Sharpening Your Horse’s Responses


Now we’re going to increase your coordination and sharpen your horse’s responses. According to classical dressage precepts, we should do this with a half-halt–you increase your leg aid to create more energy that you immediately contain and redirect with your hand.

But–you know me!–I think classical half-halts scare people to death. So I ease into them with two simple precursors:
1. “Half-goes”–they emphasize the energizing leg action.
2. “Half-halt ideas”–they emphasize the containing, redirecting hand action.

And I teach each one in two doable steps: first on a straight line, where you can focus on the forward and back response; then on a circle, where you can build those aids by maintaining a bend.

“But, Lendon,” you’re asking, “isn’t this just a rehash of ‘go and whoa’ and passive and active contact?”

Not really. Here’s what’s new and different about half-goes and half-halt ideas:

  • You accomplish them within two strides, so both you and your horse are sharper and more on the ball.
  • You start coordinating leg and hand aids that you’ve used only individually before–and influencing body parts you’ve controlled only separately.

On the straight line, for example, there’ll be no more telling your horse to go forward by dropping his mouth and kicking, and no more telling him to come back by taking your leg off and pulling. On the circle, there’ll be no more ignoring his head if it flies in the air; you’ll maintain passive contact on the outside rein and create a slightly active bending contact with your inside rein and leg. When you take an active feel on the reins to ask him to come back, you’ll maintain an equally active leg contact.

Soon you’ll have all the ingredients that help you develop half-halts: willingness to go forward and come back, and the suppleness that comes from bending. And you will have acquired them the way I like: simply, clearly, and without confusion or frustration.

Before we get to the how-to, let’s take a look at.

What a Half-Halt Actually Is

  • It’s a call to attention, a small adjustment, a “yoo-hoo!” to your horse.
  • It’s a powerful tool that improves whatever your horse is doing now, or alerts him to figures, movements, or transitions that are coming up.
  • It’s an energizing action that gets your horse to use his hind end and step under his body with more quickness and power. But it’s never, never, NEVER what we all too often see-an isolated, unsupported, out-of-the-blue yank on your horse’s mouth, or hanging or squeezing for dear life. (The only way it can be a half-halt is if your aids subside as soon as you get a response.)

Lendon’s Soapbox

OK, since the first one of these lessons, I’ve been telling you that your horse must answer your aids. I’m sure you’ve been chipping away at the idea-but if he’s so dead or lazy that you’re still going bangedy-bangedy with every stride, we’re at the “make it or break it” point. The time has come to tell yourself, “I really need to tune him to my leg or we won’t be able to build on this and go any further.” The time has come to get the point across once and for all: When you put your leg on, something has to happen, and it has to happen now, not three strides from now or maybe later. (My goal is for you to instantaneously call up three speeds of trot–normal, slow, and forward–and two speeds of canter–normal and forward. You’ll never pull it off if your horse isn’t tuned to your leg.)

Ideally, you want to close your leg and have your horse immediately jump forward two steps. Realistically, you’ll need four, five, even six strides for you to get your aids organized, for him to get the message, and for the two of you to produce a result. That’s OK as long as you continue to explore the qualities involved in getting those six strides-and gradually refine them down to two.

By the way, whatever your horse’s temperament and way of going, he has to perform both half-goes and half-halt ideas efficiently and promptly. You can, however, adapt the teaching of them to his specific needs. If he tends to be a rusher, teach him the half-halt idea first. If he tends to be lazy, start with the half-go.

Half-Goes on a Straight Line

You’ll get your horse’s hind legs in gear with quicker, bigger, more energetic steps.

Pick up a normal posting trot to the left on the long side of your arena. Each time you sit, be sure you’re squarely in the middle of your horse; allow both your legs to lie quietly (passively) on his sides, and keep a passive contact with his mouth. (When I talk about “active” versus “passive” leg, by the way, the difference has nothing to do with position. Your leg doesn’t move; it either lies there and says nothing or closes in and speaks when it has to.)

Now do a half-go: Maintain passive rein contact (don’t throw your hands forward!) as you squeeze your leg to make your horse take quicker, bigger, faster steps. Think of the aid as the word “Go!” Squeeze for that long and no longer: “Go!” WELL? Did he go forward? C’mon! Make him go! Make him go more forward, even if you have to kick him or whap him once with the whip.

When he does go, keep the quality of your connection–the feel in your arms and hands–exactly the same. (If you have no contact, you’ve thrown him away. If you have a heavy, resistant contact, as if you’re riding him into a brick wall, you’re holding his mouth. If you feel you need to drop the reins to get a forward response, you may be holding him back. And if the pressure increases, you may be “waterskiing”: making him pull you along.) Follow the natural motion of his head and neck without interruption or interference.

And, because the point of this exercise is to get your horse to move off your light leg aid and not off the punishment of your kick or whip, once he does go, immediately return to a normal trot and then ride another half-go to ask for the quicker, faster, more forward trot again. Getting it may take three, four, or six steps-but as soon as he responds, allow your leg aid to subside to a light passive contact, and see what happens: Either he’ll automatically fade back to a normal trot in a few strides or you’ll need to bring him back with a “whoa” from your hands. For now, either response is OK. When your horse is responding promptly and willingly in both directions, move on to…

Half-Goes on a Circle

You’ll build your aids by getting your horse’s hind legs in gear and maintaining a bend.

Pick up a normal posting trot to the left on a 20-meter circle, with your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg a bit behind the girth. Ask your horse to take bigger or faster steps by squeezing your inside leg on the girth as you bring your left elbow slightly back and allow your right elbow to follow forward to slightly overbend him to the left; then immediately return your hands to passive contact. He should keep the bend for the moment of transition from normal to forward trot; you should neither bend him and then hang on the rein, which blocks him from moving forward, nor bend him and then fling him away, which lets him go splat on his forehand.

This takes practice and coordination–and it means, of course, that he has to understand fully the immediate response to a half-go on the straight line, because it’s your leg aid and the resulting increased energy coursing through his body that allow you to create and maintain the bend. “Keep your contact stretchy, spongy, and elastic during half-goes and half-halt ideas.”

Half-Halt Ideas on a Straight Line

You’ll contain your horse’s forward energy by making him take shorter, slower steps.

Pick up a normal posting trot to the left on the long side of your arena. Each time you sit, be sure your weight is evenly distributed over both seat bones and in the middle of your horse; maintain a passive following hand and leg. Now use a half-halt idea to ask for slower, shorter steps: Lightly press your legs on his sides to keep him coming forward, and bring both elbows back in order to pull on the reins for the brief moment it takes to interrupt your following.

I’m not talking about changing your hands, using your wrists, or squeezing your fingers–because when you tighten your fingers, you inevitably tighten your arms. (That isn’t to say you’ll never use your wrists or fingers. It’s just that at this stage 1 want you to get the pure feeling of fluidity in your arms, and of hands that are closed just enough to hold the reins.) And I’m not talking about erecting a brick wall for your horse to slam into. It’s more like changing from a skinny rubber band to a stout bungee cord: The elasticity is still there so your horse doesn’t lose energy or fall on his face, but the feel within the elasticity is increased. As soon as you get a slower, shorter trot, either allow him to step forward to a normal trot by opening your elbows slightly, or give him a 11go” squeeze with your legs.

Half-Halt Ideas on a Circle

You’ll refine your aids by bending your horse as you contain his forward energy. Pick up a normal posting trot on a 20-meter circle to the left,, with your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg a bit behind the girth. Now ask for shorter, slower steps:

Post with your sboulders above your hips so you sit taller each time you touch the saddle; squeeze your inside leg at the girth; bring your left elbow back and your right elbow forward to create a slight overbend within the following; then even up your hands and give an elastic and momentary pull on the reins to interrupt the following, so he comes back and shortens.

When he stays consistently bent on the circle during a half-halt idea, you’re “using your rein within the following” and truly coordinating one aid (asking for the bend) with another (asking him to come back).

Troubleshooting Tips

Keep your contact stretchy, spongy, and elastic during half-goes and half-halt ideas.

  • If you drop your outside-rein contact in a half-go, have a friend walk next to your horse and play with the outside rein-pull, tug, drop it-as you try to feel and follow without letting the rein get taut or droopy.
  • If you hang on the outside rein in a half-halt idea, have your friend push the rein with one finger. She should easily be able to pull your arm forward.
  • If you pull back on your horse’s mouth in a half-go (a common problem), use a neck strap made out of an old rein or stirrup leather, adjusted so it lies just in front of the withers, Hold the reins and strap with both hands. The strap will create a stationary resistance that makes you open your elbow and shoulder, particularly during the canter, when your horse’s head tends to go down as your body goes back (see Lesson 2: “Passive Contact” in Lessons with Lendon).

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