When judging dressage tests at various levels, I’m always astounded by the amount of marks thrown away by riders who don’t ride a good halt. The halt is obviously a very important basic exercise and it’s also one of the hardest to ride correctly.
What the judge wants to see
· The horse should halt obediently when asked without running against the rider’s hand; a common fault which affects the whole movement.
· The halt should be balanced and smooth, not abrupt or too progressive.
· The horse’s poll should remain the highest point and he should remain quiet and steady on the rider’s contact.
· The halt should be ‘square’; that is to say with a leg at each corner and with the horse’s weight evenly distributed over all four legs and his hind legs underneath him.
· He should remain straight on the centre line and stand quietly until asked to move off.
· The horse should remain alert and ready for the instruction to step forward (or backward, depending on the exercise).
The key to a good halt lies in the contact. If the horse is not soft in the contact as he halts, he will not be straight or square; it’s just like riding into a brick wall and he will swing his quarters one way or the other instead of standing still and straight.
He might throw his head up and open his mouth against the contact or even step backwards away from it; both of which are serious faults.
Sometimes a horse might not be forward into the contact so he will carry his head very low or will hide behind the vertical. These are also serious faults but are usually more prevalent at the lower levels when young horses are still finding their balance.
Some horses just don’t like standing still; they’re just eager to get on with the job and are inclined to fidget. The dressage test requirements for halts at the beginning and end of the test are for riders to show ‘Halt. Immobility. Salute.’ It’s the immobility that’s often forgotten. There is also a trendy habit amongst riders at the moment to fling their arms around their horse’s neck and praise it effusively before the halt is even established, often leaving the arena waving at the crowd. Unfortunately, this will be penalised and you are just throwing marks away . Praise your horse by all means, but show a good halt first and salute the judge before you rush off to take the applause!
How to ride a good halt
A common mistake in riding the halt is to use too much backward hand. The horse should be ridden forward into a softly restraining contact, prepared for by riding a few half-halts and using the back, legs and seat first, followed by the hand. As the horse begins to halt, ease the hand so that the horse cannot run against the contact. Eventually, your horse will understand how to make downward transitions from your back, seat and leg aids with very little hand at all.
If the horse lacks engagement and is not working forward into an even contact from both hind legs, he won’t halt square. Make sure you use both legs equally too, as if you use one more than the other, the halt won’t be square. As you ride forward to the halt, make sure the horse’s neck is straight and that you have an even feel in both reins. Tap with your leg, or whip if need be, the side where the rein feels too heavy or empty; this should encourage the lazy leg to step under.
To help the horse keep his balance and stay straight, make sure that you are sitting straight, look up and ahead of you rather than down at your hands and exhale deeply as your horse halts.
There is always one halt in a dressage test and very often there are two or even three as you move up the levels. A good halt will earn you a mark of 8 or higher and is one of the easiest ways to pick up cheap marks if your horse is correctly trained at even the very basic levels.
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