Ride in Harmony: Half-Halt--Biomechanics of Your Seat, Legs, and Hand

For many riders the half-halt is elusive even though they understand that if done correctly it will rebalance the horse, increasing engagement of his hind end and readying him for the next move. Your seat during the half-halt must be ready to receive the engagement of the hindquarters and increase of energy created by your legs, otherwise you'll lose your balance and be tempted to hold onto the reins or grab with your legs because the change in balance and energy has left you behind the motion of the horse.

There are many ways to ride a half-halt and many definitions for it. The FEI says: The half-halt is a hardly visible, almost simultaneous coordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hand of the rider, with the object of increasing the the attention and balance of the horse before the execution of several movements or transitions to lesser or higher paces. In shifting slightly more weight onto the horse's quarters, the engagement of the hind legs and the balance on the haunches are facilitated, for the benefit of the lightness of the forehand and the horse's balance as a whole.

This of course says something about the effect but not how to accomplish it and especially not the particulars of that coordinated action of seat, legs and hand.

When asking the horse to rebalance and increase engagement your legs go on to get more engagement and more activity from the hind legs. The half-halt rebalances the horse onto his hind end so you should feel the same amount of power from the hind legs as you would feel from a lengthening but you contain it, both with your seat and with your receiving hands. This energy comes over the horse's back and your seat must be ready to receive--buttocks soft, hip joints ready, pelvis movable and lumbar spine supple and supported by bracing the muscles of the lower torso to receive the energy. This is why the seat is listed first in the definition--prepare with your seat first (and the well trained horse will need little more than this to change his posture and energy).

As your legs close, and your horse responds he can lengthen his stride or become more compact and collected. Either way your seat must be ready and your shoulders elastic so the outside hand,acting independently of what the pelvis or chest are doing, can close to contain and steady the horse, helping to rebalance--and then soften or release to complete the circle of energy. The inside rein retains the flexion and bend to the inside with softness.

Your seat during the half-halt must be ready to receive the engagement of the hindquarters and resulting surge of energy created by your legs, otherwise you'll lose your balance and be tempted to hold onto the reins or grab with your legs because the change in balance and energy has left you behind the motion of the horse. The stiff seat stops the surge at horse's back, and the horse either rushes forward onto the forehand or slows--feeling the clunk in his back as the rider loses balance and stiffens in the back or chest or both. When the rider stiffens and comes behind the motion it's as if the horse hit a brick wall with the energy from his back legs and the circle of aids is interrupted. Your hands, if pulling, will rob you and your horse of the surge from the hind legs. The horse learns to ignore your punishing half-halts.

How do you as a rider prepare for the re-balancing and burst of energy, whether it's for lengthening or collecting or some other change?

First: Your spine and pelvis must oscillate around a neutral position--neither flexed or extended excessively. The horse moves your the sides of your pelvis alternately which impacts your spine and through this movement of your pelvis your lumbar spine will alternately flex and extend around the middle or neutral place. By remaining centered around a neutral spine you never go to the end range of motion and risk damage to soft tissues and disks under the stresses of riding.

Second: You must "catch" the first bounce of the surge or the nervous system will react to it with stiffening up and blocking the surge your horse has so graciously given you. It's like slipping on ice, if you are ready and your spine is stabilized and legs springy you can slide across it with glee--if it catches you off guard you're likely to slip, stiffen up, and perhaps fall. Correct spinal stabilization by bracing the layers of muscles encircling the lower torso will allow you to catch the surge without being caught off guard. This is abdominal bracing--or tummy out! -- not zipping-up or hollowing the abdomen which actually destabilizes the rider. Tummy-out with engaged abs and extensor muscles protects your spine while allowing it to move. Abdominal bracing also allows you to breathe in your lower abdomen, further increasing the well-coordinated and powerful use of your lower torso.

Third: Your hip joints will stay loose and your legs like wet towels when you move with and support your horse's change of balance. After giving the leg aid you let go again and let your hips remain mobile so your legs are springy and ready to absorb the loftier stride you've been given.

Fourth: Your hands are the last part of the half halt and their independence is dependent on your shoulders remaining relaxed. In the momentary closing of seat, legs, and hands your hands close and then soften and give so the horse's front-end isn't blocked. For this your well-coordinated lower torso will support the freedom of movement in your shoulders so your independently acting outside hand can close and then give to receive the horse's power. Your hands should feel like you could juggle a ball as you ride. Stiffened shoulders from a protective response to the horse's surge means the joints of the elbows will lose their elasticity and the hands will lose connection or clunk the horse in the mouth. Your stabilized but mobile pelvis and tummy-out posture will allow your back muscles to remain long, your head to remain balanced on your spine and your shoulders to hang.

Fifth: You'll enjoy the harmony you feel as your horse rebalances and gives you more power, happy to let you--with your receiving seat and giving hands--direct the dance.

I love to help riders move in harmony with the motion of their horse and I love the response of the horse as he is more comfortable and better able to give the rider the best performance. Contact me for clinics or video lessons utilizing the Feldenkrais work, Centered Riding, and total fitness training to teach all riders to ride in harmony. Video lessons are a great alternative to a clinic--you'll receive a program of awareness lessons and movement/fitness exercises to empower you to improve your riding. Visit SitTheTrot.com and Email me.

Cheers! Michele

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Comment by Sit_the_Trot on January 6, 2010 at 12:18am
I'm glad you liked the interview with Jane, it was fun to do for sure!
In a way improving your riding never ends but after spending some time on changing your patterns of movement -- peeling the onion really -- you start to get stronger in the more symmetrical , neutral spine pattern and it gets easier and then soon it feels normal to be balanced. The huge bonus is your horse is so much easier to ride when you are balanced that the little extra effort you need to use to get even and balanced seems trivial (except when you get tired!). If you're finding that sweet symmetrical spot where you are sitting in the middle of your horse through all the movements with a neutral spine you'll notice the difference in your horse immediately and seek that place. It helps to have someone on the ground who can see the underlying issues behind the surface habits--that's really key to changing. The Feldenkrais training really taught me that. My video lessons are very effective and can speed up the process because I give exercises and on horse things you can do to make ease of movement normal feeling and increase you awareness. Good luck with the mechanical horse, I haven't tried training anyone on one.
Comment by Janet B on January 5, 2010 at 5:19pm
Thxs Michelle. Listened to your interview with Jane Savoie. I feel what you did when you started with Feldenkrais. I got some good tips from that interview, as i am becoming more and more aware of my body patterns due to lessons i am taking on a mechanical horse.....still have so much work to do. I assume it never ends... thxs for the tips, Janet
Comment by Sit_the_Trot on January 5, 2010 at 12:26am
Thanks for the comments.
Yes, Janet, it is so blissful it is addicting to feel like you are moving as one with your horse--it's really fun for me to be able to share information about movement--something we all have but not necessarily in the way that is best for the horse. Visualize those moments when you are going about your day and you'll get it faster--your brain will send the same signals to your muscles when you visualize as when you actually ride--so visualize the sublime moments!
and Elizabeth, a half-halt is a call to attention of the horse's mind, the re-balancing is a call to attention of his body and it makes it easier for the horse to do the next thing--as long as we don't interfere. Just like with us if we are changing direction or speed when running a little rebalancing will help to do it more smoothly.
Comment by Elizabeth J. Chilcott on January 4, 2010 at 8:43pm
I have always liked the Spanish Riding School ( via Hans Mueller) definition of a half -halt as "a call to attention".
Comment by Janet B on January 4, 2010 at 8:08pm
thanks for the info. I am working with great concentration to obtain this at the sitting trot. I can so feel it when i have it, and it makes me addicted to the harmony, power and the dance!!

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