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The Perfect Half-Halt … What Does It Feel Like?

In this excerpt from Rider + Horse = 1, leading expert in movement and riding Eckart Meyners is joined by Hannes Müller and Kerstin Niemann in explaining how half of anything can make the whole difference.

Photo by Horst Streitferdt.

It is always a risky undertaking to try to describe “feel.” Just as it is impossible to dispute matters of taste, each rider would probably describe her riding “feel” a bit differently when she applies a half-halt. An attempt to describe the feel could be something like this: The horse determines the right moment, which is when all the horse’s joints are flexing during movement. This is when the rider “gathers” the horse’s impulsion into a slightly more closed body frame (shape).

To explain further, the horse flexes his large joints from the hip through the stifle to the hock, and farther on down. Thus, his pelvis is tilted, his croup lowers, and his muscles cause his back to arch slightly upward. As a prerequisite, the rider needs to be very supple on the horse’s back since her pelvis must “receive” the movement of the horse’s arching back and follow it, meaning she slightly tilts backward and her pelvis gets “sucked” into the horse’s back movement. As a result, she will feel how her lower leg softly and automatically “clings” to the horse’s body, since her backward-tilted pelvis initiates the driving impulse in her lower leg. At the same time, her hands follow the movement of her pelvis.

During the moment of suspension in the horse’s trot or canter, the rider’s pelvis tilts slightly forward again, and as a result, her lower leg somewhat disconnects from the horse’s body and her hands move slightly and elastically forward. This is the moment when the rider “lets the horse’s forward impulsion out.” When the horse’s hooves make contact with the ground and the joints flex once more, the rider can utilize the next half-halt in the rhythm that is predetermined by the horse. This way, the rider can influence the horse with many consecutive half-halts that accompany the horse’s every movement—sometimes more, sometimes less pronounced. The functional principle is similar to a perpetual motion machine, since all the horse’s movements, whether at the walk, trot, or canter, give the rider the recurring opportunity to use the half-halt technique to influence the horse.

Since describing how and to what extent half-halts are applied is so complex, consider this thought: “The horse ‘collects’ the half-halt from the rider.” This means that through the rhythm and sequence of his movement, the horse determines how and to what extent the rider applies the half-halt; however, this should not mean that the half-halt is ridden in a reactive manner: Being able to actively utilize the half-halt requires a great deal of coordination on the part of the rider.

The following example is a fitting comparison: Take a ball and keep bouncing it on the floor with one hand. When the ball jumps up toward your hand, you first receive the ball’s movement, meaning you act reactively. Then, however, you can influence the ball’s direction and dynamics by lifting and lowering your wrist. You are, therefore using your own activity to bring energy into the “conversation” between a human hand and the ball. Just like when bouncing a ball, the rider must use her proprioception and skills in order to find the correct moment for the half-halt. Those who have developed proprioception during their riding education can “feel” the point in time when they must collect the horse’s impulsion, retain it, then with a yielding rein aid, immediately allow the horse to swing forward.

Coordination of Aids

The rider must be prepared to coordinate her aids during the half-halt, a big test of her riding skills and coordination. But she cannot learn this simply by “being moved” passively (“reacting” rather than “acting”) on a schoolmaster. Furthermore, since there are no comparable skills that a rider can fall back on that would allow her to transfer the skill to riding, this transfer must occur by using a rider’s various abilities.

Just as it is part of training for other sports, the rider should be able to fulfill intricate, complex tasks, which must occur simultaneously, consecutively, and under time pressure. As a consequence the rider becomes more sensitive to her coordination abilities. She can then act and react during situational changes without any difficulty.

Cross-coordination exercises turning around the rider’s longitudinal axis provide the best preparation since they involve using both sides of the body via the brain … these exercises assist with the interplay of aids—especially across the diagonals of your body.

Suggested Exercises

These exercises can help the rider increasingly become better able to fine-tune her aids and her influence while applying the half-halt.

  • Walking and circling one arm.
  • Walking and circling both arms consecutively—like a windmill—from front
    to back, and vice versa.
  • Walking and circling both arms at the same time from front to back, and vice
    versa.
  • Skipping and circling both arms from back to front, and vice versa.
  • Stand on balance trainer on both legs and throw a ball from left hand to right
    hand.
  • Stand on balance trainer on one leg and throw a ball up in the air.

The goal is for the rider to not only reactively experience the half-halt, but to be able to actively use it in order to change the horse’s gait, movement, and posture. Nowhere does the conversation between rider and horse become more clearly apparent than in the skillful application of half-halts.

This excerpt from Rider + Horse = 1 by Eckart Meyners, Hannes Müller, and Kerstin Niemann, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

Jack Le Goff’s 7 Rules for Conditioning the Event Horse

In this excerpt from his book “Horses Came First, Second, and Last,” the late great Olympic event coach Jack Le Goff gives us his seven tried-and-true rules for mentally and physically preparing the horse for competition.

Jack Le Goff riding Laurier to third place at Burghley in 1963. Photo courtesy of Jack
Le Goff.

The mental attitude of the horse is of equal importance as the physical conditioning. A relaxed, happy horse will not only compete better but will have far less chance of injury. If a horse is happy in his work, then competing at an event will take less out of him. A calm horse has a longer stride. Take one extra foot on a stride, and multiply that by the number of strides on a cross-country course and you will see a big difference. The horse will be faster on the course with no increase in speed because he is taking fewer strides to do it. The development of your conditioning program should include both the body and the mind and will help the horse do his job at maximum efficiency.

Conversely, if the horse is unhappy, he may not make the extra effort. You can pretty much get the horse up to the Preliminary level whether he enjoys it or not. But when it comes to the big fences, you cannot force him. It is all down to the mental attitude; many horses are physically capable of jumping the heights and widths, but they just will not do it. Horses have to like you and be happy in their work to put out that kind of effort. I see some people who do not ride so well, but horses go for them. I believe someone like that must be a good horseman or horsewoman because the horse wants to work for him or her.

Injuries are often related to the horse’s mental condition. If a horse is relaxed, he is not going to get into half the trouble he will if he is fighting the rider all through the course. Not only is the unhappy horse going to knock himself, he is also going to have problems in his back, muscle soreness, and problems in the shoulders, all because he is mentally unhappy and tense. He is going to run around with his head in the air, unresponsive to his rider, who will then head to the hardware store for a solution instead of the drawing board!

The happy horse will use his body properly. He will be able to make the time between jumps; he will seem like he is flowing, coming back smoothly for turns and flowing forward. His muscles will work freely. The tendons will slide inside the tendon sheath, and they will seldom be injured. The articulated joints will work fluidly. There will be no rubbing or grating because the horse is relaxed. His muscles are relaxed and he is supple, listening, obediently responding to the rider’s aids, and he is covering the ground with relaxed, efficient strides, not wasting an ounce of his energy. This is the epitome of our goal in our training and conditioning program. And again, it all comes down to going forward, coming back, and turning smoothly like a well-oiled machine.

Although there are basic principles to conditioning horses, I never trained two teams the same way and have always adjusted the conditioning of event horses according to specific factors, such as:

1. The distances and speed required and the nature of the terrain of the target competition.

2. The length of time since the horse’s last competition. A horse that has not been competing for several months will need more conditioning than one who is competing regularly.

3. The facilities available for conditioning. Gently rolling open fields are ideal, some hills would be an asset, but you must make the best of what you have nearby.

4. The temperament of the horse. With a hot horse, you must use a lot of long distances at slower speeds. With a more easygoing horse, you will use shorter distances at faster speeds.

5. The age and soundness of the horse. With a horse whose soundness is delicate, you must replace the speed work on the flat with slower work uphill and possibly swimming.

6. The upcoming competitions. When conditioning for a three-day event, the horse trials leading up to it will be a critical part of the horse’s fitness preparation and nothing can replace competition.

7. The rule of three. Three weeks prior to a major competition I always sharpen up the horses with a competition. If you have to travel a long distance to the final competition, then the trial can move to four weeks prior. Racehorse trainers would not conceive running the Kentucky Derby without prep races. Finally, let me say that it is essential that a horse get a rest period after a hard season. They should be turned out for 10 hours a day in a safe pasture whenever possible and for at least three weeks. Young horses at the Preliminary and Intermediate levels don’t need any riding during this decompression period, but an older horse may need a gentle hack to keep his joints loose and his back muscles in decent shape. A rest of less than three weeks simply will not do. Also, a midseason break just doesn’t work as the horse simply won’t let down during that short length of time, but you can give him what I call an “active rest.” This means taking him for hacks with no work as such. It is better to let the groom do it if possible as you would be tempted to do something instead of leaving him alone. Horses can go sour more quickly than people. Treat them like people because they think and react to their conditions and they have feelings; they also need a vacation!

This excerpt from Horses Come First, Second, and Last by Jack Le Goff is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).