Explaining the Half Halt

The half halt is something that virtually every one of us has been told to do at one time or another during a riding lesson. But from running my Posture Awareness Clinics I now realise just how many riders don’t understand what the term half halt really means, what they are meant to do to achieve a half halt or why they should should be doing it in the first place. Why then, if riders don’t know how to do a half halt or understand the reasons for half halting, do they not ask? Is it because they are frightened to appear less knowledgeable than their peers, or is it that they are just too intimidated to ask. I therefore thought I should set myself the task of trying to explain the half halt in detail by breaking the half halt down into a What, Why, When and How.

The What and Why

According to the FEI the “half-halt is 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 several movements or transitions to lesser or higher paces. In shifting slightly more weight onto the horse’s quarters, the engagement of the hind legs and the balance on the haunches are facilitated, for the benefit of the lightness of the forehand and the horse’s balance as a whole”.  So basically, to put the definition in to simpler terms, the purpose of the half halt is to help re-balance our horse for a change in pace or direction by getting the hind leg that is on the ground to stay on the ground a little longer and to flex a little more.

So why would we want to help balance or re-balance our horse.  One example might be that I was riding a horse that was leaning on his bit and extremely heavy in my hands, by using a series of half halts, I could help shift some of his weight backwards. Equally I could be trotting around the arena and want to make a 90° turn, by applying 2 half halts before the turn I can warn my horse that I am about to make a change in direction. I can also use half halts to prepare my horse to go from a walk or trot into canter, or from canter or trot into walk or trot. I can use half halts before asking my horse to extend his gait or asking him to collect more. No wonder instructors keep telling us to half halt!

The main job of the half halt is to increase the flexion of the joints of the hind leg that is on the ground by using our weight or the weight of the horse’s head and neck to move more of his weight back. By flexing the hind leg more we prolong the weight bearing phase of that leg by keeping it on the ground slightly longer.

The When

Our aids for the half halt can only work effectively when our timing is correct. As I have already mentioned, as the job of the half halt is to increase the flexion of the joints of the hind leg, a half halt can only be applied effectively when the hind leg can comply with the request.  To understand when this moment is we first need to consider how our horse moves. Although the rhythm changes with the different gaits the basic premise remains the same. As the horse moves forwards each hind leg in turn reaches forward through the air, touches down in front of the vertical, receives the horse’s weight and flexes at the joints. The leg then passes the vertical, and as the body moves forward the leg extends the joints and then pushes off from the ground to propel the body mass forward.

So as we have said the purpose of the half halt is to flex the joints, it is obvious that the only moment in the footfall sequence that is suitable for the half halt is the weight bearing phase, i.e. between the time when the hind leg touches down to the moment it reaches the vertical. If you apply the half halt when the hind leg is in the air, it is unable to respond to the request and if you apply the half halt when the hind leg is behind the vertical the joints are already extending again and pushing the body forward.  In either of these two scenarios the half halt won’t go “though” as it is physically impossible for the horse to comply.

Even when you get your timing right, the half halt may not go through because the horse finds it difficult to comply. For example if your horse is hollow on his right side he may well carry more weight on his left fore and his right hind may step outside his centre of mass. In a case like this you may find it easier to ask for the horse to leg yield or full pass a couple of strides to the left to get the right hind to step further under before stopping into the right hind.

The How

There are several possible ways or types of aids you can use to apply half halts.

You can use your seat by pulling down with the muscles in your lower back and up with the abdominal muscles located below the navel, which uses your own body weight to load the hind leg and keep it grounded longer.

Another way is to use a light stirrup pressure on the same side and at the same time that the targeted hind leg touches the ground. So for example, if you wanted to half halt into the outside hind leg, you could apply a little pressure against your outside stirrup when the outside hind leg touches the ground.

A light rein pressure from either rein take the weight and the leverage of the horse’s head and neck and transfers it to the grounded hind leg. But the rein pressure should only be held from the moment the hind leg touches down to the time the hind leg reaches the vertical. And even more importantly the contact should not be thrown away when the pressure is released.

Half halting using the reins is probably the most common way of doing a half halt. But unfortunately too many people apply too strong a rein pressure for too long, particularly if they draw their hand back and then they inadvertently throw the contact away when they release the half halt. Try instead to think of half-halting through your core as you close the fingers. This will be felt down the length of the rein and if this is not sufficient, you can raise your hand gently, but only an inch or so. As you do so, breathe, draw up and hold—through the small of the back. Let your breath out when the horse obeys and your hand will automatically give again.

Students who have the opportunity to have a session on PI, my electronic horse, can actually see for themselves just how hard it is to just use their hands to apply a correct half halt. If you use your back and core muscles in the way described a slight pressure on the rein on the same side is inadvertently applied, as you release your back muscles the rein contact reverts to parity. Most students find that if they just use their hands they invariably apply too much pressure on the rein and cannot control the release. Another facet of PI’s programme is being able to try and time the half halt to match PI’s virtual footfall which is shown on the screen in front of you and then seeing how well you really did when you look at the half halt/footfall graph.

Depending on your horse’s conformation, temperament, training level, as well as your own weight and height you can use one of these aids, or a combination of two (seat and stirrup, rein and stirrup, seat and rein), or even all three to achieve a half halt. You should feel free to experiment with which aid produces the best result for you and your horse. Some horses are sensitive and have weak backs and don’t like too strong a seat aid and will invert right away if you try to sit deeper or heavier in the saddle. Others prefer a seat aid and yet others respond better to stirrup and rein pressure.