Half-Halts Revisited

You can teach an old rider new tricks.

A friend was driving me home one day and, as we approached my hidden turn off a steep curve, I quietly said, without thinking: “Half-halt.”

My friend, no questions asked, knew what to do: A little brake, a little gas, and turn.

Half-halts are like that. We use them all the time, and we pretty much do them without thinking. While my main point of reference is dressage, I suspect half-halt means something just a little different to someone on a jumper course, or cross-country course, or on a driving marathon course, or doing a reining pattern.

Whole articles, and even whole books, have been written about half-halts, and that’s a lot of words to describe what is basically a simple action, at least as far as the horse is concerned. When I teach, I ask a rider “how” they achieve a half-halt, and they mostly spew a lot of words but never really get to the point.

When I ask “why” they half-halt, it’s usually much easier to answer: to rebalance the horse.

If I describe the half-halt, I usually say something along the lines of riding the leg up to the hand. I can often achieve a subtle half-halt simply by shifting my shoulders back, by just dropping my elbows, or by closing my fingers briefly on the outside rein.

At this stage in my riding career, five decades along, I thought I had the half-halt pretty well figured out. Then, recently I rode in a clinic with a big-name trainer who shook me to the core. She completely changed the timing of my half-halts with the simple words: “Legs are not part of the waiting aids.”

She explained that legs should be kept loose in the half halt, and that the timing should be something like this: fingers, then chin up, then—separately—calf, which ideally will activate the horse’s hind legs up into the frame created by a light forehand.

And, it worked! My horse was floating around with more power and uphill balance and with a back that was swinging and easy to sit.
OK, so later I asked myself if I had been doing it wrong all these years. 

Certainly, I am now sitting on a trained FEI-level dressage horse that is light in the hand, vastly different from a four-year-old green bean. Close your fingers first on that baby and he’ll likely crash even further on his forehand where he was already comfortably plowing a furrow in the sand with his toes while gazing at the sky. I think I will keep the leg-to-hand method tucked away for future reference.

The point is that there are often many ways to do something that is meaningful to the horse, and those methods can, and should, change with a horse’s increased sophistication in training and conditioning.

And, no matter how many years you’ve been riding, it’s always fun to try and learn new things.

Margaret Freeman, Associate Editor