Published in Topline Ink Equestrian Journal, May/June 2009, 13. [Online here]
The ultimate purpose of dressage is to teach the horse to carry himself in balance under the rider. To develop balance and self-carriage, the horse must shift weight from his forehand onto his haunches. When the horse has strong hind legs, he can carry the rider in balance. The half-halt is one method by which the rider can cause the horse to transfer weight onto his hindquarters. This article discusses the two types of half-halts: the unilateral half-halt and the arrèt.
Before discussing how to use the half-halt, the rider must understand how the hock works mechanically. The rider can use this knowledge to target the hock with a half-halt at the right moment to shift weight onto that hind leg. Classical theory recognizes that the hocks act like springs they push against the weight that is placed upon them in the opposite direction with equal force. The forehand puts weight on the hock when the horse's hind foot steps into the front hoof print. At that moment, the hock pushes back against the weight coming upon it from the ground.
The rider can think of the half-halt as being like a mini-halt. It momentarily checks the forward motion and shifts weight onto the haunches. The rider should consider that, when a horse halts, the horse sits a little and bends his hind legs to take weight onto them. When the horse moves forward again, the horse pushes off of the ground with his hind legs, which strengthens them and increases their pushing power. Likewise, in a half-halt, the horse sits momentarily and accepts weight onto his hind legs. The horse should then be driven forward immediately after the half-halt to cause him to push off of the ground with more force, which increases the spring in the steps and the quality of the gaits.
The first type of half-halt to be discussed is the unilateral half-halt, which is appropriate for use on horses that are beginning their dressage training, and are not yet ready for advanced collected work. To execute the unilateral half-halt, the rider should hold the rein against the hind leg that he or she wants to flex in the stifle, but not against the other rein. To increase the flexion in the hind leg, the rider should drive more during the half-halt on the targeted side than on the other. To give an example, when the horse’s left hind leg pushes off of the ground, the rider should half-halt on the left rein, which actually targets the airborne diagonal right hind leg. By doing so, the rider causes the horse to lower the croup on the right side, which compresses the “spring” of the hock. When the horse pushes off of the ground, he will push off with more force, thereby increasing the pushing power of the hock. In this case, the rider should be careful to not half-halt on the right rein because it would negatively affect the diagonal left hind foot. Half-halting on that leg at the moment the horse is pushing off of the ground with it would check the impulsion of the left hind leg. This would decrease the pushing power of that leg and reduce the quality of the gaits.
The unilateral half-halt works more on the head and neck, and less on the entire body of the horse. As mentioned, it also works on the diagonal hind leg, which can cause the horse’s body to become crooked. In addition, the unilateral half-halt is not very effective if the horse resists by stiffening his hind legs. If the horse stiffens his hind legs in resistance, the rider can make use of the full halt.
The second type of half-halt is the arrèt, which is appropriate for use on horses that are ready for increased levels of collection. The effect of the arrèt is different from the unilateral half-halt, in that it works straight from the hand to the hind leg on the same side, rather than on the diagonal side. If the arrèt occurs at the moment the hind hoof steps down, the weight of the forehand transfers onto the hind hoof, assuming that the horse tracks up.
To execute the arrèt, the rider half-halts on one rein, while holding against it with the other rein. After executing the arrèt, the rider should yield slightly on the reins to re-establish a normal contact. When the other rein is held against the half-halting rein in the arrèt, the half-halt affects the horse such that the ribs, the spine, and the bones in the hind leg on that side are compressed. If the half-halt occurs when the hoof that is stepping under is still in the air, the stifle will be flexed by the horse's weight. As a result, the croup lowers as the hip joint moves toward the fetlock. The horse cannot use the ground to stiffen his hind leg in resistance at this point. Because the “spring” of the hind leg is more compressed, the horse will push off of the ground with more force. The hocks pushing forward in this way will lift the forehand.
Used in combination, the arrèt and the driving aids act both from front to back and back to front, which is necessary to maintain the balance. The half-halt causes the horse to shift his center of gravity to the rear. The horse then moves the center of gravity to the middle of his body when he goes forward, where the rider tries to maintain it by using a combination of driving and half-halting aids. When the horse is able to carry himself in balance under the rider, he will develop the best quality of gaits allowed by his conformation and abilities.
Seeger, Louis. Herr Baucher und seine Künste. Ein ernstes Wort an Deutschlands Reiter. Verlag von Friedr. Aug. Herbig. Berlin, 1852.
Louis Seeger was a student of Max Ritter von Weyrother of the Spanish Riding School, and the instructor of Gustav Steinbrecht, the author of Gymnasium of the Horse.
An English translation of this book entitled Monsieur Baucher and His Art: a Serious Word with Germany’s Riders with a foreword by Karl Mikolka is available