The Complete Guide to Riding a Half Halt

07/09/2022

The half halt is one of the most useful techniques a rider can know how to do, but it’s also one of the most poorly understood.

For starters, although it’s called a “half halt”, there’s very little halting involved. Although the name suggests a slowing, it’s actually great for upwards transitions. It’s commonly trained in dressage but can make a world of difference to a jumper round. And it’s great for getting your horse’s attention before asking for something new.

As you can see, the half halt can be a lot of things, in a lot of different circumstances. So we’ll try to demystify this ephemeral aid – what it is, why it matters, how to ride it, and some common half halt faults.

cross country rider half halts a cantering horse
Image by PonyHof on Pixabay

What is a Half Halt?

A half halt is the sequential application of three natural aids – two driving aids (the legs and seat) and a restraining aid (the hands), to balance and connect with the horse. 

In a half halt, the horse keeps moving forward, but gathers his hindquarters and bends his hind legs further underneath him. This drops the croup and raises the withers, moving the horse’s center of balance back just a bit and allowing him to free up his forehand. This also encourages the horse to balance himself and round through the topline, essential elements of self-carriage.

That being said, the half halt is best described not as a maneuver or set of instructions, but as a feeling

Which is largely why it’s so challenging – the exact way to do a half halt depends on the individual situation, the horse you’re riding, and what you’re hoping to achieve. 

As mentioned, the half halt isn’t about slowing or halting (many trainers explain it to students as a “half go, not a half halt”). It may help to think of a half halt as ‘gathering up’ the horse’s energy from the back end; balancing and connecting. “Packaging” that energy, instead of half-stopping. 

Why are Half Halts Important?

Half halts are important for many reasons, but mostly because an effective half halt can balance a horse, helping him round and be ‘on the bit’. It collects and ‘packages’ the energy from the hind end, engaging his hindquarters and bringing his hind legs up and underneath him.

A good half halt lightens the forehand and sets the horse’s center of gravity back a bit, so it’s helpful for horses who lean on the bit or are heavy on the forehand. Using the energy from the hind end to lighten the front end means the horse can carry more of his own weight, which can take a load off your hands. Literally. 

black warmblood in dressage tack collects with a half halt
Image by jullien_rudier on Pixabay

A half halt is also a great way to get your horse’s attention. This momentary “check in” can get him focused back on you and your aids, which is handy if he’s getting a little strong or leaning on your hands. It gives him a heads up that you’re probably about to ask for something too, like a transition, gait change or lead change. 

It’s also handy to energize downward transitions and reduce that dreaded clunky, “falling into” feeling. It’s especially helpful for setting the horse up for a nice square halt, too. 

As you can see, half halts have a ton of different uses. So how do you actually do one? 

How to Ride a Half Halt 

When riding a half halt, you’ll use driving aids (the legs and seat) to create forward impulsion, then use your thighs and hands to restrain or ‘gather’ that energy. Let’s break it down: 

First, the legs and seat create impulsion and get the horse moving forward off the leg. If you’re half halting to, say, slow a speedy and unbalanced canter, this step will be less pronounced. 

Next, the pelvis closes around the horse’s back to ‘collect’ some of that forward energy created by the leg. 

Lastly, the hands and reins come in to restrain the remainder of the energy. A hot, forward going horse will need more rein pressure to gather his energy, whereas a slow, lazy horse will need very little rein, if at all. 

This is where the half halt can get a bit mysterious – each horse needs their own combination of seat, leg, and  rein pressure, in the correct proportion. This can even change during the course of your ride. For example, a lazy horse that’s just warming up will probably need a lot more leg than a hot horse in the middle of a ride, who may only need a gentle seat aid or light rein.

When done properly, a half halt won’t look like much of anything at all. But once you feel it, it will make sense—and generally speaking, most everyone agrees that a half halt is a combination of seat and leg aids, backed up by the reins when needed.

female equestrian looks up while performing a half halt
Image by Pezibear on Pixabay

Before You Do a Half Halt

In order for a rider to collect and ‘package’ a horse’s energy in a half halt, there needs to be some energy. This means the horse needs to be moving forward and in front of the leg. 

If he’s sluggish and slow, he lacks energy that you can package up in a half halt. Plus his lack of momentum means that he’s more likely to just halt and stop moving altogether. 

If you don’t have enough momentum going forward, create some with leg pressure until the horse is moving forward energetically. Think of it like the legs and seat create the energy, the opposite or outside rein regulates it, and this brings the horse back into balance. 

Once you have some energy to ‘halt’, a half halt might look something like this: 

Breath

Your breath may not be an ‘aid’ in the conventional sense, but it’s a great way to balance your body and focus your mind. 

A half halt starts with a deep breath in, sitting tall, and closing the upper legs and seat. 

rider gives a seat and leg questions to half halt a chestnut horse
Image by TheOtherKev on Pixabay

Seat

A good way to describe your seat in a half halt is that you want to “zip up” from your core (if you’ve ever done Pilates, you’ll know this feeling).

Using your abdominal muscles, breathe out and tighten your core as though someone is poking you – hard – in the stomach. This will help ‘hold’ the horse’s forward movement, meaning less rein pressure. 

Legs

The legs function as a driving aid to encourage the horse forward a few strides before the half halt. During a half halt, the rider ‘closes’ their inner thigh through the upper calf gently on the horse to encourage impulsion and keep the horse moving forward. 

Through a turn or bend, the inside leg continues to support the horse’s body to ensure he stays balanced and doesn’t fall in. 

Hands

Hands are typically used last, and used just enough to get a collected response but not so much that the horse stops altogether. 

The hands must release as soon as the desired effect is achieved and you want to ‘release’ that gathered energy – a common fault is holding too strong, for too long, with the hands. 

rider takes rein contact while riding a grey horse
Image by Pezibear on Pixabay

Best Exercises for Practicing Half Halts

As awesome and useful as half halts are, they’re not really something you can practice in the same way you practice a shoulder in or square halt. Think of them more as something that you can add organically to every ride (see fault #2). 

With that said, there are still several exercises that lend themselves really well to half halts. 

Circles

Circles involve a ton of rebalancing, which makes them the perfect place to practice half halts. Lots of half halts. 

showjumping rider schools half halts on a circle with a bay horse
Image by publicdomainpictures on Pixabay

Circles of any size are fine, but it’s best to start with as wide a circle as possible before asking for tighter turns. Circles are an especially useful exercise for young horses who are still learning to balance themselves and a rider, but novice riders may find it challenging if they haven’t first learned to bend and shape a circle first. 

Keep outside rein contact to ‘regulate’ or hold the horse’s energy, while inviting bend with the inside hand as you usually would on a circle. 

Transitions 

Use half halts before transitions to encourage a more balanced transition, in any direction. 

female rider with pink saddle pad performs a flying lead change
Image by Pezibear on Pixabay

Trot/ Halt transition 

Try this Response to the Seat exercise from Practical Horseman to teach your horse to half halt from the seat and leg. The result? Less weight on your hands and less rein in your half halt. 

Trot/Walk/Trot transition

From a trot, bring the horse back to walk for about 6 strides (to start). Then ask for trot again. Go back to walk for 5 strides, trot, and return to walk for 4 strides and so on. 

Repeat this until it’s easy to go from trot to a single walk step, back to trot. 

Then, up the ante with this next exercise…

The ‘almost walk’ transition

Do your trot/ walk transition again. But this time, right before the horse is about to walk, urge him back into trot again. The goal is to develop a feel for the ‘about to walk but not walking’ sensation. 

Once you know what it feels like, try to prolong this ‘almost walking’ feeling for 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 steps before releasing and returning to a working trot. 

At Home Exercise: The Balloon Exercise

This simple at-home exercise will help develop the muscle feel of the half halt. 

Your goal is to inflate a balloon while sitting on a chair (you can also do it on a horse, but make absolutely sure he isn’t spooked by the sound of air being let out of a balloon first!). 

But there’s a catch – you need to inflate the balloon, but you need to keep your midsection still. Don’t puff out your stomach, heave your shoulders up, or use any other tricks to inflate the balloon – the effort must come entirely from your abs. 

Common Half Halt Faults – and How to Fix Them 

Like any riding skill, developing effective half-halts is somewhat a matter of trial and error and learning from your mistakes. That said, here are some of the most common half halt mistakes many riders struggle with: 

Hanging On Too Long

This looks like not “giving” the hands back at the end of the half halt and keeping your hand and wrist too rigid.

For a half halt to be effective and subtle, the rider must give as soon as the desired result is achieved, as soon as there’s been that moment of ‘gathering’. 

Trying to do one big half halt can cause a rider to hang on too long. Make no mistake: when it comes to half halts, you want to do more of them, not stronger ones. Which brings us to the next common fault:

Not Doing Enough Half Halts

The ‘halt’ part of half halts is confusing, but the ‘half’ part is pretty accurate – a half halt is meant to be a subtle cue, not a giant change. 

The more you pull, the more a horse can brace or lean against you, so keep half halts at “little and often” to encourage and maintain balance or get attention, rather than waiting until the horse is already running off with you and trying to do one big, dramatic half halt.

Losing Position

Because a half halt is so subtle, some riders have a tendency to ‘over ride’ and exaggerate the seat movement, causing a loss of position. 

This can look like a rider leaning back, or kicking her legs forward (or both). The result is usually the horse either going faster or stopping altogether instead of building and ‘packaging’ energy. 

To fix this, focus on your abdominals and seat (try the Balloon Exercise above for what your abs should feel like), instead of legs and hands. 

horse throws its head up in response to too much rein pressure
Image by edyarb on pixabay

Too Much Hand

Thinking of the half halt as a ‘backward’ movement, or feeling that you want your horse to ‘rock back’ can inadvertently cause you to use too much rein or apply the half halt like a ‘halt’.

To help solve this, think about using your breath and abdominal muscles, more so than trying to lean back or rock your seat back. And think of your rein as a ‘last resort’ – of the seat/leg/hands trifecta that makes up a half halt, the reins and hands are the last part of the combination. 

Conclusion 

If you’re tired of hearing your coach yell “half halt! half halt!” constantly to no avail, take heart: you are not alone. Don’t give up—the half halt is one of the most useful tools in a rider’s arsenal once you have learned how to do it. 

Hopefully, this has given you a basic understanding of what a half halt is, what it does, the mechanics of a half halt, and what an absolute game-changer it can be for your ride. 

Riders describe the feel of a half halt in so many different ways – what was the most useful explanation you’ve heard or used yourself?

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