Halting Correctly

During the test of the halt, the judge is as concerned with the downward transition as with the halt itself. When a horse correctly performs this test, its hocks stay engaged throughout the downward transition, until the halt is completed with the horse standing squarely. In order to keep the hocks engaged, you must maintain pressure with your calves against the horse’s sides and may even have to increase that pressure if the horse begins to pull on the reins and drop its haunches out behind. The combination of a supporting leg and multiple half-halts encourages the horse to stay in the proper frame and not elongate its body.

When the downward transition is correctly performed, you feel the horse’s hind feet dance beneath your seat. This lilting feeling is caused by the hocks’ circular movement as they remain engaged. If you do not experience this, but instead feel that the horse’s back is flat and its hind feet are strking behind your seat, then you know the horse has lost the engagement of its hocks. This incorrect position of the animal’s hind legs compromises your ability to perform specific movements accurately, since your control over the horse decreases as the hocks lose their engagement.

The degree of collection necessary at the halt depends upon the difficulty of the segment of the test immediately following the halt. For example, if the end of a test calls for the rider to halt and then exit the arena at a sitting trot, the horse could successfully perform the final segment while collected into a medium frame. However, if a test asks the rider to halt and then pick up the counter canter, a short frame would be necessary at the halt, in preparation for the difficult movement that follows.

The main points judged during the test of the halt are:

  1. smoothness and straightness during the downward transition;
  2. accuracy of the halt–that is, halting at a designated place;
  3. a square stance;
  4. immobility for 4 to 6 seconds

Owing to its usefulness as a test of obedience, the halt is frequently asked for by judges in gauging all levels of riders.

The horse is in a relaxed, medium frame at the canter, prior to the downward transition.
The horse remains in a steady frame, and the rider is correctly sitting throughout the transition. The rider should be sitting during all upward and downward transitions. There is no exception.
The horse is correctly standing squarely at the halt, with a relaxed demeanor and round frame. Notice how the rider, Maria Schaub, maintains an impeccable position throughout this series of pictures.

Correcting a Horse that “Dwells” over a Fence

When a horse “dwells,” it doesn’t keep its impulsion through the air, but slows down slightly at the peak of the arc, so that it appears to be suspended in the air for a moment. As a result of the loss of momentum, the horse’s landing spot will often be closer to the center of the fence than the take-off spot, instead of being correctly the same distance from the fence.

To correct the problem, the rider must push the horse through the air with his legs, and, if this is not enough impetus, must use his stick on the barrel of the horse to reinforce his leg aid. The goal is to create one continuous flow of energy through the air, so that the jumping effort will be more athletic and, thus, safer.

How to Perform the “Counter Canter”

The counter canter is required of all competitors being considered for an award in the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search class and may be used to test riders in other upper-level equitation classes. At the counter canter, instead of traveling around the arena on the inside lead as usual, the horse will travel on the outside (counter) lead. The movement is difficult, not only because it demands good balance and coordination in the horse, but also because it is opposed to what the horse has previously been trained to do. Force of habit, as well an uncertainty about its balance, makes the horse want to switch back to the inside lead, particularly on the corners of the ring.

The horse starts the counter canter sequence by pushing off with the hind leg toward the inside of the ring. When traveling clockwise, the horse starts with its right hind leg, followed by the left hind and right fore striking together, then left fore (the leading leg) striking alone. The horse is bent slightly from head to tail toward the leading leg.

The rider’s aids for the counter canter when traveling clockwise are as follows: left indirect rein, left leg at the girth, and right leg behind the girth.

Your hands, in a left indirect rein position, bend the horse slightly to the left; your left leg at the girth aids your hands in maintinaing the bend toward the rail; and your right leg, in a behind-the-girth position (which is about four inches farther back than normal leg position), starts and maintains the sequence of footfalls. The right leg presses the horse’s haunches toward the railing at the start of each stride, so that the horse will not be able to move its left hind leg underneath itself far enough to change the sequence of its feet to the opposite lead. If you move both your hands slightly toward the rail as you approach the ends of the arena, the right rein will act as a neck rein to reinforce the pressure of your right leg and hold the horse on the counter lead.

You should feel the horse’s inside hind foot beneath your seat each time it strikes the ground. By monitoring this foot, you can control the sequence of the footfalls, both on the straight sides of the arena and the corners, so that the horse remains on the counter canter in a clear, three-beat sequnce. When traveling clockwise, the animal should be slightly bent toward the left on the straight sides of the arena and wrapped around your left leg a little tighter on the turns to prevent switching leads.

Collection is necessary to sustain the counter canter, since a horse in a long frame will lose its balance and switch leads on the corners. However, take care not to let the horse’s shoulders, neck, and head become too light through collection, since lightness in the forehand makes it easy for the horse to switch from one lead to another. If you sense that the animal is preparing to change leads, press it forward and toward the rail with your leg that is toward the inside of the arena. As the horse responds by stretching its head and neck out and down, follow this movement with your hands. Allow the horse to shift its center of gravity forward enough to add a little weight to the forehand, making it less tempting to switch leads. However, do not allow the horse to add so much weight to its forehand that it loses its balance and is forced to switch.

The rider, Chelsea Moss, has her horse correctly bent to the outside for the counter canter and collected into a short frame, enabling the horse to stay balanced on the corners during this advanced-level test.

How to Motivate a Lazy Horse

When asking a horse to move forward, first you should squeeze with your legs, then use your spurs (if you are wearing them), and finally go to the crop if the horse still doesn’t respond. This is always the sequence of aids in driving the horse forward; consequently, the animal learns that if it doesn’t respond to your leg aid, then your punishment will escalate from leg, to spur, to crop.

If the animal doesn’t respond by moving forward willingly and alertly, then you need to use the crop more forcefully until you get the horse’s attention. It is not good to simply pester a horse by tapping it incessantly with the crop, for then the animal will rely upon it for almost every forward step and will never really carry you on a pleasant ride. Also, the horse will become a sour partner that may get fed up with being tapped all the time and begin to balk, back up, or rear.

Remember to only use enough force with the crop to get the response you want—no more, no less. If you are methodical about your leg, spur, stick sequence, you’ll find that your horse will begin to respond much better from leg pressure in anticipation of the other, stronger aids.

Holly Hirschman demonstrates how the stick should be applied on the barrel of the horse, behind the rider's leg--never on any part of the horse in front of the saddle.

Correcting a “Puller”

A horse pulling during the downward transition is a common problem. Typically, in an effort to resist the rider’s hands, the horse disengages its hocks so that the hind legs can be used to brace against the rider’s hands. Then, the horse is able to flatten its back and neck and thrust its forehand weight onto the rider’s hands, allowing the horse to pull much harder than if it were pulling with the weight of its head alone.

To correct this problem, you have to start at the source–the horse’s haunches–by keeping your legs firmly against the horse’s side throughout the downward transition, making it impossible for the horse to disengage its hocks. Simultaneously, you need to perform numerous half-halts, which will prevent the horse from finding a fixed hand against which to pull.

If the horse continues to resist by throwing its hocks out behind its body and pulling when you ask for the downward transition, use your stick to punish the horse, tapping the animal on its barrel to reinforce your supporting leg. If necessary, increase the force with which you use the stick to the point that the horse keeps its hocks engaged and doesn’t pull against your hands.

Finally, be sure that you lighten the weight of your hands on the reins as the horse decreases its pulling, so that the animal will get a reward for the correct response. You should still keep your hands closed into fists, with your thumbs serving as stoppers to keep the reins from slipping through your hands; but your arms should be mobile, sensitively moving forward and back with the motion of the horse’s head, rather than staying fixed. This subtle mobility is the mark of “good hands.”

Downward Transitions: The Key to Control

Practicing downward transitions is the key to teaching a horse to be lighter in its forehand and being able to regulate the horse’s pace. To be effective in solving the problem, you must be sure to keep your legs on the horse’s sides during the downward transition, encouraging the animal to keep its hocks engaged so that the hindquarters will support some of the forehand weight; and you must perform half-halts with your hands, so that the animal will not find a fixed hand against which it can pull.

The following exercise will help you in gauging your success: Mentally divide the ring into four parts. Pick up the canter at your first quadrant, allow the horse to canter a few steps, then start your downward transition far enough away from the beginning of the second quadrant that you will be able to do all of the downward transition steps and all of the preparatory steps for the next canter before you reach the second quadrant. As the horse’s shoulder reaches the second quadrant, pick up the canter again. Perform this exercise at every quadrant, so that you will have accomplished four downward transitions every time that you go around the arena. After going around the arena once in a clockwise direction, change hands (i.e., change direction) and perform the same exercise while traveling counterclockwise. Do this exercise several times in each direction every day. This is a very valuable exercise that will not only teach your horse to be lighter in its forehand, but will also give you specific points at which to perform certain tasks, so that you’ll be able to gauge your horse’s progress.  

Note: If your arena is very small, you may have to mentally divide it into halves, rather than fourths, in order to provide enough room for the transitions.


Developing a Work Plan

Flatwork for hunters and jumpers should be short and efficient–20 minutes per day when you only do flatwork, and 10 minutes on days when you are preparing to jump. Don’t work more than five minutes at a time on the flat without taking a short break–about a minute or two–to let the horse stretch and relax. A regular schedule for jumping includes one day a week in which you jump a course, and one day in which you either practice over gymnastics or jump single lines of fences. Also, if possible, take the horse into the woods or fields for a hack at least once a week. Make every second count while you’re mounted. Avoid trotting or cantering around and around the arena without changing direction or performing transitions frequently. This type of mindless wear-and-tear on the horse will break the animal down both mentally and physically.

A bird's eye view of a riding arena shows the tracks of a good work routine, filled with bending movements, upward and downward transtions (represented by X), and frequent changes of direction.
Shown from a brid's eye view, the horse's work routine is inadequate, with few bending movements or transitions and only an occasional change of direction.

Basic Judging Criteria in Equitation Classes

Many riders compete without having consulted the USEF Rule Book about the judging criteria for each kind of class. Since judges constantly refer to these rules, it is important for competitors to also be aware of them. Below is a summary of some of the important guidelines on equitation classes:

Position In Motion: At the walk, sitting trot, and canter, body should be a couple of degrees in front of the vertical; posting trot, inclined forward; galloping and jumping, same inclination as the posting trot. (Note: This description clearly specifies that in equitation classes on the flat, the rider should be in three-point position at the canter, not leaning forward and raised out of the saddle in two-point position.)

Hands: Hands should be over (that is, above) and in front of the horse’s withers, knuckles thirty degrees inside the vertical, hands slightly apart and making a straight line from horse’s mouth to rider’s elbow. Bight of reins may fall on either side.  (Note: Traditionally, the bight has been on the off-side of the horse for safety reasons when mounting.)

Basic Position: The eyes should be up and the shoulders back. Toes should be at an angle best suited to rider’s conformation: ankles flexed in, heels down, calf of leg in contact with horse and slightly behind girth. Iron should be on the ball of the foot and must not be tied to the girth.

General: Rider should have a workmanlike appearance, seat and hands light and supple, conveying the impression of complete control should any emergency arise.

A copy of the USEF Rule Book can be obtained from the following source:

United States Equestrian Federation
4047 Iron Works Parkway
Lexington, KY 40511
Phone: 859-258-2472

The rider is properly sitting the canter and demonstrates a beautiful straight line between her elbow and the horse’s bit, as well as her leg being positioned so that a straight line is formed from her knee to the toe of her boot. Notice the downward stretch of her Achilles tendon, the mark of a secure rider.

Correcting a “Bad Spot” to the First Fence on Course

A common problem among hunter seat riders is finding a bad spot to the first fence in a class. It usually results from the rider coming out of his initial circle at too dull a pace, so that he looks at the first fence only to see a deep distance or a distance that is much too long for the amount of impulsion his horse has. This leaves him with two choices: (1) place the horse at the deep spot, then struggle to lengthen the horse’s strides to the second fence; or (2) try to jump from the long spot out of too little impulsion, in which case the horse will either make a dangerously weak attempt or will chip in, adding an extra stride at the base of the fence.

Often, when a rider meets a bad spot to the first fence in a couple of classes, he becomes so preoccupied with that fence that he spends the rest of the show worrying about it. If you have this problem, concentrate on using the time you have during the initial circle to steadily increase the horse’s pace. Look at the first line as you cross the centerline of the ring and keep your eyes riveted on it while driving the horse forward through the corner, preventing it from shortening its stride. Try to “override” the approach to the first line a little by having more impulsion than you think you need. By doing this, you will have about the right amount to the first fence and will find a better spot.

Boots & Bandages in Competition

According to the USEF Rule Book, in hunter seat equitation classes “boots and conservative colored bandages are permitted on the legs only.” This would include galloping boots, bell boots, ankle boots, and any bandages deemed “conservative” by the judge. Some typical colors for bandages are black, white, hunter green, and navy. Horse’s boots are usually black, brown, or white. The idea is to avoid wild colors, such as neon green, or patterns in either the bandages or boots.

In hunter classes, “boots, wraps, and bandages are prohibited. In the case of inclement weather, competition management may permit the use of bell boots.”

In jumper classes, boots and bandages are allowed.

Pictured are galloping boots to protect the front legs below the knee to the fetlock and bell boots to protect the soft tissue just above the hooves.
Ankle boots protect the bone and soft tissue in the fetlock area of the rear legs.