Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alternatives to the Half Halt?

My recent posts about reducing/eliminating blocks and braces, and creating mental and physical openings for the horse to move into, has got me thinking . . . always dangerous . . .

I've been thinking about the half halt - many of you will know how we were trained to use this to ask the horse to "rebalance", as a signal that something else (another cue) was coming up shortly, or to ask for more collection or a slower cadence.  So in that sense, the half halt is used as a cue like any other.  Half halts can be done with either the hand or the seat.

But here's what the half halt really is - no matter how small or softly it's applied - it's a brace.  It's deliberately designed to interrupt, if only for a second, the forward movement of the horse. I think this is why I've had a problem with the whole concept of the half halt for a long time.  If you want your horse to be soft from nose to tail, and to move without braces or blocking, why would you want to reintroduce a brace, particularly one that is used so often?

Now like most cues, in the hands of a skilled rider, who is sensitive to the horse (and not yanking, cranking or engaging in practices like rollkur - and no "logical" justification, or popularity in certain circles, can make rollkur anything but barbaric and a form of torture for the horse, not to mention that it results in incorrect (but frequently rewarded in competition) movement), the half halt can be almost invisible and work very well once the horse understands what it means - it's not wrong at all.

But it's still a brace . . .  And braces, even small ones, do lots of things I don't want in my riding - they interrupt energy, flow and softness.  But are there alternatives to the half halt that serve the same purpose?

I think, for alternatives to the half halt, you have to be trying to ride in/as the horse, not on the horse.  Bear with me for a moment . . .

Let's look at the sorts of things the half halt is used for - you may have others you can come up with.

Rebalancing - this to me is the one use of the half halt that may need replacement, not by a substitute for the half halt itself, but by riding that addresses the underlying problem leading to the need for rebalancing.  Rebalancing implies that the horse is out of balance - on the forehand, leaning on the bit, rushing without rhythm, or leaning in or out.  Introducing a brace to this mix in the interests of balance seems unlikely to result in much more than . . . a brace.  The horse may respond because it's learned to - slow down, say - but the causes of the lack of softness, and resulting lack of balance, aren't really addressed.  One example - say the horse is rushing.  Rather than attempting to interrupt the energy and forward movement with a half halt, teach the horse to carry itself with relaxation and without rushing.  Small circles and figures are very helpful for this - no bracing required - with the horse traveling straight when the desired pace and rhythm are achieved.

Alert that something is coming - this is one where a pre-cue is desired.  An example of this would be if you were about to ask for a chance in gait.  Here's one where my horses and I have an alternative to offer.  Instead of a half-halt (brace), pre-cue with a thought - of rhythm (say the 1-2 of trot to the 1-2-3 of canter) - and then, instead of cuing for the change of gait with a leg or seat aid (often a brace itself) cue with an exhale - the opposite of a brace, instead something that frees motion and softness.

Collection and more engagement of the hindquarters - this is one my horses and I are still working on.  Dawn has been working with me on this one in particular - the only way I can describe what she and I do is to say that we lift and draw ourselves up together into a more collected posture with elevation of the forequarters and engagement of the hindquarters.  No half halts, no rein aids and no blocking the flow or energy.  Dawn and the boys and I haven't figured this one out completely yet, but we're getting there.

Now that's a lot of words about something that's really about feel and connection, which really aren't verbal things at all.  I'd describe it in words, as best I can, as breathing, focus, energy and opening so you direct the horse through the horse - through your connection and mutual feel.  So it comes from inside the horse, or you and the horse as a unit, not something you apply to the horse from outside. And I'm no master of any of this, I'm just on the road . . . together with my fine horses.  But we are on the road, and that's the important part. To close, here's a quote from Mark Rashid:
Regardless of the amount of knowledge or experience an instructor has, they can only impart a fraction of what it takes to be really good with horses. It is through our own devotion to practice and learning that the gifts of these great creatures can be received by us, and even more practice and learning before they become part of us.
Enough words . . . it's time to ride.


  1. Love this post! There are truly very few masters...and the ones who I believe are (or were), will only admit to being on that same road right along with you. Horsemanship is a journey, a lifetime's achievement; and one that must be enjoyed every step of the way. Very nice Kate. :)
    Loved Mark's quote very, very true.

  2. C-ingspots - one think I've always liked a lot about Mark is that he's never done - he's always learning from his horses - and there is no "system" - which means he's not easy to learn from at the beginning but he ends up helping you find ways to figure things out on your own together with your horse.

  3. That's the best synopsis of rollkur I've ever heard. :D

    Lovely post Kate, and great quote.

  4. I think that makes a lot of sense. I used to half halt many, many times a ride. I was taught to, but I don't remember if actually improving the horse. It was the suggestion of a half halt that did that, but that seemed to come from the horse anticipating the half halt from a smaller cue, like a thought. I could never achieve that level of awesome in competition though. There is too much stress.

  5. Well said Kate - you're beginning to sound more and more like Tom Dorrance which is not a bad thing. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Dan - thanks, that's good company to be found in - now if I could just ride like Tom Dorrance . . .

  6. very interesting, and I agree on this especially, I have never been a big user of the half halt,struggled with it for many of the reasons you are describing, just couldn't put it into words.Thank you , I love it when you start thinking and sharing !

  7. Weird, I knew you were going to write this. It follows from your post from Tuesday. I've been thinking about it since my lesson Tuesday, because the instructor saw me give a long, drawn-out half-halt to try to slow the walk rhythm, and she said, "Well, your horse doesn't like that at all." Also, my cue to request backing up under saddle,my whole life, has been to tense up my back muscles, which apparently does not help my new horse to move in any direction. "If you're gonna freeze solid, rider, than I will gladly freeze solid in return. I hear you asking me for something, but your body is clearly saying 'FREEZE'."

  8. I was very fortunate when I came back to riding after 20 years not to be able to do so with a dear friend who is a very accomplished dressage rider - her instructions to me in those early lessons where I was learning how to ride with a post-childbearing woman's body instead of a girl's were things like "breathe" and "hold one arm straight up in the air" and "look over your left (or right) shoulder."

    But the absolute gem she gave me was to think the aids before doing anything with my body. As a result I almost never actually do anything for half halt but think the words. It works beautifully.

    I always think of people who half halt constantly as similar to someone who rides the break on a car.

  9. Lately you've been posting about several things that I'm working on with my own horse and myself. I'm so very grateful for your posts and thoughts on these subjects ... I can't begin to express my thanks. You've helped me visualize the details of precisely what I'm trying to accomplish with my horse in a calm and clear manner which is more than I can say for most professionally written or published literature. I'm a bit selfish in saying this, but keep up the great work!


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