Thursday, October 13, 2011

Riding Reflection: The Not-So-Simple Halt

When Harley and I first became a pair, all of his training boiled down to two basic things: go and stop.  He was really good at "going" and, although it was his second favorite, he would stop when I asked.  Sometimes he would stop to help me out, like if I dropped my stirrups to end a ride, he would stop.  If I lost my balance riding bareback, he would stop.  If I noticed a friend at the fence, he would stop.  In our first lesson with my teacher, she asked us to stop next to her and he stopped so fast that she started laughing.

"Well, you said he knows whoa and go.  There you have it."

But a "stop" is not the same as a "halt".  A good halt still has energy.  A good halt has paused impulsion, which is ready to fire up at a moment's notice.  A good halt feels electric.

A rare, nice halt and caught on film (April 2010).

Another moment from the same April 2010 video.  There was a lot of tension in this ride.  We have improved in the relaxation department since then, but, man, is Harley gorgeous.

I used to practice halts more with Harley, but then I backed off of them.  You see, Harley used to be too electric.  He could become very tense, very quickly.  Transition work is great for sharpening a dull horse, but for a horse who is already too sharp, drilling transitions can turn him into a mess.  This was one of the dressage rules that I had to bend and temporarily file on the shelf.  My horse needed to find relaxation within the gaits, then we could worry about transitions.

Now, thinking back over the year, I have definitely worked the halt.  We warmed up with some halts.  I would sometimes ask him to soften at the halt, but apparently the majority of the time, a halt meant a break or the end of the ride.  We stopped often, but the energy was not contained.  This was evident as I practiced a few halts at the beginning of our ride.  Harley could be walking with a nice stretch into the bridle, marching from behind, and as soon as he stopped the air would leak out of the balloon.  The stretch left his neck, the contact disappeared, his back dropped, and, to really rub it in, he would turn his head and neck and look around.  He was "off the clock".  A couple times he tried to lean over and sniff a stray "horse pie".  Oh dear.  If I wanted to use the halt to help build impulsion within the gaits and train collection, I would need to teach him the difference between a "stop" and a "halt".

I decided to abandon the walk.  If this was going to be about impulsion, than I needed a gait that could deliver.  We moved around the ring in a brisk rising trot.  Once he felt limber, I picked a spot on the straight away and asked for a halt.  He stopped, but he did not halt.  I focused on keeping my position the same in the halt as it would be in motion.  I tried to keep a feel of energy in my body.  Many of the first attempts were not successful.  He was being obedient by stopping, but he was not carrying himself in the halt.  I started asking him to trot almost as soon as we halted, so that he would get the idea that we were not on break and we were not really stopping.  Before long, he was trotting from just an upward movement of my seat, but that has always been the easy thing with Harley.  The difficult thing is the other way around.

When I rode in a clinic with a dressage trainer earlier this year, he told me not to sit back too much in the downward transition.  He said that Harley "over-collects" and then has trouble getting out of it for the upward transition.  This causes him to loose the longitudinal stretch and tighten as he tries to compensate by pushing off his front end.  I need to always have a bit of a forward feel to my seat, even in the downward transitions.  This mirrors my teacher's instructions to "float over my feet".  Sitting back too much puts the rider behind the motion and in Harley's case, flattens the horse.  I have ridden bigger, more robust horses who did not seem to mind the rider a little behind the vertical, but Harley cannot tolerate any kind of backward movement from the rider.  My teacher says that everything with the horse should go forward.  I really like her style.

Eventually, he started to stay more and more on the aids.  As long as he did not drop his shoulders, he could maintain a light consistent contact into and out of the transition.  His desire to drop his shoulders felt very habitual.  I tried my best to keep my knees from pinching and lifted my chest to try and help him balance and stay connected.  We took some breaks and went for a canter.  After a nice canter, his trot-halt-trots started to feel like the real thing.  I rode with energy into the halt.  I did not want him to slow down and drag into the transition.  I wanted him to lift himself into the halt.  After a few nice ones, we went back to canter.  This is his reward and was an opportunity to see if he remembered the lesson.  We tried a couple canter-halt-canters.  Once he knew what we were up to, he was all business.  His upward transitions were on a whisper and the downward transitions were very focused and prepared.  He gathered his strides before the halt and tucked his hind legs underneath himself.  None of the halts were perfect, but he was thinking and trying his heart out.  He loved the upward transitions to canter.  I was very impressed by how he rebalanced himself at a standstill to pick up the correct lead.

By this time, he was feeling so handy, that I decided to give counter canter left a shot.  I was determined to feel the halt in the canter for the duration of the diagonal toward counter canter.  As we cantered down the diagonal, I took on the outside rein at the beginning of each stride.  My seat was light in the saddle, even rising up out of the saddle at the top of each stride.  I often use this technique to encourage him to lift his back.  Accentuate the rise.  For the first time, his tempo did not change.  When we arrived at the end of the diagonal he still felt balanced enough to continue through the corners.  After rounding the second corner, he calmly transitioned to trot and I made a big fuss over him.  I believe the halt helped us demolish the challenge like never before.  What a clever horse!


  1. He's so handsome!
    There's an award for you on my blog.

  2. That second photo of Harley is stunning! We have a pretty awful halt -- I need to work on that. I hadn't thought about using trot-halt transitions but I think it might work better on Jackson. He stops, but he doesn't halt.

  3. I really love all of your descriptions! What a nice pair you two make! I only hope I can achieve a working partnership based on the kind of understanding you have with Harley with my newly started horse!

  4. Thanks so much, Annette. Is it bad to drool over your own horse? ;)

    Some talk about the halt like it is baby stuff, but I find it to be genuinely challenging!

    HammersArk- Thank you! And how exciting to be starting a new horse. Your mare is lovely!

  5. Nice job! Speedy gave me the best halt ever the other day. It kind of took me by surprise actually. Now that we have a nice connection, his halt had improved dramatically.

    Since we show pretty regularly, I work on our halts quite frequently. It seems like an easy way to earn dome points, or a silly way to lose them. Both of my boys have learned that a really good halt is a sure way to end the schooling session. :0)

  6. Karen- Great about Speedy. If I were showing frequently, that would definitely motivate me to keep up the standards on my halts. Ending with a nice halt is a very good training tip!


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