A correct halt is all about being balanced.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and Certified Horsemanship Association master instructor Carla Wennberg with Andrea Caudill
Editor’s Note: This story was one in a series printed in America’s Horse in 2010. While the idea of the series was to guide dressage-minded readers through the steps toward riding a successful Training Level Test 1, honing the skills involved will improve any horse’s performances. The advice and exercises in this particular piece will help any horse who tends to fall on his front end in the halt, and any rider, since straightness is a crucial part of fine-tuning any style of riding. Download the full series in our free online report, Riding Dressage.
Because of the skills I developed riding western, all the horses I’ve gone up through the levels with in dressage get 8s and 9s on our centerline and halts. It’s about collecting, balancing and pushing, and that’s something I’ve learned all my life in a western saddle.
In Training Level Test 1, both halts are at X on the centerline. We need to start by nailing that trot down the centerline. Once we’re on the line, I imagine I’m in a tunnel. I focus all my aids – eyes up! – as if we’re in a tunnel, and the horse has got to stay in that tunnel, on those tracks the whole time. If he is leaning, it’s going to show up in the stop. When he is on the aids, when you have the power from behind, when he is straight and you say, “Whoa,” everything just flows, beautiful and soft.
Everyone is stronger on one side of their body than the other. Everyone leans left or right, and you have to learn to feel that. As you ride, think, “Is this straight?” Review: “Are his neck and shoulders straight? His ribs? Is he leaning left or right?” Then close those aids and straighten him. Practice until you have an “aha!” moment.
Getting the Halt
The halt in this test can be done through the walk, which to me is harder than one where a horse drops his butt and stops like a cow horse. But in dressage, we want it soft, too, and balanced.
With everybody I’ve ever helped (including myself), when you transition from a trot to a walk to a halt, the horse alw
ays stands behind himself because you have a tendency to pull the reins, and he drops on his forehand.
Here’s the trick: Start shortening the horse’s stride a few strides before X. So you’re going to trot in, down that tunnel, and think, “Trot! Trot! … Shorten, shorten, shorten …Whoa.” (Don’t actually say “whoa” out loud in competition, or you’ll be penalized for using your voice!)
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I ask the horse to shorten his step by closing my leg more, pushing a little more with my seat and ceasing the motion with my hands. I use a light squeeze-release feel to tell him not to go as forward with his body, that he has to start rocking his weight back to his hind end. You’re asking him to shorten his step, but you keep the energy by using your leg and seat. Be careful not to get him so short that he marches up and down. Riders who want to collect too much too early tend to force the horse behind the vertical, and sometimes he gets lateral (interrupting the correct footfall).
So I’m going to shorten the step, then cease the motion – that is what tells him to halt. If you feel his hind legs behind your seat, step him up a step or two. A correct stop has all four feet square – that means he’s balanced.
Once you halt, you have to salute. Take a deep breath and slow your mind down, then drop your chin toward your chest, take one hand off the rein and drop it by your hip. If you’re carrying a whip, remember to salute with the other hand. A man should remove his hat with his free hand after halting and hold it while saluting.
Sometimes a horse gets keyed up when I ask him to halt. He knows something is about to happen, and he’s pumped up because I’m pumped up. So I need to teach him to wait. After I come to the halt, I take the reins in one hand and, in practice, I pet my horse, wait, let him sigh and take a breath, then I salute.
I practice trotting down the centerline. Once I get the straightness, then I add a transition. First, I do a trot-walk-trot transition at X. If he’s listening, if he responds quickly to my aids coming back to the walk, next I’m going to ask for a walk to halt and, if he succeeds, trot to halt. If he stays balanced, he gets praise: “Good boy!” If he puts his weight, whump onto his forehand, I’m going to transition – trot again! – and try again.
Practice the halt until your horse is comfortable. Always keep that energy level up, because next you have to practice springing off. When you cue him to walk or trot off, you don’t want him to putter through it – you want him to spring off, go! Continue focusing on that tunnel and that straightness.