We call it the half-halt in the english disciplines, or it is also called the "check" in western riding (I will use "half-halt" in this article to mean both terms). In some ways, the terms are awkward misnomers. We don't really want a half of a halt, although many people characterize it as such. What we really mean by the term is that we want the horse to create or maintain the balance needed to negotiate the next movement.
It is said that the half-halt has different meanings to different people. Certainly, if you ask different instructors to explain how to do a half-halt, you are likely to get several answers that may or may not have much in common.
We all agree on the fact that a half-halt is intended to (re)balance the horse. It helps to maintain a gait, change gaits, change directions and change paces within a gait. We should place half-halts strategically through our movements, and essentially ride "half-halt to half-halt". The more half-halts we include in our ride, the easier the horse can negotiate changes of gait, weight and balance.
What the half-halt is:
- a rebalancing of the horse, promoting a rounder outline and deeper hind leg stride
- a "heads up" moment to let the horse know that a change is coming
- an opportunity to maintain an open communication line with the horse: "Are you still with me?"
What a half-halt is not:
- a pull by the hand that affects the horse's mouth
- a shove forward by the seat and legs that causes the horse to become heavier on the forehand
The aids for the half-halt usually transpire almost invisibly between the horse and the rider. In general, the results of the half-halt are apparent to the onlooker.
Developing your half-halt
Learning to half-halt is one of the skills in horseback riding that will take years to develop. Just when you think you have the hang of it, you will find yet another "level" of understanding that will challenge you to progress to a deeper and more refined aid.
As they say, some kind of half-halt is better than no half-halt. Very likely, your first half-halts are going to be through your hands and not much through your other aids. You will enjoy the feel of your new skill because your horse will probably slow his feet down and shift some weight backward. He will probably lighten on the bit and regulate his strides.
But beware: what you are feeling at this stage is not a true half-halt, but more of an extinguishing of energy. Any aid that includes a pull backward with the hands will result in a disengagement of the hocks. So even if the horse feels lighter and slower, what you are really feeling is the stoppage of energy. The horse might also hollow his back and raise his head carriage. This change of frame should be your first clue that the aids are not as effective as they could be.
Gaining a better understanding
The next stage is when you will begin to realize that the half-halt is a whole-body endeavour. The hands become less of an aiding influence, and your seat and legs begin to take on a more prominent role. At this point, you will have adequate body control and balance to be able to use your legs to ask the horse to lift his rib cage. The lightening of your seat will encourage the horse to step deeper with the hind legs, and the result will enable you to physically re-balance his entire body.
The outward picture will look like the horse has tilted his hind end and lifted through the back. The body will be rounder and the strides bigger. Often, the horse will snort or breathe audibly, indicating the strength he is putting into carrying your weight more correctly.
If you can negotiate several half-halts within a series of movements, your horse will be better able to "dance" through the requests, remaining light, balanced and round in the outline through all the changes of direction or gait.
If you feel a floating sensation, noticing that the horse's foot falls sound lighter and the gaits are becoming more flowing and easier to ride, you know you are on the right track!
The "forward" half-halt
At some point, you will progress even beyond your finest achievements to realize that the half-halt is actually a forward movement. You will relinquish the need for the hand aids (other than to support your driving aids) in preference for the surge of energy coming from the hind end thanks to your seat, weight and leg aids. You will discover the true meaning of balance through your seat and relish in the bounce, enthusiasm and sheer power the horse will offer to you, movement to movement.
Onlookers will be able to recognize the result of the half-halts because the horse will appear to flow effortlessly from one movement to the next, seemingly reading your mind, the two of you floating as one. Some may accuse you of doing nothing. Your horse will move with enthusiasm, showing off flip-floppy ears and gleaming muscles that roll under the skin like jello.
Most importantly, when your horse approves of your riding skills, and seems to connect with you even more after you get off, you will have all the reward you need!
How do you explain the term, "half-halt"?
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