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The Personal Half Halt

Personal Half Halt: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass. By Bonnie J. Hilton (A Horse Training Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine ).

The title of personal half-halt refers to the rider and not the horse. As it pertains to the rider, what does the term half-halt mean?  The definition, for riders of any seat, should be based on some understanding of what a ridden half-halt is to the horse. As a trainer I have embraced the concept of a ridden half-halt as a rebalancing, which is probably too basic a definition for purists, but I ll quote Charles de Kunffy from Training Strategies for Dressage Riders for example. It is this creation of a momentary hesitation, followed by an outpouring of reserved energy, that makes the half-halt a dynamic rebalancing gesture. The result of the ridden half-halt, should be improved balance of the equine. I m not going to go into detail on how to achieve a ridden half-halt, but I would like to note two statements that may further the understanding of why riders should be searching to achieve the personal half halt.

The first statement from Reiner Klimke in Basic Training of the Young Horse where he is explaining half-halts, The reactions of the rider must be quicker than those of the horse. The second statement is from Jean Froissard in Classical Horsemanship for Our Time, where he is discussing aids and the novice horse, No aid, however, is effective unless precise, and precision in turn depends on steadiness, which depends on a firm seat. From an unsteady  rider the language of the aids only emanates as a splutter or an incoherent stammer.

Over the years I have taught hundreds of riders, of all seats, all sizes, shapes and ages who were attempting to achieve harmony with their equines. Harmony being a combination of parts, here being the horse and rider, into a pleasing or orderly whole. This harmony is based on communication, what enlightened riders know of as the aids.  Unfortunately, many individuals, coming from the instant gratification segment of our society and expecting the same from the activity of riding, had never been told the blunt, honest truth about true horsemanship or they don t want to acknowledge it. The truth being that you can t ride in harmony until you can control and understand your own body (the independent structure or seat), can feel and make adjustments of your body as needed to the horse s motion and then communicate to the horse your desires for action. If you aren t balanced yourself and capable of rebalancing yourself as needed, how can you ever expect to balance and rebalance an equine?

Or, did you think, as I have been told by some riders, that you can attempt to get the horse somewhat balanced and then follow along as best you can. That isn t harmony, it isn t safe, and it isn t a ridden half-halt either. In my early years of riding, during my teenage years, I rode from the seat of my pants! No brains, just naive guts and brawn. Without any formal instruction, I simply rode, as did most of my friends. It is a wonder that we survived some of the stunts we pulled. Our parents never knew! When I did finally receive formal instruction, it attempted to define my seat for me, but for years I was still doing too much. As the years went by riding became a chore, not a pleasure, it became a job and I lost my passion and my fun. Some twenty years ago I had my first ever walking riding lesson. Yes, somebody had the audacity to attempt to slow me down. Walking was the only way to do it. What an eye opening experience!

I had always been goal and horse oriented in my riding, suddenly I was being asked to think about and feel me. I ll be very honest and say that I got depressed, because I had to relearn new muscle usage and my body was not pleased. Over the years I have developed some posture quirks that I didn t know existed. Those readers who have delved into the Alexander Technique know that I had an uphill battle in front of me. It continues today, as I strive to be aware of neck tension and attempt to allow myself to become free of what that tension produces in the rest of my body.

Drawing on classical teachings and continued study of body awareness techniques brought forth a concept which over the past two decades has been proven time and time again by dedicated students of all seats. That riding postural alignment attained at static position (first position) should be maintained throughout any transition and that maintenance is dependent upon the rider being able to perform a personal half-halt, an actual bodily rebalancing or realignment if you prefer to think of it that way, as is necessary to regain position for the correct timing and usage of the aids. Here again, for those riders who have attained this level of intellectual and physical understanding, once the personal half-halt is achieved, most horses who are physically fit and compliant to the aids, will comply with a ridden half halt at the same time. Rebalance yourself and the horse follows.

So where do you start to learn how to perform a personal half-halt? You should start at halt, in static position, and have your basic foundation evaluated by the eyes of an instructor or a friend who understands what you are looking for and can be honest with you, or you can also evaluate yourself in your reflection in the mirror of the indoor or on your TV after being captured on video. Evaluate your posture from all four sides to the picture of what you know should be of a rider in balance and the plumb line of shoulder, hip and heel. Please remember that it really doesn t make any difference what type of saddle you are using, balance is balance. I should caution here that the saddle needs to be balanced in that it fits both the horse and the rider and is not cantle or pummel low. Is your saddle too small for you? Is it actually restricting you or forcing your position which may not be correct for your riding style? I shouldn t have to mention that stirrup length should be checked for evenness. This may mean getting rid of that old broken in pair of leathers, that have numerous half holes punched in them from different times you didn t feel even. Once you establish even length, you can examine your total leg placement and this is where your body awareness starts. Which one of your legs is correct in placement, resting on the side of the horse? If they mirror image each other that is wonderful. Few of us are that lucky, we have to work at it daily.

It surprises many riders to find out that a truly balanced seat is the same across the disciplines. If you don t have a clue as to what that should be, I would suggest the following references: Thinking Riding Book 2, In Good Form by Molly Sivewright if you can find an old copy, Centered Riding by Sally Swift, Horse and Rider by Judy Richter and Balanced Riding by Pegotty Henriques. There is a lot of material out there about what the balanced seat should look like, our problem is trying to take it from print and somehow apply it to feel. The problems that are addressed at static position and the solutions for such, form the foundation upon which the rider will build their awareness.

Having learned all this the hard way myself, I can only suggest that the road to success is taken by embracing a slower approach to your riding. Let s face it, if you are frustrated and scrambling at trot or canter, you can t possibly expect miracles from yourself in those gaits. You simply can t react faster than the horse and you will be frustrated, down on yourself and probably riding sore a lot.

From the halt in static position, work an upward transition to walk for a short time followed by a downward transition to halt. What happened to your balance and your position? Did you stiffen up for both the upward and downward transition? Do you fall back on your butt or forward on your crotch? Do your legs move forward or does just the left leg seem to find a new position on its own. Sorry if l am being blunt about this but I have started working with an older female rider (she s younger than me!) who has been struggling terribly only because she was never been truly honest to her instructors about how uncomfortable she has been actually straddling the saddle. Then I come along and come right out and ask her about her private parts! She would tense because she felt that would protect her. Very fit and very strong she would brace herself with thigh and butt muscles and not follow the horse at all. Dominant on the right side, the twist in her body was noticeable and the left leg would migrate forward and be braced. Now she is learning that by actually moving around and adjusting herself she is able to protect herself by moving with the horse and the horse is listening to her aids.

I have come a long way in my own thinking about saddle comfort as it applies to the rider. I want the rider to be comfortable first and I am refusing to endorse any specific saddle because it is currently in vogue. Don t get duped into that trap. With more and more companies offering test rides of their products, it has become easier to try out different type saddles.

A classic from Centered Riding, did you hold your breath during the upward and downward transition? Do you clench your teeth, your fingers or your toes? Release your jaw for both the upward and downward transition by opening and closing your mouth or chewing if need be. Do something as bizarre as making believe you are playing the piano with your toes in your boots to keep yourself from clenching your toes and thereby freezing your ankle joint and even your total leg. If you are clenching your fingers you simply have to work at moving them into a more released rein hold. What a novel approach to riding, after years of being told to be still, you get told to move body parts! This is where the personal half-halt starts to get difficult as you will struggle to actually adjust, as you feel you should, to achieve better riding balance.

I remember being told to stop riding so hard, that I was carrying the horse, that I was not willing to let go and let the horse carry itself. I will be honest, I have ridden a lot of horses who I didn t trust to carry themselves and that is probably why I still have to fight with myself to release my body from the total grip I sometimes ride with and allow myself to feel what is going on with my body. What I find so interesting is the horse s reaction to some of these minute adjustments we can make while attempting to rebalance ourselves. (I should caution here that when you first start moving around on your horse it may get startled at first, so be aware.) You exhale and adjust both of your legs for evenness and get a halt from a walk without having to use your hands and it will boggle your mind. What did you do?

A personal half-halt doesn t have to be some huge movement any more than a ridden half-halt should be. I will admit that some horses, due to years of being ridden into submission, have to adjust to suddenly being asked. There are a few, unfortunately I am presently working with one, who actually will attempt to pick a fight because they are used to battles and being asked to carry themselves on their own is not part of their agenda. If you think you are carrying your equine, you really need to seek advice on how to get out of that vicious cycle. Here again, going back to basics and getting better responses from the both of you are the key to success.

Should you tighten your abdominal muscles, should you stretch up, should you stretch down, what is wrong and right to do with a personal half-halt? I ll go out on a limb and say that I don t think any of the touted awareness modalities are ends all to themselves when it comes to riding. You have got to experiment with yourself and find what works for you and your specific problems and what you encounter with the equines you ride. There are way too many variables, but I will say that a specific warm-up routine should be in use, but very few of my students, including myself, do as much as we should. I am starting to look at the total ride (outside of the performance show venue) as being comprised of elements of warm-up, practice of the known and introduction of new material in different order depending on the equine.

At all times we should be striving to maintain our riding elegance, no matter what style we are riding. What particular things we have to do to ourselves to regain our posture are unique to us. Those things become the elements of our personal half-halt. As a trainer I fight a trainer s downcast eye which often brings me forward in my seat. In 1971 when I was examined by the BHS in England for my teaching certificate, I was noted to be a supple rider but I was inclined to come forward onto my fork. Thirty years later I have the same problem at times. My personal half-halt is to lift my eyes, stretch my torso, release my neck and shoulders and suddenly the equine is moving better. I get off the horse s shoulders and the equine lightens. I bring my weight back by just stretching the front of my torso and the equine engages its hindquarters and rebalances to my aids. I release my neck and shoulders and the horse stops being so tense through the jaw, whether I am riding with a bit or not.

I do think that students who already have a good fitness level are better able to adjust to a rebalancing approach once they learn how to get out of the way of their own body. An unfit rider has the added disadvantage of muscle weakness, when they have to move something and they simply are not strong enough to do it. Being aware that we all can have serious range of motion problems, whether fit or not, has to be addressed and personally I think that we need to focus on ROM much more in our riding.

What if the horse doesn t listen? If the particular equine I am working has attention deficit disorder until he or she gets some of the oats burned off, any attempt on my part to achieve compliance of a half-halt is a moot point. If at the opposite end, the equine is stiff and unresponsive I have to develop forward energy by some method. I argued this point with a Lipizzaner trainer until I realized that they were working from a whole different level of focus then many of the owners and equines I encounter. I ride a variety of breeds and on one training day I ride three different geldings. If I could put them all in a blender and mix their good and bad points all together I would end up with a wonder horse! One is aged, one is middle aged and one is younger. One is ready for action from the minute he sees me, one is ready for my attention but not necessarily action and one just wants to have another nap. All three equines are in good fitness. I attempt to ride all three equines with the same amount of patience and awareness. On occasion, because I get into end gaining and start trying to make things happen, it seems I can t communicate at all. That is what performance frustration will do to you if you allow it to happen. The reasons behind this article culminated with these three geldings and the amount of progression that has been achieved by adhering to the definition of the personal half-halt in the past two years of riding.

Slow down, put riding back in the perspective that it should be in you life and start paying attention to yourself. You may be surprised by the performance you will produce from your equine and from yourself.

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