By Jennifer Klitzke
Back in the days before owning horses, I looked forward to the hour long trail rides I had each summer. Before our group mounted up, the trail guide would give us these handy instructions: “kick” to go and “pull” on the reins to stop.
Now that I’ve been a horse owner for a few decades, I’ve learned better approaches than “kick” to go and “pull” to stop which produce softer and rounder responses. The cues are a blend of tips I have learned from classical French dressage and natural horsemanship philosophies.
I ride my naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse in a mild single-joint snaffle bit and have been competing with her at schooling dressage shows since 2010. We consistently earn scores of “8” on our center line halt and salute.
Below is a sequence of cues that I have found which produce a soft, round, and relaxed halt without the use of force or pulling on the reins.
How to produce a soft, round and relaxed halt:
- Well fitting equipment: Beginning with a practical note, an uncomfortable horse will not be able to perform a soft, round, and relaxed halt. So it is important to ride your horse with a saddle and bit that fit properly. Also have your horse’s teeth checked and floated regularly by an equine dentist or qualified veterinarian.
- Following seat: The next thing I do is develop a following seat (versus a driving seat). I encourage my horse forward with my seat, followed up with the use of my voice, a bump and release of my lower calf, and a tap of the dressage whip if needed. Then I follow the motion of my horse’s walk (in a toned sort of way) as if my hip joints walk with my horse’s hind legs. I do not drive my horse forward with my seat (by thrusting my pelvis forward and backward) as I believe this annoys my horse and eventually causes her to tune me out.
- Stilling seat: When I am about to come to a halt, I gently squeeze and release the reins with my middle, ring and pinky fingers to soften and round my horse. At the same time I still my seat and no longer follow the motion of my horse. If the horse is listening to my seat, the horse will stop.
- Alternating squeeze and release of the rein: Plan B: If my horse doesn’t halt with the stilling of my seat, then I follow it up with an alternating squeeze and release of each rein in sequence with each hind step of the horse as if to say, “Stop your foot. Now stop your other foot.” I will keep alternating the squeeze and release of each rein with each step combined with a stilled seat until the horse slows to a stop.
I have found that this approach produces a softer, rounder, more relaxed and square halt than when squeezing with both reins at the same time and definitely better than pulling back on the reins.
- Repeat the exercise: If the horse didn’t stop by my seat, I will return to a forward walk and repeat the exercise a few times before moving on to something else. Then I’ll come back to the exercise a couple more times during our riding session.
- Practice: I practice this exercise each time I ride. Every horse I ride becomes more and more responsive to my seat, softer, rounder, and more relaxed with the halting, less dependent upon the reins for stopping, less depended upon the voice, legs, and whip to move forward and more responsive to the seat.
Video: Cues to a Softer Halt
A square halt from the medium walk is required in NWHA Intro tests, a square halt from the flat walk is required in NWHA Training Level tests, and a square halt from a canter is required in NWHA Fourth Level.
Video: Soft Halts from the Medium Walk, Flat Walk and Canter