Loading the Hind Legs by Means
of the Halt, Half-Halt and Reinback
Cynthia F. Hodges. JD, LLM, MA
The prime directive of the dressage training is causing the horse to carry itself. To attain self-carriage, it must accept weight in the hindquarters. This is the only way the horse can move in a balanced fashion under the rider. It is not a matter of “putting the horse into the bridle,” but rather of inducing the horse to put itself back on its hindquarters. In so doing, the horse automatically assumes the correct frame for dressage. Many exercises have been designed to cause the horse to bend either one or both hind legs, with the intent of strengthening the hind legs. The ultimate goal is to achieve equal bending in both hind legs at the same time. If the horse bends the hind legs evenly, the horse takes equal weight on each hind leg and can carry himself in balance.
In so doing, the aesthetic meets the practical. If the horse takes weight evenly on both hind legs, it will move in balance. As a result, the horse's soundness is preserved and the gaits are more beautiful. Because the forehand is lighter, the shoulder is freed and the front legs can stretch out in front. The extended trot is an impressive display of this. The horse seems to dance because the strides are light and effortless. It will also be able to stop or turn immediately upon the rider’s request.
The old French masters understood collecting the horse (rassembler) to be the transfer of the weight of the forehand to the haunches with ease. Through the rassembler, the shoulders and haunches either carry equal weight, or the haunches carry more weight. The German riders preserved this sense of rassembler in that they spoke of the horse "collecting itself." The actions of the rider are more passive than those of the horse. The rider sets the stage, but the horse has to carry the weight himself.
According to the Old School, there are three separate phases in the horse's training. The first phase is aimed toward developing the pushing power of the hindquarters. The second is the dressage phase where the head and neck are raised, thereby balancing the forehand. The third is the real training, which consists of balancing the forehand and haunches, and honing the horse's skills
The quality of the gaits is the most important aspect. Avoid all that can destroy the impulsion. In the first foreward riding of the horse, it is best to not intentionally use and train the pushing power of the haunches, position the head on the vertical, to the side, or properly. If these things happen, then it is only as a result of the driving aids and the use of the hands, which offer a steady support, i.e. the fifth foot.
Perfect suppleness and agility are based upon perfect balance of the horse's entire body. This is brought about by putting weight as necessary on either one or the other hind foot. The horse is encouraged to shift its weight more onto the haunches by using a combination of transitions. A transition occurs when the horse switches from one gait to another, halts, or increases or decreases the length of stride in one gait. When the horse has to make these changes, he has to gather himself together accordingly. This not only strengthens him, it makes him “sharper.” This is because he expects the rider to ask him to make changes.
When the horse is halted, he must sit a little and bend his hind legs to take weight in them. This strengthens the horse’s carrying strength. When the rider then asks him to move forward out of the halt, the horse has to push off with his hind legs, which strengthens the pushing power. The half-halt is just a mini-halt that momentarily checks the forward movement and shifts weight back. The horse is then driven forward to increase the spring in the steps. The rider should always strive to balance the forehand and the hindquarters. This will be discussed more throughly later in this article.
The method used to increase flexion in the haunches is to drive the hindlegs forward and to transfer weight from the head and neck to the hindquarters. In order to not disturb the mechanics of the movement during this training period, nothing other than the foreward reaching movement of the hindlegs should be used. This is because the haunches are suited to take such weight by nature.
The horse's hocks are natural springs. They move in the opposite direction of the burden that is put on them but with equal power. The forehand places weight on the hock in the moment when the horse's hind foot steps into the front foot's hoofprint (tracks up) or is just about to in an energetic and powerful trot. At this moment, the hock, acting as a coiled spring, is in the position to push back against the weight coming upon it from the ground and can, therefore, engage.
This opposing effect takes place in the direction of back to front and from down to up (the hocks push forward and up). It is easy to see that the natural foreward impulsion not only causes a strengthening of the haunches, but also raises the forehand so that the forelegs do not hit the ground as hard.
Once the horse takes a contact on our hands, and we have begun to develop the pushing power of the hind end for the most part, one should try to free the shoulders. This freedom of the shoulders is gained by raising the head and neck to the degree that their weight lies no longer on the forehand, but rather over the forelegs. The horse can then move the front legs more freely from the shoulder, and thereby engage the pushing power of the hindlegs. The work in which we try to develop the full shoulder freedom by raising the head and neck is called dressiren (dressage).
The right time to begin the dressage work, i.e. the raising of the head and neck, is when the horse takes a constant contact on the rider's hands. This is a result of a steadier neck position akin to his natural neck position. In other words, when the horse finds his main point of support on the forelegs when in a lengthened frame.
One thinks of a perfectly trained dressage horse as carrying himself under the rider in a position of peace, with head and neck raised, and the hind legs springlike. Through an even pull on the reins, the head comes back and both joint areas of the first neck vertebra are pressed. The result is the horse bends its neck in a swan-like manner and frames himself up. The strength of the continual elastic contact works in the same way along the entire spinal column to the sacrum and from there to the haunches and hocks, where its effect has reached its goal if it causes flexion in the haunches. This is the moment in which the horse is perfectly inclined to collection. It develops then as a result of the effect of the weight of the forehand shifting onto the spring-like hocks. Through such perfect collection, the rider gets his horse completely under control while preserving its strength. The rider can achieve most important results in harmony with subtle aids.
As the horse’s training progresses and his hind legs grow ever stronger, the collection of his gaits increases. Collection is how much the horse can carry himself on his hind legs and how much he can push off of them. The ultimate in collection is the airs above the ground, which comprise the haute ecole.
Only after sufficient training can the transfer of weight be induced with the rider's hand. One of the ways to do this is by using the half-halt. Before one tries to set the weight of the forehand down onto the corresponding hind foot, one must accustom the horse not only to constant contact on the reins, but also to short, alternating pulls (they should be light, elastic and tactfully done) on one rein of the snaffle (unilateral half-halt) without holding the other rein against them.
The appropriate time to begin with the unilateral half-halts is when the rider feels he can leave his body to the natural movement of the horse, and the horse does not show any signs of dangerously irregular gaits. To execute the half-halt, the rider must hold the rein against the hindleg that he primarily wants to flex in the stifle. To this end, he should use the leg and spur more strongly on this side than on the other. At the moment when the left hind leg pushes off of the ground, one cannot half-halt with the right rein because such a rein-aid works on the diagonal hind foot, thereby restricting the pushing power of that hind leg. A half-halt on the left rein is more appropriate because it works on the already airborne diagonal right hind foot, which increases the pushing power of the hock. According to the laws of animal locomotion, the horse lifts his head and neck forward and back while walking and in the first step out of the halt. It goes forward after the hind leg touches the ground, and back when it touches the ground.
If the horse trots in a regular tempo and accepts our usual driving aids of leg, spur, whip, etc., and even the change from continuous pressure on the bit to the movement of the snaffle from one side to the other, and the subsequent simultaneous giving and taking of both reins does not cause the horse to stop anymore, but rather it keeps moving forward regularly, without looking for support in the rider's hands, then the time has come for the rider to introduce another type of half-halt aid, the arret, which also raises the head and neck.
Combined with the usual driving aids, we achieve with this arret what we cannot with only a directly driving aid, i.e. the indirect driving aids, which act both from front to back and back to front. In the arret, the rider half-halts on one rein, while the other rein is kept taut. It has a different effect from the previously mentioned one, in that it is not diagonal, but rather works straight from the hand to the hind foot on the same side. If the arret occurs in the moment when this hind foot steps down, a measurable pressure from the weight of the forehand onto the hind foot will take place, assuming that this foot steps into the hoofprint of the forefoot.
If the half-halt happens when the foot that is stepping under is still in the air, the stifle will be flexed by the horse's weight. As a result of the hip joint lowering towards the fetlock, no stiffening can take place in these two joints. Only then can the spring-like action of the hock be used to its full capacity. It does not just swing forward but also pushes forward.
After explaining the indirect driving aids called the half arrets, it is clear why the leg aid in reference to its fore-, after- and simultaneous use cannot always remain the same, but rather must be adjusted according to the horse's stage of training. If one demands in the first stage that the still undeveloped hind legs alone assume the action of the direct driving aids, namely the calves, the horse can be made to develop his pushing power to ever higher degrees. The dressage training, for the most part, allows us the simultaneous use of hand and leg, because we can determine the flexion of the stifle to some degree with the half-halts.
As for the raising of the head and neck, the differing half-halts are either direct or indirect. Directly raising ones are the checks on the single rein, without a corresponding steady hold on the other rein. In this way, it works less on the entire body and more on the head and neck, and even across to the diagonal hindleg, which can cause a crooked body position. When the other rein is held against the half-halting rein, the half-halt affects the horse such that the ribs, the spine, and the bones in the hindlegs on that side are comressed. The resulting lifting motion of the head and neck is the indirect result of the use of the raising half-halt.
The direct half-halts are not enough for the raising of the head and neck when the horse holds himself in the gaits in resistance. One must regain the pushing power and the necessary tempo in the forward movement before using the indirect half-halts, in order to raise the forehand with the unilateral half-halts. If the hindlegs stiffen in resistance, one should make use of the full halt.
The rider applies the half-halt according to the movement of the gaits. The trot, for example, is a springy gait consisting of two beats. The horse’s legs swing forward in diagonal pairs. There is a moment of suspension when all four legs are off of the ground at the same time. Increasing the suspended moment occurs through collection and culminates in the advanced movement passage. If the rider cannot feel when the hindlegs are coming forward with his seat, then he can look at the shoulder. The left shoulder is down and back when the left hind leg is swinging forward. The right shoulder is down and back when the right hind leg is swinging forward.
The canter is a rocking 3-beat gait. The horse’s inside hind leg begins the canter and swings forward together with the outside foreleg, the horse’s inner foreleg comes forward, and the outside hindleg follows. In the canter, too, there is a moment of suspension, which is increased in the training via the collecting half-halts. If the horse canters in 4-beats, he is not “jumping off” of the hindquarters enough. In other words, there is not enough energy coming from behind to make the canter active.
When the horse lifts himself in the right lead canter, for example, the left hindfoot is the only weight carrier. The pressure causes it to yield through increased flexion in the stifle. This develops springiness in the hocks. In the swinging forward of the body, this left hind foot is free to lift, but not as high as the other. The stepping down of the feet happens in the opposite order. When the left hind foot steps down first, the carrying capacity of the haunches is still dominant. As soon as the right hind foot and simultaneously the left forefoot take the ground, the impulsion begins to work and the body has the tendency to bring the center of gravity more forwar. With the stepping down of the right forefoot, the center of gravit would come more in front of the middle of the horse if the rider would not direct the weight through a tug on the rein onto the left hindfoot before the right forefoot steps down. Through that, the springiness is renewed for the next stride.
After such training, the horse will soon go so powerfully on to the rider's firmly held hands that it finally becomes possible to drive the hindlegs under the horse as far as possible with the spurs. We can communicate to him through a full halt to either shorten or lengthen the strides. The result is the lifting and balancing of the forehand to the highest degree.
The full halt should be thought of as a result of the half-halt. One method is to hold against both hind legs evenly, and after the horse has been perfectly straightened, drive with both legs evenly. The even pressure working on both hind legs causes flexion in both stifles and checks the impulsion. If one hindleg is out behind during the transition, the rider drives the other one forward and holds it by half-halting on the other rein simultaneously as it comes to step under.
Another way to bring the horse to a halt is to use several repeated half-halts. The rider can half-halt using the outside rein on the outside hind leg three times (three strides) in order to allow the horse time to halt. The first half-halt alerts the horse, the second prepares him, the third asks for the transition. This method allows for a smooth and balanced transition into the halt with minimal resistance on the horse's part.
The reins are used, followed by the appropriate use of leg and spur, until the horse reaches the line of the center of gravity with either the one hindleg in the half halt or with both hindlegs in the full halt. The rein aids must become stronger when the hind hoof has left the ground and is reaching forward. This is different from the arret, where the reins are first used when the hind hoof is already on the ground.
After a well executed halt, as after every successful stifle flexion, the arms and fists of the rider can remain in their strong position and do not need to assume a position of lesser strength after the horse has responded, as is the case with the arret. This is not because they should continue holding, but rather because after such a halt, the weight of the forehand which shortly beforehand burdened the hands, is now transferred to the hindquarters. The transition automatically results in a hard contact becoming a soft and light one.
In such a position, the center of gravity of the horse moves to the back. The effect of the previously taut reins is achieved now almost entirely through the weight of the leather alone. It is now up to the horse to place the center of gravity during the forward motion to the middle, where the rider then tries to preserve the balance of the horse through a cooperative effort of hand and leg.
Once the horse strives foreward without special use of the usual driving aids and accepts the alternating pressure on each individual snaffle rein (unilateral half-halts), the rider can introduce the rein-back This is the time to collect the horse or to practice flexion of his haunches through rein-back. If one uses the rein-back earlier, the main objective of this exercise fails, which is to unlock the pushing power of the haunches. The rein-back results in flexed stifles and unlocks the springy quality of the hocks.
In the reinback, the horse must bend the stifle of each hindleg more than usual with every backwards step. The rider should try to feel the moment the hind foot is put down, for which the chair seat is suited. The chairseat also makes it more difficult for the horse to rush backwards.
To begin the rein-back, the rider asks first for the horse to stand still. The rider then makes a couple of steps of the windmill and guides the horse into rein-back. He makes individual half-halts with the horse's body straight, while the hindfeet move to the side. The rider puts his entire weight onto the hindfoot that is being set down and afterwards gives a short, strong half-halt with the diagonal rein. This mostly raises the horse's forehand a little from the ground and increases the flexion of the haunches, and with that, his desire to move foreward.
The rider should be alert to the horse trying to avoid the stifle flexion by stepping sideways with the croup. If the horse, for example, throws his croup to the right, one positions the weight of his upper body from the hips to the right and back and throws the forehand of the horse around to the right for a few steps. One does this by giving a couple of short half-halts on the left rein before and at the same time as with the right rein. In this way, one changes the direction of the croup each time a hind leg tries to evade.
At this point in the training, it is time to use more often and for a longer time than before the forehand against the hind end. We work the horse, therefore, in reprises in the third phase of riding. We seek to hold in check the impulsion of the haunches through shortened forewards movement, and to develop the carrying capacity of the hindquarters. Finally, to equalize this with the carrying power of the shoulders.
An important result of our balancing of the forehand is the change in movement of the horse. It does not travel downhill as in the beginning stage anymore (that is lower in front), but rather more parallel with the ground and lighter in front. Through this, the horse gains the most impulsion allowed by his conformation and abilities.
There are several very useful exercises that strengthen the horse's hind legs. These are stirrup-stepping, posting on the inner hind leg, and the "half-halt, half-halt, yield & go" exercise.
Stirrup-stepping is a secret aid of the Old School used to collect the horse. In combination with the rein aid, or as a replacement for it, the rider can put greater weight on the hind leg he wishes to load more. The best time to do this is when the hind leg is in the air and is swinging forward. By stepping heavily into the stirrup on the same side, the rider can use his weight to make the horse "sit," that is, bend the targeted hind leg more. When the hind leg is weighted while it is in the air, the horse cannot evade to the side with it. Because the hind leg is compressed more when meeting the ground, the spring of the hock will push back against the ground with more force, thereby increasing the spring in the gait. The horse must be allowed to go forward. The moment of suspension is increased and the gaits become "bigger." One can think of a ball being bounced on the ground. The more force is used on the ball, the higher it will bounce.
The exercise is a combination of stepping on the outside stirrup, then the inside stirrup, then both equally. It can be done in either trot or canter. It is pobably easier to begin in trot. In rising trot, upon sitting, step more heavily on the outside stirrup for two strides. Then step into the inside stirrup for two strides, then both for two strides. Allow the horse to trot more forward for two strides and begin the sequence again. Do the exercise while posting on both diagonals equally, as you do not want to work one hind leg more than the other. The result should be a bigger, more energetic, yet more collected gait. Eventually, the rider should be able to feel when the hind leg is coming forward at the sitting trot or canter and should step more heavily in the stirrup on the same side as the hind leg to collect the horse.
The "half-halt, half-halt, yield & go" exercise is similar to that of the stirrup-stepping exercise. The rider half-halts on the outside rein when the outside hind is swinging forward for two strides. He then either allows the horse to go forward or drives it forward for two strides, depending on the horse's forward desire. Repeat the sequence about 10-15 times in each direction. Half-halting and then driving forward will shift the horse back and lighten his front end. A more elegant and comfortable gait should be gained at the end of the exercise. Again, this can be done in either trot or canter. In the case of the canter, the rider would half-halt on the outside rein when the head is down, and would drive when the head is up.
The last exercise is to alternate posting on the inner hind leg with posting on the outer hind leg. The rider sits when the inside hind leg is swinging forward (the rider will rise when the inner shoulder is coming forward). This greatly increases the weight the inner hind leg must carry on a curved line. The rider's weight will compress the inner hind leg, forcing it to work more, similar to doing deep knee bends. Again, it is recommended to alternate posting on the inside hind leg with posting on the outside hind leg to avoid overworking the hind legs. To begin, select a set number of strides between 5 and 10, then alternate. For example, if you pick 6, then post on the inside hind 6 strides, then switch to the outside hind for 6, etc. The usual convention is to count how many strides your horse needs for a quarter 20 meter circle and then stick with that (for most horses it will be between 5 and 8 strides). This exercise can be done large or on circles. Just remember that the smaller the circle, the more weight is put on the inside hind leg.
Seeger, Louis. Herr Baucher und seine Künste. Ein ernstes Wort an Deutschlands Reiter. Verlag von Friedr. Aug. Herbig. Berlin, 1852. A translation is available. Contact Cynthia for more information.
Translations on classical dressage:
Monsieur Baucher and His Arts: A Serious Word with Germany's Riders by Louis Seeger
System of Horsemanship by Louis Seeger