The half-halt is a technique that consists of a sustaining leg aid and a two-phase movement of the hands. As your legs maintain the engagement of the hocks, your hands close slightly to add pressure to the horse’s mouth, which is phase one of the hand movement. The simultaneous application of the driving and restricting aids momentarily traps the horse at both ends, so that the animal seeks the logical escape route, which is upward, by slightly raising its shoulder, neck, and head, making its forehand lighter. At the moment the horse becomes lighter in front, ease the pressure on the reins to reward the horse for the proper response. This is phase two of the hand movement.
The basic give-and-take motion of the hands should be instilled in a rider starting with his earliest lessons. He should not be allowed to take an unrelenting hold on a horse’s mouth to slow it down, but should learn to take back slightly, then ease off as the horse slows down, so that the animal receives the reward of a giving hand. This is necessary to reinforce correct behavior. The next step of coordinating the supporting leg with the flexible hand will be much easier for the rider to learn if he is already in the habit of keeping his hand mobile, rather than fixed, during a downward transition.
The half-halt can be used for any of these three functions:
- to balance and slow the horse while maintaining the same gait
- to balance and slow the horse during the change from an upper gait to a lower one
- to shorten the horse’s frame while maintaining the same gait
At the lower levels of riding, the half-halt is used to balance the horse when going into turns, regulate the speed of the gaits, and help in accomplishing smooth transitions from upper gaits to lower ones. As the rider’s education progresses, he also uses the half-halt to alter the horse’s frame when needed, for it enables him to collect the horse and lighten its forehand for precision work. To alter the frame through the use of the half-halt, you must support the horse’s rhythm with your legs, so that the animal collects without slowing down and breaking into a lower gait.
Half-halts vary greatly in their length and weight. A single half-halt might last one second on a well-trained, agreeable animal or five seconds on a horse that leans against the bit. (Generally speaking, if the half-halt lasts longer than five seconds, you’re not really half-halting, but have gotten into a pulling match with your horse.) The half-halt might require only a squeeze of the hands with supporting legs, or it might take a well-anchored seat to reinforce arms briefly fixed against a strong animal.The amount of pressure needed to accomplish the half-halt, then, will depend entirely upon the horse’s response to the aids
Between half-halts, maintain a light, but steady feel of the horse’s mouth. If the animal tries to avoid rein contact by raising its head or bringing it in toward its chest, press the horse forward with your legs. In reaction to your driving aid it will attempt to lengthen its stride, which will shift its center of gravity forward and cause it to stretch its head and neck outward, creating more weight on the bit.
Added weight on the bit provides a firmer feel of the horse’s forward movement. Men generally feel comfortable with more weight then women do, since many women find it to be a little intimidating. Although a woman may prefer less weight in her hands, she should not be content with the feeling that she is carrying the reins without feeling any weight from the horse’s mouth, for this means the horse is not properly moving onto the bit in response to her legs.
There should be the steady feeling of the reins lying with a slight heaviness against the base of the fingers. If the horse is relaxed, the muscles in its neck and jaw will create this feeling of relaxed weight on the reins. To sustain this steady contact, you must be relaxed from the shoulder to the hands, so that as the horse moves, your arms follow the motion of its head and neck. You can then adjust the weight on the bit by half-halting if the horse becomes too heavy during work or by driving the horse to the bit with your legs if the contact becomes too light. Half-halts should be used liberally throughout all your flatwork. In the span of a 20-minute work session, a good rider uses endless numbers of them to balance the horse, regulate its pace, or change its frame. They are used in closest succession during downward transitions and should be progressively lighter as the pace of the horse lessens, rewarding the animal for the proper response.