Make Your Halt A Perfect Ten Every Time
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
The halt comes up at least twice in every dressage test and earning an easy mark of ten will boost your overall score so why is it dressage riders often make a mess of their halts?
There is a big difference in what the judge expects from you and your horse in the halt at different test levels. Obviously as your partnership advances up the levels so the demands for a perfect halt increase. Instead of the judge accepting a few steps of walk from trot to halt at training level, at advanced levels you need to halt square from a canter. In advanced classes you also have to halt before the rein-back, which offers you yet another opportunity to boost your scores. Additionally if you don’t halt square, your rein back will be awful.
The halt is also an important tool in training your horse to increase engagement of the hind legs. It is imperative you train your horse to be obedient and immobile at the halt from the ground, and that he stand still while being mounted. If you overlook this important part of his obedience training, then how do you expect to progress when you add movement in the saddle. As mounting and dismounting is one the higher risk moments for something to go awry it is also a safety issue. Your horse should stand happily immobile whenever you request him to halt.
What Constitutes A Perfect Halt?
In a square halt your horse will stand with equal weight on all four legs. Your horse should be immobile and relaxed and most importantly very attentive. When you give a leg aid to move forward he should spring into action. Both front legs should be together. Both hind legs should be together. Your horse should be straight and he should maintain an even and light contact with your hands through the reins. He is allowed to mouth the bit quietly without penalty in the score.
How Do You Attain That Ten?
How do you school your horse from the beginning for that perfect halt? It is all a matter of balance. Start with an energetic trot gait. Your horse needs to be actively moving from back to front over his back. The aids from trot to halt are to close your calves lightly on your horse’s side to drive him from back to front and send your horse into a resisting hand with closed fists. Your wrist should be relaxed and your hand should not have too much tension, your hand is simply closed. I do not like to say squeeze with your legs, as no horse likes to be squeezed. He is not a tube of toothpaste! Do not pull on the reins. You cannot drag 1500 pounds of horse to a stop. Breathe in as you halt, sit tall and still your seat. This will have the effect of engaging your core, which in turn will engage your horse’s core and aid his balance. By not following your horse’s motion you will encourage him to halt. You can also use your voice, an overlooked aid that is so very useful.
Once your horse has executed the halt you can relax your hands and legs but still maintain contact. The key when training is always reward and punishment in careful measure. The punishment for your horse is you added pressure to his sides and mouth, the reward is when he has answered your request to halt, you take away that pressure as his reward. In this way as you develop your horse, you will be able to ask him to collect and come back to you by just stilling your seat and using very minimal leg or hand aids. This is always a keen goal for me as when training a horse to the most advanced levels you want to ensure that you are consistent in your punishment and reward program to encourage your horse to answer with maximum effort to a minimal request. The finesse you can achieve with training your horse is utterly amazing if you follow this simple edict throughout your career.
When you ask your horse to step forward you apply light leg aids on both sides, as you want your horse to move crisply forward and straight. Yield both reins so he can step brightly upward and into the hand pushing from behind by closing his haunches together. The minute he has moved forward, release the leg aids.
When training the halt initially you may have to repeat the request for a halt and then good exit to the trot several times. It is easiest to begin from walk to halt to walk and then progress to the trot/halt transition once you horse understands the aids. Use as little aid as possible to keep your horse sensitive to the aids. If he does not listen to a light aid it may need to be stronger in the beginning, you may even need to add the use of a whip behind your leg to send him forward out of the halt.
When teaching the halt at clinics I advocate a slight bend at the poll to the inside,
(think slight shoulder fore position), both in and out of the halt. This helps the horse and rider balance and keeps the horse on the outside rein. It is helpful for most horses to approach the ring to enter on the left rein. This is because this is most commonly a horse’s hollow side and it allows you to activate the inside leg and shoulder and establish that important outside rein connection to maintain the gait and the horse’s overall frame. As you move down the center line, hopefully your horse’s body is straight and it is parallel to the long side without any wobbly appearance of ‘a drunk horse.’
It is also helpful with any transition to think it before you do it. If you visualize the perfect halt as you ask for it the result will be improved. The reason is that your mind will automatically tell the muscles in your body to tense in readiness for the change in aids and your horse will learn to recognize this tension and be ready for your cue.
When training the halt it is very important not to try and fix the halt in the halt. If it was a messy affair simply send the horse forward into the trot as best you can and try again. Preferably in a different part of the arena as you don’t want your horse pre-empting your aids. For this reason I often train my students not to learn to halt at X but rather at G, a few strides further down the arena. This prevents the horse from second guessing and provides the added advantage of the end of the arena being in front of the horse which signals him to look for the rider’s cue as to where to go next i.e. hopefully you have his full attention. Naturally if you are in the ring and this happens you’ll have to make the best of it. Ride on promptly and try not to over fiddle to fix it. Sometimes it is best to just ride off and forget the mistake at the beginning of a test as if you addle your horse’s brain at the start of the test he may lose confidence and become nervous which will result in a loss of focus and relaxation.
I also advocate tiny half halts on the outside rein just before the halt and during the transition as a cue to your horse to rebalance himself for what is coming next. The more advanced your horse the tinier and more frequent you will use them as you are asking him not just to connect his back but to collect himself and add more weight to his hind end.
Don’t Lag Behind
If you horse has his legs out behind him at the halt he won’t be able to make a good exit from the halt when you ride him forward. The reason the legs are out behind is because you didn’t have your horse working with true engagement of the hind legs. To work on this try riding the trot to the walk and back to trot several times. Then ride from trot to ‘almost’ a halt, by allowing the horse to step forward from your still hand (I like to call this riding your horse into your hand wall), just before he comes to a complete stand. With advanced students the use of a rein back will encourage better use of the hind legs given that it is completed correctly (please see my article in Horse Bits Magazine in the March 2017 edition).
Don’t Be Too Abrupt
If you horse comes to an abrupt halt then you know you have used too much hand. You have pulled your horse into the halt from front to back and this will result in a loss of balance. Simply ride him forward again into an active trot and ask again.
We don’t want to see a ‘shoe-shuffle’ into or out of the halt. If this happens as you approach the halt it will be because you have not kept the trot gait active enough i.e. your driving aids have not been sufficient. It can also be because you are not connecting your horse across his back and he is just dropping his weight into his shoulders because you are using too much of a restraining hand. Remember do not pull back on the reins, ride into them.
If you horse shuffles out of the halt into the trot then you did not have him attentive to you in the halt. Your horse has lost focus. I like to say to my students, “ Do not let your horse’s mind wander off to the flowerpots.” The pretty flowers around the arena can be a distraction. Look at Carl Hester’s Olympic ride in Rio. The ‘bobble at the blooms’ cost him a hefty price. Always show your horse the flowers and other distractions or scary stuff like the judges black hole in the judge’s box or trailer before you enter the ring. I also suggest you say good day to the judge and/or scribe and give them a smile. They will reply and this will give your horse confidence that the ‘black box’ has a human component and hopefully he will not be startled by its appearance as he comes down the centerline.
To keep your horse’s focus maintain soft aids and give a little pinky wiggle on the left rein as you salute with your right hand dropped to your side. Thankfully these days we don’t have to remove our hats!
How To Fix The Halt In The Halt
If you send your horse into the halt from back to front without pulling on the reins then you’ll have his hind legs underneath him and it should be straightforward for him to stand equally on all four legs. However, if he has a habit of resting a leg or leaving one leg behind then be more active with your leg aid on that side and make sure you are not ‘holding’ more pressure on the rein on that side which effectively will block that hind leg from stepping underneath his body.
Once you are immobile you can tap with your heel on the ‘lazy’ side of the horse to ask him to step up and make a correction. Be certain to maintain a little more pressure on the rein on this side as you ask or he may step forward out of the halt rather than just correcting that errant hind leg.
If you horse is not square at the front then you can wiggle the pinky on the rein on the side that he is not square upon to encourage him to move his shoulder.
If your horse becomes restless during the halt in a test ride briskly forward after a quick salute. You will lose a point or two but it is less of a mistake than a horse that wanders a drunken line or doesn’t step brightly forward.
If your horse balks at X and starts to rear, ride him forward a few strides and try again. If he is clearly upset then just ride forward and forget the halt. It is blown at this point anyway and you don’t want your horse to learn to rear as an evasion at the start of the test. You paid to participate and you might as well use the time in the actual ring to practice your work and to teach the horse the experience can be positive and reward him for good behavior that hopefully follows his miscreant moment. If you are going for a qualifying score and don’t want the test on your record at a recognized show then ride more of the test and then retire before the end of the test and gracefully exit the ring. Don’t forget to thank the judge.
You will soon be cantering down the center line and making a halt at G. The extra length on the centerline is helpful but you must also be certain your horse is straight in the canter as this is an early indicator to the judge of the quality of your work. While we train horses in haunches in for lateral work I rarely advocate the use of haunches in on a circle at the canter. We don’t want to encourage the horse to avoid straightness and engagement by developing his passion to bring his hind legs to the inside.
You must ride your horse into the ring with his body straight, and as in the basic training above I advocate a very slight bend to the inside (left side) of the horse at his poll. The half halts on the outside rein will keep your horse attentive to the forthcoming halt and your active legs aids will keep that bounce in the canter. As with a basic halt, you will breathe in and still your seat. Sit neatly upright and do not drop your head as this will drop the horse’s shoulders and put him on the forehand.
A good exercise to develop a great halt from the canter is to ride your horse on a circle and ask for the halt through a shoulder in position. Use this position both into and out of the halt. You can similarly use this exercise to transition from canter to trot and canter to walk. When using this exercise exclusive of a halt, just stay in the downward gait for three or four strides before asking the horse to come back up a gait. This will help him engage his hindquarters.
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is an international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY.