Will your horse stand still? Nobody likes a fidget, especially at the end of a dressage test, but before you blame him stop and think about what you do as you halt. There’s a strong possibility you’re trying to avoid him fidgeting. And that’s the problem!
If your horse is fairly sharp the chances are as you ask him to halt you relax your legs and hold your breath. If you don’t move he won’t move – right? Wrong! The trouble is the minute your legs leave his sides he’ll be thinking “What’s going on?” he’ll also tense up in anticipation of the next bit of leg that comes on to say walk or trot on.
However much your head is telling you not to when you ask your horse to halt you need to keep your legs on. This has two effects. It will reassure him – he’ll know where you are and be able to relax. It will also keep him listening. If your leg is there he’ll know something is about to happen and he’ll be waiting for your next aid.
Don’t think you’re immune if your horse is lazy either! There’s a fair chance that as he halts you both collapse in a heap because “at least you can stop pushing then”. Think again. Halt doesn’t just mean die. It needs energy and he needs to be ready to either move forward or rein back.
In any pace you know to ride your horse from your leg to your hand. Halt is no exception. Your contact is essential to contain the energy your legs create. Imagine a bottle of coke shaken up. With the lid on the drink fizzes and the bottle expands. With the lid off the drink leaks out and goes flat. Your hands are that lid. No contact = flat paces.
Think of halt as a stationary pace. Your horse should be so charged up that his back rounds as the energy inside him tries to escape but can’t. Tighten your fingers around your reins and keep them closed. Keep your calf muscles against his sides but leave your heels away.
If you’ve read http://schoolyourhorse.blogspot.com/2010/12/other-way-of-stopping.html you’ll know if you press your thighs and knees into the saddle you can bring a horse to a standstill. Try it from walk to halt. Walk round the arena and try halting at E and B. Get straight on the long side before you push your thighs into the saddle as hard as you can. This puts pressure against his shoulder muscles and he will slow down. As you reach E/B press both knees in tight and he’ll stop. You may need a slight squeeze on both reins to start with but he’ll soon learn.
To move on again release your thigh and knee and use a nudge with both heels. If your contact and calf muscles have kept your horse on the ball he should move straight into walk or trot.
Use the E/B line or the ¾ lines to practise walking or trotting into halt and out of it. Avoid the centre line as the last thing you need is your horse thinking he should halt halfway through your entry centre line.
When your horse stands in halt you must have some pressure in your hand. A horse that is light or nonexistent on your rein has no contained energy. He may swing his quarters to one side or ignore your aid to walk on again. The more you push him into the contact the more likely he is to stand still.
Sharpen him up by riding large round the school and asking for halt at every marker. Halt, count to three and then release your knee and use both heels. Soon he’ll be as attentive in halt as he ever is in trot and canter. When the halt is good you’ll feel him rock back onto his hocks. Keep your weight on your seat to help him stay balanced.
If your horse is crooked as he halts then it’s probably down to your position. He copies whatever you do with your body with his. If you’ve turned your body to the inside to come round a corner he’ll have done the same. If you straightened your shoulders up but forgot your hips then he’ll have done the same. As he halts his shoulders will be square on the track but his quarters will be to the inside.
If your horse moves after he’s halted it’s more likely to be uneven pressure. Most riders have a stronger and a weaker side. Be aware of yours. If the contact is heavier in one hand he’ll move his shoulders towards it. If the pressure from one leg is greater or one leg is further back than the other he’ll swing his quarters away from it.
Most dressage tests ask for immobility, salute. Be proud of the fact your horse will stand still. It’s a sign of engagement. Only a horse that is balanced on his hocks and moving forward into the rider’s hand can halt square, straight and still. Halt and immobility need as much energy as trot or canter – you just need to be prepared to create it.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.