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!
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-Halt
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.
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” …
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.