As with the canter departs we discussed in the last issue, the quality of your ridden halts will depend on the level of training of the horse you’re riding, plus your own skill level. It would be unrealistic to expect a horse that’s not well-trained to perform a prompt and square halt; in fact, Kitty has this suggestion: “Do not practice the halt. Simply finish your ride without dismounting right away. Sit on your horse until he gets bored and gives you a big sigh. Now you can dismount. Later, training for halts will be much easier with a relaxed horse.”
In training the halt, your initial goal should be a smooth stop without any resistance, with a minimal use of the reins. It’s not the reins that stop the horse; the main aids for a halt should be your seat and your weight. For example, when your horse is walking, follow the action of the hind legs with your seat, and then stop following the horse’s motion. Some riders add a voice command such as a long and drawn-out “whoa” in a soothing tone of voice. Whether your horse is still learning or fully trained, never pull back roughly on the reins! This will cause the horse to tense its neck and back, and can even scare some horses. When asked what problems she sees most often with ridden halts, Kitty says, “Too much pulling with the hands, putting the horse on the forehand, causing an unbalanced halt position.”
As the horse’s training progresses, a quality halt can be requested. In this case, a light and smooth – but firm – gathering weight to the hindquarters. Follow these steps: 1. Sit still and upright, in balance with your own body. 2. Gently sink your weight into the saddle without tipping forward or falling back. Balance is the key. 3. Use your lower legs to help drive the horse up to a forward halt. You want the horse to step up into your hands. The legs will also help you keep the horse straight as it stops. 4. Now you can use your reins to stop the motion of the horse’s hind legs. There is no exact percentage of contact on your horse’s mouth, says Kitty, as “the halts will become softer and lighter as your horse recognizes the feel of your body language and begins to self-carry into a squarer halt.” 5. As soon as the horse halts, relax your hands and allow him to stand still for a few minutes.
Your ultimate goal will be to have the horse stop so that its hooves form a perfect rectangle. The front hooves should be straight below the front legs, and the hind hooves should be below the hocks and not out behind them. It helps to have your coach or a friend present to tell you when the horse has stopped properly. Don’t look down to try to determine this for yourself, or you’ll unbalance both yourself and your horse.
Keep in mind that the perfect halt is a final goal and it’s a very difficult thing to attain, so please stay relaxed while you and your horse are learning. Remember to celebrate all small improvements!