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Technique dressage : A good halt


"The Art of Halting: Stillness in Motion"


Although the halt appears at least once in each dressage test, it puts to the test numerous elements characterizing a horse's education. It simultaneously tests the horse's responsiveness to aids, balance and collection, impulsion and immobility. Isabelle Judet, a 5* international judge, adds some insightful observations from her perspective to the valuable writings of the late Michel Henriquet. 


"Smooth Transitions: From Movement to Halt and Vice Versa"


Smooth transitions from one of the three gaits to the halt, and from the halt to walk, trot, or canter illustrate a horse's ability to sit, engage and propel. A good halt is straight and square, with all four limbs equally bearing the horse's weight. If balance is lacking, the horse may lean too heavily on the forehand, thus deteriorating the quality of contact. The horse must remain perfectly still and relaxed, attentive to its rider and ready to move off instantly at any moment.


"Preparing for the Halt: All about Timing and Balance"


Like any other dressage movement, the halt is prepared well in advance. The key lies in the correctness of the gait during the preparation. The size of the strides decreases while activity and straightness are maintained. In a nutshell, the horse needs to be collected to achieve a perfect halt. "The concept we should now have is not that of the rest halt or simple regular immobility, but that of the halt in which all the horse's forces are concentrated and ready for use," wrote Michel Henriquet. "It is the collected halt that La Guérinière says the advantages of are 'to gather the horse's forces, to ensure his mouth, head, hips, and to make him light in the hand', the halt taken at any moment and from which all gaits and airs can be approached."


"Perfecting the Halt Transition: Balance and Responsiveness"


The downward transition should not be gradual, but neither should the halt be abrupt. The goal is to 'set' the horse into the halt. "While the transition should be clear, it should not be abrupt," elaborates Isabelle Judet. "Many horses, lacking balance, either trot or are forced to brake sharply from a canter, similar to moments from Western movies. This is not the transition we are looking for, which should reflect balance and demonstrate the horse's understanding and attention to the rider's aids." In competitions, unless otherwise specified in the protocol, the halt should not be progressive. If so, the halt should come directly from trot or canter, without any walk strides.


"Maintaining Impulsion and Engagement in the Halt"


It is vital to ride the halt with forward motion, maintaining impulsion in the downward transition. If the halt is achieved only with braking, the horse might stretch out behind or even drag a hind leg. However, the hindquarters should engage and accelerate more in response to the half-halt that prepares the transition to immobility. As the level of tests increases, the halt at A becomes more difficult. For the halt from collected canter, Henriquet explains that one is looking for almost "over-impulsion" from the horse, meaning it increases its activity behind in a canter that collects as the transition approaches. The rider's seat and abdominal core contribute to the execution of effective half-halts (see dedicated TD), causing "the bending of the hips, therefore their lowering, and a lifting of the forehand. It is on a half-halt applied when the canter strides have become as short and light as possible, and with a relaxation of the legs, that the beautiful collected halt from canter will be achieved."


"Ensuring Soft Contact and Stable Connection during the Halt"


To ensure soft contact and stable connection, your action must be measured and brief, otherwise the horse may lean on the bit, shifting its balance onto the forehand. Contact, perfectly equal on both reins, ensures impeccable straightness. The horse may become crooked if it is not symmetrical in its response to the hand. Paradoxically, it should not 'switch off' to halt. On the contrary, it needs to remain forward of the leg because if impulsion is lacking, straightness will suffer. Then, you will have to send it forward again and prepare a new transition a few strides further on. One thing is certain, if the horse is not moving in a straight line in the gait preceding the halt, it is unlikely to halt squarely. Shoulders and hips must move along the same line. If a hind leg drags, the leg on the same side should correct it. An imperfect halt must always be corrected. Through repetition, the horse will eliminate the possibility of an incorrect halt. The slightest adjustment on its part should be rewarded.


"Maintaining Rider Position and Balance during the Halt"


In the halt, the rider's position must remain perfectly still, with low hands towards the horse's mouth. The torso is upright, not leaning back behind the vertical. The legs are dropped, the upper body elongated, lungs filled with air, and gaze straight ahead. The preparation for the downward transition must be done in the pursuit of balance. "The entire body contributes to this," explains Henriquet. "The engagement of the lower back and the wrapping of the legs at the same time as the half-halts given on the outside rein while the inside hand maintains contact on the concave side to avoid the inversion of the bend. The half-halt must never be prolonged. In case of failure or resistance, the horse must be sent forward again and the half-halt reiterated without prolonged tension on the reins." If the quality of the halt lies in its preparation and the accuracy of the preceding gait, the upward transition that follows it is equally important. In the departure to trot, the contact should not be released, losing the connection and leaving the horse in a void. However, it is necessary to 'open the door' while maintaining the benefits of a good halt.


"Executing a Collected and Balanced Departure from Halt"


Michel Henriquet reminds us that "for the departure: a simultaneous, precise, and light action of both legs, linked to the engagement of the lower back, which results in a forward movement of the pelvis. Our forearms, connected to the pelvis, advance as much, which suffices to release, while channeling, some of the impulsion contained in the collected halt. If, in the departure, the horse still tries to evade the hand or lean on it, a half-halt on the outside rein is required to reestablish the full collected halt. The departure must be done from a firm stance, straight, and without an intermediate step. Preparing it in piaffe facilitates the first diagonal stride of the trot, almost on the spot, with the engagement of the hindquarters. The quality test for the departure to trot also lies in the unchanging maintenance of collection without the head or neck modifying their attitude by the slightest movement."


"Deepening the Horse's Stillness During Halt"


The horse must wait patiently in the halt and only move off on a dedicated leg action. In training, when it is square and motionless, get your horse used to waiting for the signal: gradually give it the reins until you hold them at the buckle. As long as you do not give the forward cue with your legs, the horse must remain in place. This is an interesting exercise to repeat regularly to improve its immobility and concentration. It is essential to distinguish a horse trembling with worry from a horse behind the leg refusing the constancy of the halt. 


"Addressing Different Types of Restlessness in the Halt"


1/ The horse paces anxiously, eager to move forward again. Immobility may worry it or demand too much effort. Be patient, repeat the exercise. Initially accept an imperfect halt, favoring calmness and fixedness of the limbs. Reassure your partner, stroke it, speak to it. Gradually, it will gain in impassivity.


"Correcting the Horse's Tendency to Back up in Halt"


2/ The horse appears calm but backs up. It is clearly not in forward movement. Correct this tendency to back up immediately, don't hesitate to move off boldly forward in walk or even trot.


"The Square Halt"


The difficulty in the saddle is to feel whether or not the horse is halting square. To begin with, it can be useful to compare your feeling with the feedback from someone on foot. Horses often halt in the same way in identical situations. For example, on the left-hand track from trot, the horse may tend to spread its left hind leg, which is not guided by the arena wall. Or, on entering at A at the left canter, the right hind leg may lag behind. If the same situation repeats itself, the rider will need to reinforce the appropriate leg. By glancing at the horse's shoulders in the halt, they can see the front legs' misalignment. If sitting skew, right buttock lower, it is likely that the right hind leg is disengaged. For the judge, there are different degrees in the evaluation of a halt that's not square. Either no limb is placed correctly, or there is just a slight displacement of one of the hind legs, or the hind legs are in line but spread apart.


"The Halt in the Reins"


Michel Henriquet observed that "we must now ensure that our halts, regardless of the gait or movement in which it is requested, are executed in perfect collection". It is tempting for the horse to snatch at the reins, a sign of its difficulty in maintaining engagement, straightness, collection, and connection while standing still. The rider should be able to yield without the relaxation of their upper body or the advancement of their hands authorizing a forward move. The better the preparation, the better the contact in the exercise. Shaking the hands to correct an open mouth or a sagging neck would only be a smokescreen. It is in the preparation for the halt that you will need, through careful gymnastics, to improve the overall function of the horse's body. Isabelle Judet reminds us that "during the transition, the halt and the move off, the horse must remain in the correct attitude, that is, the neck being the highest point, the muzzle slightly in front of the vertical, the contact soft and the mouth closed."


"3 Tips to Remember"


1/ No canter/halt transitions if the canter/walk and trot/halt downward transitions are not perfectly mastered.


2/ Horses are creatures of habit: they don't differentiate between the halt at the start of your test and the halt for a chat or to dismount. As a result, take care of all halts without exception.


3/ Never halt at exactly the same place in order to combat anticipation. Especially on the center line from A to C, always delay the halt at the start and end of your test by a few meters. Sometimes ride up the center line preparing for the halt but without actually doing it.


Isabelle Judet explains the judging of the halt


If halts are rarely rewarded by judges with excellent scores, it's because the scoring takes into account many factors. The definition of the perfect halt is easy to give. However, don't forget to include, as stipulated in the protocol, what precedes and what follows. When it comes to the entry or the exit, the quality of the gait preceding the halt, the straightness of the horse, the precision of the halt's placement will be taken into account just as much as the halt itself. Regarding the entry, the departure, its directness, its straightness, and the quality of the trot that follows will all be elements to evaluate.


How to get a 10/10 on the entry at collected canter in a dressage test?


Quality of the canter, straightness, correctness of the contact, softness of the transition, precision relative to the letter, placement and alignment of the four legs, maintained immobility, directness of the departure, quality and straightness of the trot.


Faults that will lower the score will be penalized based on their severity. Lack of immobility or even backing up in the halt as well as strong resistances are among the most heavily penalized. To a lesser extent but also progressively decreasing the initial score will be: lack of precision, straightness, clarity in the transitions, an open mouth, a dropped neck, a closed muzzle, a horse against the hand.


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