The Half-Halt & Positioning
Establishing and Maintaining Balance
The Circuit of the Aids
Coordination of the Aids
The Release of the Aids
Neutrality of the Aids
The Blowing of the Fuse
Positioning and Bend
The Outside Rein
What is Positioning?
Telescoping Into the Hand
The Circuit of the Aids
We often hear about The Circle of the Aids, and how important it is that it is closed and not leaky. Partly not to steal anyone's idea and partly because I find it more appropriate, I'd like to call it the Circuit of the Aids. This, because it implies an electrical flow that can be strong, weak or broken. Also because the physical locations of the points of the aids are not lined up in a circular form, no matter the amount of good will.
The closed circuit of the aids in coordination.
There is really no beginning or end of this circuit, more like a continnus flow back and forth. But let's start with the driving aids, since all forward movement begins with more or less drive.
1. The Leg teases the side of the horse and the hindleg is drawn forward. This is a natural but through training reinforced reflex.
2. The seat recieves the energy from the hindlegs as it travels from the hindlegs over the haunches and along the back of the horse. The seat can allow, block, hamper or reinforce the flow.
3. The hand recieves the energy from the seat of the rider since they are connected to the seat via the back and arms, and the elbows are draw to the hips. This gives the seat a direct influence on the mouth of the horse.
4. Via the mouth of the horse the rider can control the neck and the forehand, and its position in relation to the quarters, and this has direct implications for the hindlegs, that again need to be guided by the legs...
Coordination of the Aids
The discussion above illustrates the necessity for the refined coordination of the aids. For this circuit not to leak, all the aids are needed. If one of aids are gone, let's say the legs, the hands and seat will have no energy to work with. If the seat is gone, the hands will be disconnected from the action of the hindlegs and the horse will be disconnected. If the hands are gone, the energy of the hindlegs will dissipate like water from a hose.
There seems to be a great divide between the German and French schools on the use of the aids in coordination. Reading German authors, one could believe that all aids must be used at the same time like GO! or one will nullify the other. In the French, quite the opposite is implied. My belief is that they both mean the same thing but from different perspectives. There is a slight difference between "At The Same Time" and "In Coordination", and I believe this is where it is misunderstood. With a young horse, no experienced rider would drive with the legs and hold with the hands simultaneously. One would drive, reap the produce, and then hold to slow. Then drive again. The more educated the horse gets, the closer in time these two aids can come, to actually make the horse engage but not extend.
Blowing the Fuse
In a young horse, the simultaneous driving with the legs and holding with the hand would cause an enegry build-up that creates tension and resistance. On a good day. On a bad day you'll have a two-legged horse going up like a rocket. Either way, you will sooner or later ruin a horse. It will either become dangerous or it will start to resist, work against you, it self and the laws of bio-mechanics. Some horses have a gentler temperament and only become quite hardened by this treatment (neurotics), but some become thoroughly ruined (psychotic).
So what to do? Well firstly, one must learn to feel the movement of the horse, to go with it and to know when said hindleg touches the ground, pushes forward, or is protracted, and so on. Then one needs to know what effect any certain aid has on the horse in that phase. Then one needs to apply it WHEN NECESSARY!
This leads us on to a subject dear to my heart...
Neutrality of the Aids
When not asking for an increase or change of engagement or direction, the aids need to be neutral. You would stop listening to anyone at all if your mother always kept on nagging you what to do for hours on end. The horse will stop listening to your driving aids if they go, go, go with each step, wether he goes forward and obeys or not. Since they are there all the time, he learns to ignore them.
"Oh, she does that all the time" he'd say to his stable mate. "It's a vice".
This is not what you want. Also, you would not want to use stronger and stronger aids because you also apply another aid that defies the first. Like driving while holding. You drive to get engagement, but hold not to run away. So engagement never happens, so you drive more, but since he's about to run away, you hold firmer. Never release. Your arms get bulkier and your horse more and more resistant to your aids. Any aid, wether sucessfull or not, must return to neutral before being applied again.
So where is neutral?
This differs, but a lot less than most riders think, from horse to horse. All riding horses must be able to tolerate the lower leg of the rider against their sides. After all, they tolerate the riders weight on their backs. If they cannot tolerate the leg, this must be because of soreness, or faulty placement of the riders leg, gripping or sharp edges on the boots. The most common of these is the gripping leg and drawn up heel. Also, a pumping lower leg, originating in a tense hip, can annoy the horse. But a still lower leg, resting by its own weight against the side of the horse is no nuisance.
How much of the lower leg that actually lies against the side of the horse depends on the length of the riders leg, the depth of the horse, the type of saddle, girth, boot, etc. But the rule is - the leg should lay there by itself. No muscles should be used to fight gravity. It hangs straight down.
The hand should support a small amount of weight, most of which should constitute the weight of the reins themselves. There's no need for 5 pounds or whatever science has calculated that dressage riders hold. This is 5 pounds of narrow steel against a horse's tounge. Anything in excess of 1/2 pound is bound to cause pain and tension. If a horse volontarily takes more contact than that, it is only to avoid something more painful. Like an awkward neck posture or snatching the reins, going from slack to taut, to slack, to taut with every step. This rattles the bit, stabbs the joint of the bit into the palate, hits the bit against the teeth, etc. This is truly nasty to a horse. He can also hang on the bit to avoid using his hocks and haunches, or his back, since that would involve more pain, or discomfort.
It is very common for horses to lean on the reins because the rider pulls. This is a vicious circle that never ends unless the rider invites it to. The horse will continue to pull back at pulling reins because of pain, or fear of pain or because he fears that his neck will be pulled backwards unless he defends himself. The pull from the rider backwards on the lower jaw of the horse is something that the horse IS NOT built for. The lower jaw is connected to the skull wia a protruberance that fits into a hole behind the eye on both sides. This joint takes all the pull from the reins and can hurt quite a bit.
A neutral seat is soft and allows the horse to move forward through the back. It does not perpetually drive nor hold. It merely takes on a position where it will not hamper movement. So it's not a seat like sitting on a chair, motionless. It's a seat like were the spine is a mast, and the abdominal muscles a sail ready to pull forward with any forward movement. A slouching back, humped seat (tailbone seat) or sticking out rump (crotch seat) will be late in following forward movement, and thus hamper. A neutral seat is not a jelly seat. For the horse a jelly seat is like catching a fainting person. The horse will never know where your point of support will be, and not be able to trust you weight aids. The horse can carry a heavy steady weight, just like a person can carry a well packed snug rucksack. The rider must take responsibility for supporting his own weight and staying mobile, perky and balanced all the time.
A half halt? What is that? Does half the horse halt or what? Well, yes.
A half-halt is a brief slowing down of the forward movement of the front end of the horse, so that the hind end catches up and engages. In a full halt this also happens, but the front is not then pushed forward by the hindquarters to continue forward movement. But it stops completely and so do the engaged hindquarters. But that's something else.
Because we want the horse to rebalance constantly during training, because he tends to lose engagement because of laziness or weakness or coordination problems, or, or, or... To do full transitions between gaits is not always productive because we want the horse to be able to correct himself within the gait. Too, that is, since transitions within the gait and between gaits are very useful too, but the half-halt is a subtle means to correct and rebalance a horse so that he will learn what is expeced of him, and not be confused with transitions.
I don't know of any subject in dressage that is more mystical and obscured than the half-halt. Well, maybe the subject of "on the bit" but otherwise... The novice will be pretty much in the dark, and the more prominent will mumble and speak in general terms. It of course depends of ones riding style, how to perform a half-halt. But I can only explain that of my own, the classical approach.
On a thoroughly permeable horse the only aid needed is a short restraining rein-aid on the same side as the touching down hindleg. On a less permeable horse this needs to be preceded by a driving forward of said hind-leg. This would mean that a combined half-halt consisits of the following:
The Combined Half-Halt
The rider feels the outside hindleg (or whichever one's whos step shall be halfhalted) lift and protract, through her seat. As the hind-leg is protracted a driving leg aid on that same side will cause the horse to step further in under his body. When the hoof lands the aid will need to release and let seat an rein aids take over.
The seat "holds" the movement for a fraction of a second by gently transferring weight backwards. This can be done as discretely as by the rider pressing the nape of her neck against the back of her collar. If more is needed the horse kan be held by the legs and thighs for a fraction of a second and the oscillating movement through the riders back can be slowed.
The rein on the same side as the supporting hindleg supports the seat action by asking for a slightly higher carriage of the head and thus a lifting of the base of the neck, and for slowing the forehand down. The rein aid can also help to bend the grounded hindleg, but when a horse has become that permeable, this multi-aided half-halt is hardly needed anymore.
Breaking down the actions of the half-halt this way clearly shows that it is something of extremely short duration. The phases of the step where the horse protracts the hindleg and plants it on the ground, supports his weight over it until it has reached the plumb line from the hip, is no longer than 1/2 second. So in a younger, less educated, slower reacting reschoolee this will have no other effect than uppsetting him. For this great majority of horses, the 2 part half-halt will be needed to further their education.
The 2 Part Half-Halt
The 2 part half-halt is by definition not a half-halt but a schooling half-halt, or a precursor to a half-halt. It is executed so that the horse is ridden forward in a normal tempo with the amount of engagement that it offers. The horse is then slowed down, usually during several steps and never quicker than he can retain the same contact and balance, or thereabout. When the horse has slowed, The lifted hindleg is driven forward by a legaid on that same side, and the horse is allowed to advance at the speed he offers. This will, when repeated, teach the horse that slow is not necessarily sloppy or sluggish. Also, the emphasis is on the increase of engagement, and rewarding release of the aids follow that engagement.
If it were to be done the other way around, as with the combined half-halt that the educated horse will benefit from, it would tend to be percieved as a correction or punishment for engagement. Any aid given immediately after something has been done by the horse is seen as a correction by the horse. Much the same way as the release of the aids is a reward and feedback that the response was approved of.
So if you were to first drive, and then immediately slow, the horse coult take the slowing as a correction for the increase in engagement. This would be less than optimal. And when dealing with a green horse these 2 part half-halst should not even be too frequent. As the horse learns to engage and gets stronger, they can be used more often, and after some time be mixed with the combined half-halt
The Outside Rein (and the Inside)
(From an article in Dressage DT:)
"Outside rein, outside rein" Isabelle says. Then she bellows: "I SAID OUTside rein!"
Haven't we all heard it? Outside rein this and outside rein that. Never the inside rein, since that is blocking and simply unprofessional. No, outside rein it is.
And what can you do? You know you're supposed to ride on the outside rein and you've heard about the five rein effects, or even worse, that only 'opening' and 'direct rein of opposition' are allowed, so what DO you do? You pull on the outside rein.
And, you guessed it, I'm gonna tell you it's wrong.
Many american instructors are using the term inside leg to outside rein, which is much more appropriate. There is still room for misinterpretation, but it does stress the fact that something GOES TO the outside rein, the rider does not necessarily pull it.
Well, you can. If you kick the horse on into it anyway.
But let's start from the beginning.
What is an outside rein?
Leg-yield across the diagonal.
The horse is straight in the body and
positioned to the right near the poll,
stretching the outside rein.
An outside rein can only exist if there is an outside (and thusly an inside) to the
horse. This is not always consistent with the inside and outside of the arena, but
rather with the bend or positioning of the horse. At lower levels this usually
follows the arena.
Like, if you do a leg-yield across the diagonal to the right from going on the
right rein, the left is your outside rein. Your horse is positioned towards the
inside of the arena before commencing the leg-yield (1). Since he will need to
leg-yield towards the inside of the arena to get to the other side, and onto the
other rein, he is re-positioned (2) counter to direction of movement. He is
positioned to the outside and starts moving laterally across the arena. The former
outside rein is now your inside rein, even though it is closer to the rail then your
As soon as he reaches the middle of the arena, the left/inside is the
inside-of-the-arena again (3) and he will reach the other side in true position (4)
to turn the corner on the new rein. So you can't use the arena as a means to tell
which is inside and outside.
The outside and the inside does not exist when the horse is aligned straight. Don't
confuse aligned straight with ridden straight. Ridden straight is when the horse
follows the line he travels, so if the line bends, he bends. Aligned straight is
just no position and no bend. Perfectly symmetrical horse, straight forward neck
looking straight ahead. This is what you ride along the sides and centerline of the
arena, unless you use positioning for any reason, or work on 2 tracks. (It is
actually VERY hard to ride the horse well while straight, because you don't have the
positioning to help you with topline relaxation and getting that darned hindleg
For position, let's take a horse ridden on a circle to the right. He bends his whole
body to the right. He shortens the inside of his body and elongates the outside to
fit the bend of the circle. You sit somewhere in the middle, and as he elongates his
outside, the outside rein is pulled on by the horse, and the inside rein loops
slightly, because the horse shortens on the inside.
Positioned counter to
bend in the neck.
You can now choose to use the outside rein as you see fit. If you keep your hand in
the place where it was before going into the circle, you will feel increased
pressure. If you insist on keeping it there, the horse will either lose his
positioning, try to snatch the reins, open his mouth, cross his jaws and pull, or
curl behind the vertical/bit. This you don't want. So if you give the outside rein
(totally) the horse will become longer and lower (or come above the bit) and contact
will be lost.
He can even bend at the base of the neck and travel with an angled body instead of a
bent one, depending on what you do with the inside rein, because you have nothing to
control his shoulder and stretch with.
And you don't want that either.
The answer lies somewhere inbetween. You want the horse to follow the line of
travel, and thus stretch the outside. So you let him stretch, but you keep the
amount of contact the same.
The inside rein, what does it do? Well, to begin with, it was probably inolved in
positioning your horse's head to the inside, to prepare him for the bend and the
subsequent change of direction. Your inside rein probably acted very briefly, or
intermittently, and then released until almost slack. It actually set off the whole
What is Positioning?
Position is lateral flexion by rotation
between 1st and 2nd
counter-rotation in the rest of the neck.
The act of positioning the horse at the poll, makes the horse rotate the head and
1st vertebra, in relation to the 2nd vertebra and the rest of the horse. It yaws.
This is actually the only direction in which this joint can move. In the
illustration to the right, the skull and atlas
is rotated counter-clockwise, compared to the rest of the neck which is rotated clockwise.
One could really explain it in the opposite order, because when the neck flexes to
the right, the right side muscles, mainly those of the topline, shorten, and pull on the processes of the vertebrae, including those at
the tops of the lower vertebrae. This makes the entire neck rotate clockwise with the bend. At the atlas, this
rotation is neutralised by the counter-rotation of
the joint, and the head ends up straight and not tilted.
With amazement I have watched the element of positioning at the atlas/axis disappear
out of riding theory and instruction. There's plenty of talk about bend (in the body
and lower neck) and there's even more talk about "flexing the poll" which is often
done by moving the bit lefr-right-left-right in quick succession. Or simply by
wagging the whole head and neck left-right-left. This is rather like eating a nice
desert with a shovel - it can be done, but the risk of knocking ones teeth out is
The caudal muscles causing the
and the sensitive spinal cord.
Using rapid, heavy-handed, excessive, generalized flexing left-right-left will cause
the horse to lock up in the joints surrounding the poll in self defense, and bend
further down the neck instead. Position must be done carefully and gently, with
light reins and given time to let the horse release and arch the neck, into a giving
Using position in its right location, as shown in the photo below, will de-contract
the outside muscles of the poll and neck. This facilitates releasing over the poll
to drop the head to the near vertical, effortlessly. This is what the french do in
their flexions, and this is what positioning is for, when riding a horse. That, and
the loading of the inner hindleg...
The location of the atlas/axis joint.
This small rotation and de-contraction sets off a cascade of reactions down the
spine. The entire spine releases with the outside, and elongates so that the body of
the horse takes on a descrete bend. This is more felt than seen. This bend prepares
for engagement of the inner hindleg, if you work on that engagement with the inside
leg. And what came first, the chicken or the egg? You can't sucessfully position
with the reins, unless you have activated and engaged the inside hindleg. And you
can't position with any effect by using the inside leg only, you need both.
The location of the atlas/axis joint.
For correct position, it is important that the hindleg does not step on a circle
inside of that of the inner foreleg. This would allow the horse to move crooked, not
engage the inner hindleg properly for pushing and carrying, and would that way make
a false position and bend. The horse would almost certainly bend to the inside at
the base of the neck and travel with the rest of his body more or less straight and
obliquely to the line of travel. And here the outside rein comes in again. The
outside rein can help sorting this problem out.
The horse barely ever pops the shoulder out in the direction of the position. This,
because it is almost physically impossible to do so. (For normal horses it IS, but
I'm sure there are some exceptions, as well as some extremely tense and crooked
horses which can probably wring themselves jointless, if they try.)
So you can use the outside rein to pop the shoulder in, by briefly halfposition to
the outside for a step.
You can also use the outside rein against the neck of the horse to push the forehand
inward and infront of that straying inner hindleg. But as in all these tricks for
alignment, it is VERY VERY IMPORTANT to be brief and to release! Remember
that you want the horse to stretch and telescope to your outside hand, and not for
your hand to come to the resistant horse.
The inside rein also effects the jaw and gullet. A horse that moves hollow and above
the bit will clench his teeth (to hold his jaw from falling open) and tense his
tounge and underneck, by pushing the spinal column down and forward with the
hollowing. A horse that is asked to release his jaw will be less likely to keep
hollowing. The release of the jaw releases the tounge and throat, and relaxes the
underneck. This encourages the horse to stretch his topline and let the nose fall
towards the vertical, and telescope his neck.
Chewing of the bit will be the result, and is almost a proof of a
correctly going horse. I say almost, because there must be room for interpretation,
here. Many jaw and throat tense horses champ the bit and drool floods over their
chests. This is because they gape, or at least try to, to get away from the bit.
Many horses ridden curled in get cramped in their jaw, throat and underneck muscles,
and try to relieve the cramp by snatching at their own chest. They are simply forced
to use their muscles in an unnatural way, and are caught between the pain of the bit
and the cramp.
The outside leg (or morse specifically the thigh) can be used in combination with,
or instead of the outside rein. A horse that has been thoroughly schooled in the
fact that the outside rein length set's the perimeters of outline, can be moved
around a volte or a pirouette by a slight pressure of the outside thigh. Since it
does the same thing.
In leg-yield, the positioning to the inside put's the horse to the outside hand. It
shows the horse the line to follow and where to seek guidance. The inside hand keeps
the inside soft and enables the inside leg (rider's) to move the horse sideways. The
inside rein can even move the hindquarters in the direction of travel, offset them
if the horse chooses not to comply with the sideways moving leg.
In Shoulder-in, The outside rein makes sure the horse does not pop the outside
shoulder, it moves the forehand to the inside and gives the horse something to
stretch for and a sense of direction. The inside rein keeps the bend and position,
and keeps the inside soft and giving to the inside leg which moves the horse
In Haunches-in, the outside rein controls any poping of the shoulder and supports
sthe stretch, while the inside softens and bends. The fact that the sideways moving
leg works against the stretched side of the horse, is what makes this excersise
harder. An unschooled horse might give to the driving outside leg, and subsequently
position to the outside, lose the stretch and sense of direction, and go crooked.
And a less experienced rider might not be coordinated enough to relieve it.