There are many different opinions on how to ride a half halt. Here we’ll take a look from the classical perspective, starting with the FEI definition:
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.
Depending on the horse's sensitivity a half-halt can be anything from a raising of the sternum and deepening of the seat, to a firm rein aid when a horse ‘runs into the rider's hands’ (it's actually ignoring the seat aid and running on into the hand). In the second example you ‘meet’ the horse's mouth with a passive resistance (you don't pull, you just match the force like for like) on the resisting side, at the same time asking with the opposite leg for the horse to engage the hind leg again by stepping more underneath. Of course it isn't just hand and leg.
You ‘meet’ the horse from your centre, by advancing your front-line to your hand. You push your tummy forward, keeping your pelvis upright and push backwards from your lumbar area (without stiffening or arching the spine, thus allowing your spine to stay in the neutral position) and the force that the horse is evading with is matched by the asking of the leg on the opposite side to the non allowing hand to rebalance him.
It's not a dead pull, a constant crunch of the abdominals or a prolonged squeeze with the leg. It's a series of combined aid meet-yield-meet-yield until the horse yields by transferring his weight back on to the hindquarters. This is a worst case scenario type of half halt, generally it is a much more scaled down effort that is barely visible to an onlooker.
For a half halt to be effective it has to be timed correctly—it's not just a case of following the above instructions.
You have to be aware of when each hind leg is coming forward and when it's on the ground. "When it first touches down in front of the vertical, it carries, i.e. the haunches flex. That is the correct moment for the half halt. As soon as the hind leg passes the vertical, however, it starts to thrust. If you were to half halt against the thrusting leg, the horse would brace against you and either go against, above or behind he bit. If you half halt when the leg is in the air, you would shorten the stride and prevent the hind leg from stepping under. It would have to set down prematurely, maybe not even reaching the vertical, much less reaching in front of it. That way, the carrying phase would be shortened or even made impossible. The result would be loss of balance and relaxation not to mention collection." (Dr Thomas Ritter).
It may help if you think that when a grounded front leg passes the vertical, the hind leg on the same side is advancing in the air. Any rein action now will block the hind leg and force it to set down too early and the horse will not step under far enough.
It is a thought provoking, time-consuming, no guarantees of instant success process. Many people want to be told that the problem is with the horse and that the horse needs ‘fixing’ and they have a lesson expecting to be shown how to do what they already do better. Usually though, I find it's the rider that has to make the change and when you've ridden a particular way for years it takes a good deal of self discipline to go back and start again almost from the beginning. But the feeling you get when the horse does something so wonderfully light and correct with only the smallest aid is one of those things I find hard to put into words. He did it because you knew what you were expecting him to do and you knew how and when to ask him.
"Every horse has to learn to maintain by himself the rhythm that the rider has determined. At the same time he has to listen to the rider every step of the way, in case the latter wants to make changes in gait, rhythm, stride length or direction. The trained horse allows the rider to modify rhythm and stride length with his abdominal muscles, while the adductor muscles of the thighs help to transmit the seat aids to the hind legs. The rider's hand receives what the hind leg places into it, but it has to release this impulse almost immediately, either forward- upward or forward-downward. The sequence of the aids is the same as above: drive, sit, catch, release. This release is crucial, because the horse will yield his haunches and poll into the release of the reins. In other words as soon as you give, the poll will drop and the top line will relax. If the rider forgets to release, the horse will lean or brace against the hand. As long as the rider cannot regulate rhythm and stride length with his abdominal muscles the horse has not found his balance and self-carriage".
Almost every book you open will give a different description of how to ride a half-halt, but I think we all agree what a half-halt is:
A pause, a comma, a rebalancing, a signal that something is about to happen. It is what it says it is; you tell the horse to halt and in doing he begins to lower his haunches. At this point, before he stops, changes gait, you apply the forward driving aids and he moves off with he's hind legs more engaged than before.
As with all writing on riding, it is coming from the author's starting point. We are attempting to show you the way—you are to discover for yourself what it is you have to do to achieve a clear, correct response. While the nuances may vary of how much you need to use each muscle; how much ‘push’ you need, the principle will remain the same. Each Half-Halt will differ from the last one and the next one; the development of your ability to ‘feel’ will tell you how much is required.
My perception of what I do is:
Pull down with the muscles in my lumbar back and up with the abdominal muscles located below the navel. This is the ‘hard work to sit still’ that gives a rider that elegant look of doing nothing. Rather like a swan; wonderfully graceful on the surface, but paddling away like anything underneath!
Another way of looking at it, which may make more sense to other people, is how Erik Herbermann explained it at a clinic I audited: To think of ‘tipping the chair’.
Take one of those plastic picnic chairs or a lightweight straight-backed dining chair.Sit on it so that your feet are either side of the front legs, underneath your base of support as if in the saddle. Rest your seat bones on the very edge of the seat, with a vertical pelvis. Now try to tip the chair forwards onto the front legs BUT only using your abs / lumbar muscles. It is very easy to cheat and use the seat bones—DON'T!Instead, make that extra effort and you will be rewarded.
A third and very effective way is to sit on something as described above and get a helper to put a lunge line around your lower back. Then get them to try and tip you forwards. If you’re not used to using your back correctly they will find this very easy to do. Next, try to stop your helper pulling you forwards by using your abs and back to stop them. Feel the difference!
If you have a quiet horse, this is a very effective exercise to do whilst in the saddle. In this case I tend to use a pair of reins rather than a lunge line.
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Classical Dressage Notebook