Thursday, February 6, 2014

On the Soft Forward Halt

I'm still sitting at home sick. It's been almost a week since I've seen my horse, and that and the coughing are making me a little crazy. I also ended up dragged into a snowpile taller than myself by two husky dogs overjoyed to be outside today instead of cooped up with their sick mama. Whee! Instead of focusing on that madness, I thought I'd take my down time to really dig deep into a training point I've been working on. Enjoy!

With December being my last lesson until March or April, I've been revisiting it often, especially the part where we worked on establishing a soft and forward halt. As I've had these on my "To Improve" list for some time, I thought I'd set down how I've been working on improving them.

This is not a forward halt. Do not let your halts look like this.
As you might know, Guinness is prone to shortening and backing off contact. His slight lazy streak also helps him fall behind a bit at the halt. This usually results in me losing the back end, ending the halt with un-squared hind legs, a raised head, and shortened neck. Gross, right?

To combat this, Nancy had me work hard on getting a forward marching walk that was consistent in the bridle. Once we'd established this, she had me really think about collecting the walk. The first few steps towards the halt must be in collection, after all. The walk will slow, but stay engaged -- the steps just getting higher instead slower. She had me think about lightening the front end by keeping my hips active. It's really important when collecting the walk not to lose the 4 beat gait. I'm lucky that Guinness has an incredible walk and that he's fairly easy to collect without losing his walk rhythm. However, it's still something I have to consciously protect and think about.

At this point, I like to make sure that my horse is moving forward readily. I don't want him to get stuck and think that I'm asking him to slow down or be lazy. Often, I'll throw in some trot transitions or ask for a faster tempo at the walk just to keep him thinking "go."
Once I have an energetic, easily collected, but well cadenced and consistent walk (haha, so easy, right?), I'll ask for a halt. The important thing for me to remember here is to keep my legs on, not float them off my horse. He has to realize he can stop moving while still being engaged, and a big part of that is me keeping a light driving force on him throughout the process. It's also imperative in case I need to bump him forward, but we'll get to that later.
The actual halting comes from my seat. I will sink into my seat bones, thinking about how they have been moving his hind legs forward at the walk. When I ask for the halt, I want to make sure to keep a swinging hip (the forward!) but to weight my seat bones to ask the hind legs to come under and stop. It's really hard for me to do this and sit up straight, but tightening my abs seems to help keep me upright and resisting enough to bring Guinness to a halt. 

During all this, my hands are managing the contact but careful not to pull. I don't allow Pig to get heavy or blow through my seat aids, though. Occasionally I do have to remind him to halt by gently closing my reins. Eventually, though, I want to eliminate this for good. Most of the time, I am focused on keeping him happily stretching his topline forward and staying roundly underneath me. Slight vibrations from my ring fingers help to keep Pig softly mouthing the bit, not bracing against it. I tend to keep an eye on his neck where it stretches out of his shoulders. This is where it is easiest for me to see/feel if he is shortening his neck, which is typically the first sign of us losing the "forward" and Guinness beginning to drop contact and hollow.
If he does begin to shorten or hollow, I immediately close my leg a fraction and ask him to move forward with my seat. We will reestablish a consistent and marching walk, and try again. If he does come nicely under himself and halt with a stretching topline however, I am careful to reward him by releasing the rein. I don't throw them away, but I calmly release any pressure that has built up in them. I expect him to stay at a halt even if I do throw the reins away. (He often doesn't. Bad Pig.) He has to learn that his forward aid comes from my seat, not a release of the rein.

This whole process is really time consuming, and often means that we will go a few rotations of the arena without halting more than a few times. However, after a time of working on this, I usually end up getting lovely prompt halts that are very forward and calm. Guinness will stand calmly, fully square, and ready to move off at a moment's notice. His neck stays stretched out in front of him, instead of nervously curling in, or raising up and hollowing his back. He is much easier to back from this type of halt, as well.

I've noticed as we've done this exercise during every ride, the time it takes to develop the nice forward halt has decreased. I've also noticed that my hands tend to be much kinder after practicing. It's really a win-win.

While a funny angle, this IS a pretty good example of a forward and engaged halt. Look at those hind legs! This halt was a total fluke, though. I had no idea what I was doing here ... 
Do you guys practice the halt? Do you do anything similarly to me?

8 comments:

  1. The halt is something I really need to focus on this Spring. Great post with excellent tips - thank you :)

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    1. Aw, thanks! I'm looking forward to seeing how your lovely girl is doing!

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  2. Brilliantly described and something the Guru reminds me of when halting and/or downward transitions...must remember to keep contact with my leg and use my seat vs the reins.
    Great to hear that you guys are improving, there is hope for mere mortals like myself in that case! ;-)

    PS: I do a double take when you speak about your instructor Nancy *blush*

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  3. And... lost my comment. Soft and straight are my next steps in halt training now that I actually have a halt lol Great job! Love the description :)

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    1. Straightness! Ack! Let's not mention the straightness! :)

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  4. We definitely work the halt! Since I ride with a H/J trainer, her directions for halts are harder and sharper, but they get the same result. When I exhale, pony better sit down. :0) We work on lots of whoa without a head toss. When I ask for a halt, I'll know I've got it right when there is no head toss and pony can back up quickly and then move straight off into a trot. JL has me always think of lighten the front end. The hunters need to do lots of canter off from the walk so my boys are pretty good at halting on their hind ends ready for forward. :0)

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    1. Hunters really nail down that canter from the walk thing. It comes so much later in dressage, I think it's harder!

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