and if yours is different but you too are learning to use aids with feel then don’t worry and carry on (and share your methods in comments πŸ™‚


9 thoughts on “Rider Training: Learning the Feel for Half-Halt. Step by Step Exercise for novice riders.”

  1. Lots to work with here, thank you so much! I read recently that Jane Savoie was told by Robert Dover that the difference between amateur and professional dressage riders is that amateurs ride from movement to movement and professionals ride from half halt to half halt. That would certainly justify spending vast amounts of time on half halts – something I definitely need to start doing!!!

    I don’t live that far from you and must arrange some lessons very soon, if that would be possible?

    1. You’re welcome and glad it was helpful!
      I like the from half-halt to half-halt thinking πŸ™‚

      Lessons are definitely possible! Please do drop me an email at aspire@outlook.com with your location and dates/times you are thinking of and it would be my pleasure to meet you!

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