By Jennifer Klitzke
What is a half halt? Why is it used? When do you apply it? Does the half halt serve a purpose for the naturally gaited horse? Can a half halt improve the quality of gait?
When I flew to Alabama in January to be Jennie Jackson’s working, the half halt wasn’t one of the questions I had on my mind. Instead I was interested in learning how to lengthen the stride of a running walk without rushing. I was soon to learn that the half halt was the secret ingredient to do just that.
The half halt is a broad term used to rebalance the horse, and as a dressage rider, I’ve been acquainted with the half halt for decades. Yet, I had not understood its application with the naturally gaited horse. My focus had been establishing a head nodding even rhythm and a SMOOTH gait. Beyond that I hadn’t developed an awareness for the need of half halts that could lead to gait quality.
That is, until I traveled to Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center and rode with Jennie. Each day I rode several naturally gaited Tennessee walking horses of various training levels. Some were green, others were well schooled, and one was being rehabilitated from Big Lick. Within each level of training, some horses rushed, others leaned on the bit, some took small quick steps, and some barged through the outside shoulder in a lateral exercise. In each case, Jennie taught me the importance and application of the half halt.
From Jennie’s coaching, I had a half halt awakening that taught me three important keys to its effectiveness. The first key is to become aware of when a half halt is needed; the second key is knowing and consistently applying the half halt aids at the right time; and the third key is knowing when to release the half halt.
Applying half halts with the naturally gaited horse
- Awareness of need: Now that the ice has melted and it’s safe to ride again, I’ve been putting half halts into practice with the horses I ride. I’m amazed with how many half halts are applied within a riding session and how many reasons a half halt is needed. I’m using half halts to prepare my horse for a transition, whenever my horse leans on the bridle, or rushes, or becomes distracted, or feels heavy on the forehand and needs to re-shift its balance onto the hindquarters. Whenever my horse takes short quick steps, and whenever my horse bulges through the shoulder in a lateral movement.
- Aids of the half halt: After I recognize the need for a half halt, I simultaneously freeze my lower back, still my hip joints from following my horse’s movement, and squeeze my fingers on the reins without pulling back. I hold this position until the release.
- Timing of the release: Riding several horses of various training, along with Jennie’s coaching, really pointed out that the release of a half halt is not a one-size-fits-all. Sensitive horses will respond to the half halt quicker than less sensitive horses. One horse I rode tended to rush and a two-second half halt was applied before the horse responded. Another horse I rode also rushed, but she was much more sensitive so the half halt was released in a half second. As soon as the horse responds to the half halt by slowing down, or rebalancing, or straightening through the outside shoulder, or taking a deeper stride under its body, it is important to release the half halt. This means opening my fingers without letting the reins slip through, relaxing my lower back and resume following the horse’s motion through my hip joints alternating to the rise and fall of the belly sway which is in sync with the hind legs as they step under the body.
Sometimes a half halt and release is followed up with another half halt and release because the horse responded to the first half halt, took a couple balanced steps, and then rushed off again. Over time, with consistent half halts and releases in response to the rushing, the horse will rush less.
One horse I rode was barn sour. Every time we headed away from her friends, the horse began moving sideways. I tried to overcome this by riding with a fixed outside rein against her neck. It wasn’t working. Instead, Jennie encourage me to apply the outside rein like a half halt, then lift both reins up and over to the other side, and release. For this mare, the release made all the difference.
I am becoming more aware through the sense of feel just how half halts are rebalancing my horse to shift more weight onto the hindquarters, helping my horse become lighter on the bridle and rounder in the frame, and slowing my horse whenever she rushes to encourage deeper strides under her body.
This half halt awakening has opened my eyes to many benefits the half halt brings to the naturally gaited horse and in improving the gait quality of the horses I ride.