The halt is the most important and often most difficult transition for riders to perform well. It’s no more fun to ride a horse without brakes than it is to drive a car without them. Unfortunately, the most common reaction for riders who are having difficulty stopping their horses is to get a stronger bit or another gadget to fix the problem. While a stronger bit might work in the short-term, it doesn’t address the real source of the problem, which is a lack of balance and relaxation. Horses run from pain – both physical and emotional.
To get a smooth, relaxed and balanced halt, your horse must be carrying himself with his weight off his forehand, his back level or lifted, his hind legs stepping well under him and his neck and jaw relaxed. As the rider, you must help him develop this way of going by being quiet, balanced and without tension. You have to feel and work with your horse’s movement to apply the correct aids at the correct time.
Practicing the following strategies will help to improve your horse’s halt and give you power brakes:
1. Go back to basics – rhythm, relaxation and balance. The quality of all transitions depends on the horse’s balance and the quality of the previous gait. Your balance, of course, affects your horse’s balance and movement. If either you or your horse is unbalanced in any gait, you will have difficulty making a good transition to the next lower gait (i.e. from canter to trot) never mind going the halt. Improve the quality of each individual gait before going to the next. You may need to go right back to the walk. Often overlooked, walk is the most important gait because it is the foundation of all the other gaits. A balanced, soft halt will come out of a balanced, forward, relaxed walk.
2. Avoid pulling on the reins. Use your body, not your reins, to create passive resistance to forward movement. When you have a following seat, your horse feels a passive resistance to his forward movement when you stop your seat. Your aids should be given in this order: seat first, followed by leg, with hand last, only if needed. Leaning back drives your seat forward into your horse’s back (causing him to drop it and run away from that pressure) and pushes your leg forward.
To ask for halt, exhale as you stop your following seat and elbows. If there is no change in your horse, close both legs at the girth to keep your horse’s hind legs stepping underneath him as you lift and open your chest. If that is still not enough, then gently squeeze your hands closed on the reins (without pulling your elbows back). As you inhale your next breath, release the blocking aids (hands, chest and legs). Exhale as you apply each of those aids again. To avoid collapsing back with your upper body, imagine your seat bones lengthening.
How long it takes for your horse to respond depends upon how tuned in he is to your seat. The better you are at following his movement and the less tension you carry in your body, the more tuned in he will become.
3. Practice transitions on circles. Having your horse bent around your inside leg as you ride a circle helps to engage his hindquarters and create impulsion. If he is heavy on his forehand, speeds up or pulls against the reins, spiral into a smaller and smaller circle making sure to support him with your outside rein and inside leg. Use your outside leg (not your inside rein) to push him into the smaller circle. Pulling on the inside rein will create more resistance in your horse and put him off balance. Ask for the transition to halt only when he is traveling with rhythm, relaxation and balance.
4. Give your horse time to respond. If you have been having problems with your halt transition, expect that it will take a moment for the horse to feel your cues, another moment for him to respond and another moment for all four feet to slow down and then stop. Apply your aid or aids, release and wait a beat or two before asking again.
5. Take your time. Don’t be in a hurry to get trot or canter to halt transitions. Make the transition from trot through walk to halt. As you and your horse improve, you will be able to decrease the length of the walk until it is no longer needed.
6. Remember to let go. As soon as your horse is stopping, relax your blocking aids. You can always engage the blocks again if necessary. Give him the opportunity to stop softly and with relaxation. It’s a common rider error to hold on to the block even after the horse has stopped. He can’t stop any more than being stationary. Your release is his reward.
7. Reinforce correct stopping from the ground. Use similar cues and the same verbal cue on the ground as when you are riding. It doesn’t matter if you are leading your horse in a halter and lead rope or a bridle. Lead him with contact on the rope or reins, exhale as you say ‘whoa,’ apply a half halt by slowing down your body and no longer following with your elbow (don’t pull back). If he barges through your resistance, pivot in place away from him, and push him around you. Inhale as you release the block in your arm and body. Keep his nose lined up with the centre of his chest. On your next exhale, half halt again. Repeat this cycle of ‘block, release, block, release’ until your horse stops.
Improving your halt transitions takes practice, practice and more practice. It also requires balance, relaxation and rhythm from both you and your horse. When you have developed good brakes from walk, then move up to trot, remembering to focus on helping your horse to be balanced, relaxed and in good rhythm. You’ll be well on your way to having the power brakes you’ve been looking for.