The half-halt is an esoteric concept that floats around equestrian circles like rumors of a a benign but elusive mythological creature with secret powers. Half halts are the mermaids or tooth fairies of the horse world: most riders have heard of them, though few can describe them from personal experience. On the other hand, all really good riders in all types of equestrian disciplines use half halts, and most of them do it without thinking or talking about them.
Within the world of dressage, the half-halt often appears shrouded in layers of gobbledygook. Most dressage riders have heard from their instructors that they should use half halts, e.g. to improve their transitions, but not many can put into words what the half halt actually is.
The FEI defines a half halt as a “hardly visible, almost simultaneous co-ordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hand of the rider, with the object of increasing the attention and balance of the horse before the execution of movements or transitions to lesser or higher paces.” So simple – yet so complicated. It’s all true, but it’s difficult to think about all these elements all the time. Here are a few additional thoughts about the half halt:
1. On a physical level, the half halt is a way to rebalance the horse’s body to get ready for things like transitions, changes of bend, lateral movements. Yes, horses need to be responsive to their human’s cue at all times, but they are large creatures, with a leg at each corner. Half halts make sure that the rider’s signal does not take the horse by surprise, or at the wrong moment. This way, the actual signal can be more subtle.
2. Especially for a green horse just learning about half halts, the half halt is literally half a halt: the rider asks for a down transition, then changes her mind at the last minute. This answers the question: “What should do when my horse ignores the half halt?” with a simple rule of thumb: you should ask for an actual down transition if the horse rushes through the half halt, and an up transition if the horse is daydreaming.
3. On a mental and emotional level, the half halt is a way to check in with your horse before asking for anything specific. Like humans addicted to smart phones, horses have short attention spans, so it’s useful to say “Listen up!” before you tell your horse what comes next. It sometimes sounds like a loud “Hey there, buddy! I’m talking to you!” but should, with practice, turn into a barely audible “Ready? Ok, now . . . ” This means the half halt is not something only dressage riders can and should use. It’s a tool for effective horse-human communication in any style of riding.
4. Half-halts are fleeting. Half-halts are over in the blink of an eye. The release is a part of the half-halt, not a separate element that follows it. “Sustained half-halt” is an oxymoron. You can repeat the half halt, or a “louder” version of it, but you have to give it back right away – unless you want to teach your horse to lean on the bit, or worse, to curl behind the vertical to avoid contact.
5. Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. As far as I know, Thoreau was not a horseman. Had he been one, he would have used half halts to ride deliberately. Ideally, someone watching from the ground should not see your half-halts. Spectators should only notice, and admire, the more fluid quality of your riding.
The half halt makes the signals you give your horse less haphazard. It gives purpose to your riding. It fine-tunes horse-human communication. Half-halts can take your partnership with your horse to the next level – a very useful, very practical goal, and not esoteric at all.