Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.
The halt is the fourth gait. Like the walk, trot and canter, it must be calm, straight and forward. The halt is neither stasis nor movement, it is dynamic yet immobile. The halt is like shifting your car into neutral rather than turning off the ignition. From neutral, you should be able to move forward or back, or in the case of the horse, sideways or even up, as in piaffe and levade.
The halt has three parts:
1. The downward transition. In the beginning, all transitions are like going up and down a ladder. A green horse is not strong enough to skip steps in the ladder yet. So, first you have to train your horse to walk into the halt, then walk out of the halt. As he becomes stronger, you will be able to skip steps, eventually cantering into and out of the halt at fourth level. Through training level, you can walk him into the halt. Remember that a horse is not truly on the aids until he is on the aids in the transitions. So, if you are trotting, and get a poor transition to walk before the halt, donít halt. Correct the walk, then halt.
2. The halt. The halt itself should be immobile, no squirming. When you are halted, be thinking of your
upward transition. Start counting your steps before you go. If you are going to walk off, count 5 walk steps in your mind, then ask him to go. If you are going to trot off from the halt, count 5 trot steps in your mind. The same with the canter. This will help you keep him and you in the proper mindset for the next gait, rather than either of you falling asleep. It is like revving your engine while you are in neutral. You donít want him to stall out. How hard you rev depends on how fast you want to go when you take off.
3. The upward transition. All gaits begin in the hindquarters. A horse, to continue the analogy, has rear wheel drive. If the riderís legs come off the horse in the halt, the upward transition will be late, while the rider restarts the engine. So, it is vital for the riderís legs to remain on the horseís sides, both to engage the hind legs in the downward transition, asking the horse to step under, and to prepare the horse to move off.
Whatís going on physically for the horse:
As the horse steps into the halt, he should be straight first, then square. Straight means the rider has to keep the horse channeled between the seat and legs and hands. Think of the aids like doors. If you open a door, drop rein contact on one side or release one leg, you are opening a door for the horse to step out of. He becomes crooked in the halt.
In the first stages the halt is more rectangular than square. That means the green horse will halt a little with his hocks behind him. The legs may be even and together, with equal weight on each leg, but the horseís back is not completely up and his hind legs are not completely engaged. He is not developed enough to bring both hind legs way up underneath and keep his balance that way. From the side, he looks kind of like a coffee table, a leg at each corner, but with a rectangular frame, long in the back with his hind legs camped a bit behind.
In the next stages, at first and second level, the halt is more square. The legs are still even, with equal weight on them. The hind legs are more underneath the horse, with the hocks under and the horseís back up. From the side, he looks like a kitchen table for four, a leg at each corner, but with a square frame.
In the final stages, the halt looks more and more like an upside down triangle with his hooves as the apex. The legs are still even, but the hind legs are loaded more than the front. The horse is rocked back on his haunches with the hind legs so far under him that they are getting closer and closer to his front legs. From the side, he no longer resembles a table, because he is more triangular than rectangular or square.
Whatís going on physically for the rider:
Weight: The weight and the legs control the horseís hind legs. The handís control the horseís front feet. Since all gaits begin in the back end, all gaits should end there too. So, to halt the horse, the rider has to first slow then stop the hind end. The rider stops the hind end by ceasing to move with the horse. The seat bones sink deeper into the horse under the premise that if someone sat hard on you, you would stop too.
Leg: An adroit rider feels which hind leg is stepping forward and stops each hind leg at a time. The rider keeps his lower legs on the horse, ready to act. If the rider takes the legs off the horse in the halt, the horse stalls out. He is no longer idling in neutralóthe engine dies. It will be very hard to make the upward transition.
Rein: As the riderís seat stops the hind legs, the riderís hands stop the front legs, in rhythm, with a left, right, sponging motion of the hands. As the rider conditions the horse to listen more and more to the weight, less and less rein aid will be needed.
Horse not calm?
If the horse is not calm in the halt, he wonít be immobile, and thus he certainly wonít be straight, and may not remain forward. A horse who is not calm might come off the aids and move around (in any direction). He might yank down or play with the bit excessively, although soft chewing is encouraged. A horse who is not calm may run through the aids and raise his head in the upward transition.
As in all gaits, calmness is the foundation for straight and forward, so it needs to be addressed first.
Exercises to improve calmness in the halt:
*Use mounting as a chance to practice halt. He should stand calm and square as you get on. To be sure the halt is straight, always "park" him in a place where he can move straight off once youíre on. Never turn from a halt. Go a few steps, then turn to help your horse learn better balance.
*Vary the places where you halt. This keeps the horse from anticipating the upward transition at X and keeps him guessing.
*Stand and chat. If you get a nice halt, release the contact , put the horse on a long rein and just stand there while you talk to you instructor, a friend on the rail, or your horse himself. Allow the horse to stall out of neutral until heís established calmness in the halt.
*If the horse walks off, stop him again for a few seconds then go back to work. This teaches him that he must submit to your request for the halt, but that if heís ready to go, heís going. Pretty soon heíll figure out that itís easier to stand and chat.
*Use the halt as a reward. If the horse performs another movement particularly well, ask him to halt instead of walking on a long rein. Give him lots of pets at the halt. Heíll come to enjoy it.
*Reward with sugar cubes. If the horse gives you a good halt, reach down and give him a sugar cube or a small treat, diced carrots or apples are fine. Not only will this keep him chewing softly and halted while he eats, he will begin to focus back on the rider and wait. As his halts improve, wean him off the sugar.
*Move all over the horse when heís halted. Sometimes a wiggly horse is anticipating his riderís next move. So, make this type of horse a little less sensitive to the movements of the rider at the halt. Pat his neck, his croup, his ears. Teach him to stand while you tighten your girth from the saddle. Lean back, lean forward. If he moves off, stop him for a few seconds, then go back to work.
*Donít insist that the horse stay still forever in the beginning. Get a few quiet moments, then build on those.
*End your ride on your best halt. This is his ultimate reward, and you have to halt anyway to get off.
Horse not straight in the halt?
A horse who is not straight in the halt might throw his haunches to one side, or cock his head. He might wobble down center line like a drunken sailor.
Exercises to improve straightness in the halt:
*Use the wall to keep you straight. Practice your halts along the wall. Donít worry about accuracy at all at first. Make sure the horse is established in a regular tempo before you ask for the halt. Go for quality, not quantity.
*Count the outside hind leg at the walk and stop it first. This way you know your halts are originating in the hindquarters.
*Halt from circle to circle. This is good from training level and above. Establish either a rising trot or sitting, but work toward a good sitting trot. Do a few figure eights, the higher the level, the smaller the circle. The goal is a figure eight of two 10 m circles. Once you have established the bend -straighten -bend routine, in the middle of the figure eight, halt. The circles should help the horse engage. The straighten part should transfer to a straight halt.
*Since the bend and flexion in a shoulder in is the same as the bend and flexion in a 10m circle, practice halt in shoulder in. The horse and rider should keep the position of shoulder in in the halt itself. This will engage the horse in the halts at the higher levels, making him square rather than rectangular.
Horse not forward in halt?
Although it sounds like an oxymoron, a horse who is not thinking forward in the halt is a horse behind your leg. He may not move off when you ask him to go. He may rest or cock a hind leg. At its worst, he may back up without being asked.
Exercises to improve a halt that is not forward:
*Donít look back, just walk ahead and ask for another halt. If you think heís not square, or resting a leg, donít lean over and look at his hind legs. This just makes him more crooked. Instead, walk right out of your halt and ask again in a few steps. It will keep him thinking forward.
*When the horse wonít move forward from the halt, establish more momentum going in to the halt, and only stop for a second or two. You might introduce trot halt trot early on this horse. Often a horse that is not forward in the halt is a horse who disengages or stalls out completelyótoo calm. Keep him guessing how long each halt will last.
*If the horse backs out of the halt, send him right back to walk. Wait awhile longer, then halt again. Always correct him by moving forward when he backs up. Make each halt fairly short, before he becomes impatient. Ask for your halts toward the end of the ride, when he is calmer.
Learning to halt properly improves the riderís timing and the horseís balance. The halt is an engagement exercise. In a show, your halt is your first and last impression on the judge.