Thursday, October 3, 2019

how i invented the half halt + other modern miracles

The notes from my last Hilltop dressage lesson have been languishing for weeks now - for so long that actually I was scheduled to be back there again yesterday for another lesson. Which, obviously that plan was torpedoed by Charlie's latest bat cave* ding.

I still want to write about the last lesson tho, for a few different reasons. Not least of which is: MEDIA!

Superficially it wasn't necessarily ground breaking. We worked on the fundamentals, as always (and forever), then schooled the ever loving fuck out of leg yields haha. Center line to rail. Rail to CL. Then zig zags! Much fun haha. Ooh and also some counter canter. All good stuff, right? And all in the video below, yassss.

(*The wound is healing, btw, slowly oh so slowly, but surely.)

checking out the sights from hilltop's lovely outdoor court
More than just the movements - the patterns and tricks etc - there was something else happening in this lesson that felt like bringing full circle an idea that I first learned actual YEARS ago.

And it has to do with the half halt.

The most basic of dressage aids, right? The most fundamental. You hear coaches everywhere shouting at their kids to: "Half halt now!!" Judges constantly reminding you to remember to "Half halt to prepare your horse!" Other riders empathizing with you about getting run away with, while smugly noting that their horse "Half halts off my seat."

We've all heard all about it, right?

we had a buddy this time around, so she rode first while we watched and waited for our turn
But what *is* the half halt?

To me it's honestly been a bit of an enigma - it defies understanding when trying to isolate it as a unique self-contained "aid." Well, let's be real here haha. ALL of dressage is kinda an enigma to me. I'm mostly just kinda groping along, latching on to those brief sparks of "feel" whenever and however they might arrive lol.

Which, naturally, is very apparent in my horses' training. Like, who remembers that time when Dan got on Isabel for a training ride only to discover that... Actually the mare didn't have a half halt. Uh... Whooops lol?

aw charlie's lookin good these days
Anyway, tho, it's clear enough to me that the half halt isn't simply a take / release of pressure with the reins. It's not just a squeeze / relax. Like, maybe that's part of the rider's side of the equation, but it's an incomplete formula.

As best I understand it, the effective half halt is actually better described by the reaction / result from the horse. That moment of rebalancing, of stepping under, of attentiveness in preparation for the next cue. Does that make sense?

It's the conditioned response in the horse that when the rider does that "squeeze / release" or "take / give" through the reins, seat, thighs, whatever, the horse knows something is coming and prepares his body to spring into whatever that something may be - a canter! or a halt! or a leg yield! Whatever, right?

It's that moment of preparation - that mutually understood aid that says, "Hey, brace yo'self! Prepare yo body!"

(except don't actually brace haha, obvi, but you know what I mean!)

our turn!!! gosh i love charlie's cute face
So. Ok, are you still with me here? Lol... Right. So. The half halt we've established is not so much a specific aid from the rider, but rather is the conditioned response from the horse to that aid.

Which explains why Isabel "didn't have" a half halt, bc I didn't ever condition her to it in an effective way.

One of my first actual experiences with "feeling" this was in a dressage clinic Isabel and I did with Stephen Birchall. In that lesson we worked on moving between "half steps" (sorta) and lengthened trot on a circle. Back and forth, forward and back. It was honestly an incredible ride - one of my all time favorite dressage rides with Isabel. The first time it really truly felt like she "gave me a place to sit" on her back.

And the biggest takeaway from that ride was practicing the forward and back in trot. Which... I've been doing ever since haha.

focusing vurry vurry hard
It turns out tho, there are shades of gray even here. For instance, maybe you remember early summer a year ago in a lesson with resident upper level rider K, where she helped me tweak my approach.

I've always done tons of transitions in my rides (trot walk trot; trot halt trot; trot walk canter; etc etc etc) plus said "forward and back" in trot, all with this idea of developing elasticity and sharpness to the aids. In that lesson, however, K introduced the idea of a "3/4 halt." Not a complete transition, but close, so close. And faster. Instead of doing a full trot-walk or trot-halt transition, she wanted me to just get almost there, then immediately ride forward again.

So ya know. That's sorta a new take on the "forward and back," and has since been baked into my routine as one of those fundamental building blocks toward the mystical magical holy grail of a Half Halt. Or something lol.

looks like a nice moment of walk. is actually charlie contemplating his dinosaur-in-tar-pit options lol
There's a catch, here, tho. Namely -- we're basically still just at that foundational stage. Nothing more has been built atop these blocks. We're still practicing in the same fashion, hoping that maybe one day our prince will come.

In this most recent lesson with Jess at Hilltop, however, I started to understand why. We warmed up looking for all the pieces to click together: getting Charlie in front of my leg, pushing off his hind end, coming through over his back, round, on the bit. The works, right?

And the whole "forward and back" in trot thing is a key step in that path. Except --- as we were talking through it, and as Jess was instructing me through the ride, it was blatantly apparent that my sense of timing was wayyyyyy off from hers. She'd already be clucking and snapping for Charlie to spurt forward, while I'd still be whoa-ing.

moar trotting, so much trotting
So, ya know, light bulb, right? I'm too slow, I need to speed it up, be snappier here. It still didn't really click tho, didn't quite feel right. Because as you all know, I tend to be a little protective of my delicate dinosaur and am always adamant that he has time to understand what I'm asking.

And, ya know, if I'm asking for transitions then obviously we want all our transitions to be correct and smooth, not choppy and rushed, right? Like, don't we always hear that we should practice each transition correctly? And sometimes on the low level horse it takes a few steps, right?

dis how leg yield, rite?
Except, ha! Here's my breakthrough. My nugget of wisdom to benevolently bestow upon you and the world at large. My greatest new discovery, my invention rivaling that of the wheel or sliced bread:

All along I've been so preoccupied with the idea of "transitions" within the gait, that it's been hindering me from this next step to the actual "half halt." The half halt is not a transition. It's... an adjustment. A shift of the weight, a ripple of energy.

the only still i grabbed of canter. not sure why but i kinda love this picture LOL.... you can't even see charlie's face, but you can guess his expression haha..
All along, my missing link has been timing. I've been so slow bc I'm too preoccupied with getting that slower trot, then that bigger trot. Which... Actually perhaps works against me because it's not really doing what we want the exercise to do: activate Charlie. It's too sluggish a progression from one to the next.

Whereas, instead, what we want from the half halt is Charlie to have a moment of suspense --- for his world to stop spinning ever so briefly, almost imperceptibly -- as he puffs up and comes through. Preparing to step into literally anything. Up down or all around. That's what we want the half halt to be.

moar trotting. plz to sit up emma!
And? AND?!? Well. Let the record show: Ladies and gentlemen, my first officially documented half halt is in the video below lol. And even *I* sound surprised when I describe the process to Jess haha. Who, for the record, is kinda just like, "uh, duh?" lol...

I leave it for you to see if you can't spot the moment lol. Tho hint - it's early in the video, but while we're circling Jess, after the first portion of leg yields from rail to CL.

And. Ya know. It maybe doesn't look like much. Maybe it *isn't* much in the grand scheme of horsing. But this is my blog and my horsey life and Charlie is the best horse in the world and I'm totally discovering a true proper half halt for the first time (for real this time tho) so there you have it LOL.

good boy worked hard
For real tho, it's true that dressage can feel extremely inaccessible to newcomers. There's so much jargon and lingo. So many aids that all sound the same.

I remember reading a dressage book as a kid and it was like, "to do X, use your inside leg in such way, your outside leg thusly, but also inside rein here, and outside rein too you mustn't forget." But like... for every single movement it was like that, and I remember sorta thinking to myself, "well, ok, I guess for literally everything you use every part of your body?"

Which maybe... Isn't too far off after all haha. The distinguishing factor in all of these aids is feel. Notable for being established again and again as something that can't really be taught, per se.

probably not anybody's idea of a great dressage horse, but he's honestly gotten to be pretty fun on the flat!
But. Ya know. Breakthroughs happen. And they're wonderful. And that moment when you finally feel something you've understood conceptually forever... Well, it's a special moment haha.

Maybe the most important thing I've learned since starting to unpack dressage as a discipline is ... just keep trying. Just keep experimenting. Can you move a shoulder here, a haunch there? Can you influence length of stride? Can you make that adjustment faster? Slower?

So on this day? We conquered the half halt. Tomorrow? Maybe the world! Or, er, uh, well maybe not tomorrow - but when Charlie's latest wound heals y'all better watch out bc we'll be back haha!

Has anyone else likewise felt a similar breakthrough on some topic that is supposedly "basic" in riding? I know I can't be the only one haha....


  1. I had a very tiny rider get on my elephant of a horse last night and tried to explain the half halt to her in a way that she could get through to Opie, but it ended up with "Just halt him when he gets fast." Half halts are a foreign language, yo. My body understands them, but my brain can't tell you why lol.

    1. lol for real tho.... like there are things i can feel but maybe only at a subconscious level? and then there are things that i understand conceptually, but can't really put into action in the saddle. i guess dressage is hard or something? HA....

  2. Glad things are coming together in your lessons. The half-halt struggles are real.

    1. basically all of horsing is a struggle these days! LOL

  3. Half halt is one of the harder things to install on a horse IMO lol so yay for you!

    1. why is it the "basic" stuff that's always the hardest tho??? dressage confuses me haha. but yea, definitely a good feeling to figure it out! (until i manage to break it again..)

  4. Dressage overall is such a struggle... ugh..but glad you had a breakthrough!!! You are definitely not the only one that has had a breakthrough with such a "basic" concept... heck i feel like all my breakthroughs have been from something simple finally clicking hahaha

    1. honestly i feel the same way. so much of dressage just comes down to feel, which can't exactly be taught by a lecture or video or book or whatever. some teachers have figured out better than others how to get riders to those moments of feel, but some just sorta gloss right over and holler out "half halt!" as an instruction like obviously duh you should know what that means by now! lol...

  5. YEAHHHHH \o/ Feeling something click is the BEST feeling, congrats!

    My most recent breakthrough was something that you'd think is basic in *life*. We were doing our warm up trot circles and stopped for a walk break. My instructor pauses, looks at me for a moment, and goes, "how much do you think about breathing when you're trotting?"


    Cue lots of discussion about breathing consciously and in rhythm with your horse and your movement and suddenly having a *much* better trot...turns out it's important! *facepalm*

    1. omgosh the breathing thing is SO REAL haha, and honestly really makes a huge difference. esp when i'm jumping if i'm getting nervous or something, i'll start counting out loud (i know some people who sing or recite rhymes etc) bc it forces me to breathe lol....

  6. That's awesome! Great breakthrough! I think a lot of times these "terms" do get misinterpreted or you're just expected to "know" what they are. But I love your thought of transfer of energy! I think of it that way too, and sometimes I've told myself "okay, rebalance now, transfer a little more energy to the butt" instead of half halt because thinking the "halt" part makes me think too close to an actual halt and I end up confusing the poor horse lol. You guys are looking great tho!
    I don't know if it'd help but I do follow the master dressage series with Mary Wanless, and before Amber got hurt it really helped me with just imagining my position and how I was riding. Taking lessons now is helping me then get Amber there, so it's great for that in my opinion :)

    1. yea it's such a process figuring out what's gonna work and what's gonna light that spark and generate that "feel," right?

  7. Look at you and Charlie dressaging! Half-halts are hard. Carmen and I work on them all the time. Since you have them all figured out can you come and teach me. I love those breakthroughs - when your mind and body goes 'ooooh now I understand'.
    You two look awesome.

    1. haha thanks! every now and then we can get our shit together for at least a moment or two ;) and yea i love the breakthroughs too, even tho they're not always durable haha. i'm sure next time i get on charlie for a serious ride (maybe one day, plz!!!) the feeling will be fleeting again. ah well, that's horses!

  8. I think sometimes the 'basics' are the hardest! Like me with contact, it's something I know about, but I really didn't understand until i asked the question earlier this year and realised I've been doing it wrong for forever!

    Yay for breakthroughs!

  9. I was reading an article the other day that the thing non pro riders struggle the with the most is having the feel and quickness in their the concept is fine, and they feel like they're doing the thing, but the reality is they are just too slow to react to keep it super clear for the horse and get consistent good results. I forget where or who wrote it, but I know it hit home for me. Good on you for cracking a big piece of the puzzle!

  10. Oh man. Timing is TRULY everything. In life as much as in dressage lol. I'm always a half second too slow. Sarah and I joke that she sees things before I feel them so I'll never be able to anticipate what she wants in a lesson. It's actually not all that funny. :(

  11. I'm glad you had a breakthrough! To this day I struggle with the half-halt.

  12. You guys look great!! Glad to hear his recovery is going smoothly.


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