To work with the horse while the horse is standing still, in a halt, is something I personally am very passionate about.
The "full" school halt is at the near end of all the work we can do in halt. The goal is not the school halt itself but what it can bring to our horse and training. To improve the whole horse in both standing and movement, to gymnastize and to educate, clarify or improve the secondary aids.
The school halt is something very much associated with the Academic Art of Riding work by Bent Branderup. Never heard anyone talk about this before he rediscovered it. A forgotten lesson by the educators from old brought into active training again. I find that part really fascinating and how much the dead old guys actually seem to understand about biomechanics and that we still can learn from that aspect of their training.
Back then, when the horse was used for service in wars, in ways no modern horse person would ever want to see again, the horse's education literally was a matter of life and death. "turnability" must have been of utmost importance. From that perspective, it is easy to understand why putting the horse on the haunches was so important, and maybe it also speaks to
why this lesson was forgotten when the ways of war changed.
What about today?
When most of us have horses as companion animals and are guided by the horse's needs more than ours. What's the point of the school halt?
For me, working towards the school halt is a process that has a lot to offer our horses today. I did mention some above but to look more physically:
Mostly talked about as something to help the horse to bend in their haunches. Activating the gluteal muscles and the stabilizers in the hind end are all important in the horse's daily life and to improve the horizontal balance of the horse. Helping the horse find certain body parts in a more yoga-like fashion can be a game-changer for horses with conformation issues or returning from an injury.
Making the horse better at being a horse is something I say a lot with the meaning of helping the horse thrive in the world where we have put the horse. Both emotionally and physically. Few horses have access to the amount of movement they are biologically designed for, and helping them to move in different ways is something I'm personally very invested in. So again, one of the key aspects of all work in a halt is to make the horse better in movement.
Improving rhythm and the natural gaits. Deepening the understanding of the aids. The half-halt and, in general, the rider's hand can evolve a LOT from this work and teach the horses about their own bodies.
If we look at the communication between the rider and the horse, the halt work offers a lot of nuances to grow together and to deepen your connection with your horse. Working in halt helps us be better at catching small movements and cultivate our observation skills. Think it does tons for developing feel and when you work with tack, learning to listen to what the horse tells you. And as with the horse, this also improves us for working in movement.
So what is a school halt?
A school halt is exactly that, a schooled halt. We can see elements of the school halt appear in play and fight behaviors, but here we are talking about a systematic education with an active top line, a search forward where the bend in the haunches should match the level of the horse's education and strength.
I would say the school halt is an exercise, and as all exercises, they are tools designed to help specific body parts and make the whole better. And as with all exercises this means that the school halt will change during your work together. In the beginning, we might be super happy just about the weight shift backward, even if the horse's hind legs haven't yet developed the idea of bend in the haunches and that deep sit.
I find it is so interesting from a movement challenge perspective. Once we have taught the horse the direction of the exercise, how they solve it can be very different and tell us a lot about their bodies.
The school halt is a journey.
For me, the idea of working in a halt emphasizes this slow process where the horse's strength is developed gradually and combined with the work in movement. Transitions will often tell us how strong our horses really are, and even if we can see repetitions where the horse uses their neck to sort of shove themselves backward and up (that is a sign of them not being strong enough yet). Usually this is not something I worry about if it happens here and there, but if all our repetitions start to look like that, I would definitely go back a few steps, help the horse to do less and focus more on the process and less on the finished product. It will come.
It's important to create a balance between exploring movements and doing precise repetitions. My general view is that precision is my last priority; I want a horse that loves exploring with me and a horse that gets the direction of the movement first.
Demanding perfect repetitions all the time kills motivation and is, in general, so boring to me. However, at the end of the day, the activated top line and how my work affects the other gaits are strong guides for me and what decides if I would say it is a trick or a part in a systematic education. How the horse halts and if the halt starts to be more square in everyday life is a great consequence to
look for, as is a better transition between and within gaits.
And sure, it might all be a trick to the horse, but a school halt that has the above and where we can change elements within the context of the exercise is a pretty advanced trick in that case.
So how can we teach it?
For me the prerequisite of teaching anything this nuanced with a lot of small movements that can be physically challenging is a strong foundation in parking or standing on a mat. All my horses can stand for several minutes but I'd say at least 20-30 seconds is what you need. A mat is great as it also offers an idea of a "no" to the horse. Stepping away from the mat= I want to do something else. And when it comes to exercises that are physically demanding and require a lot of trust, this type of two way communication is extra important and helps us revise our training. Ideally we should stop long before we get a "no". This is one aspect why I also prefer to start in liberty.
Another way of doing this is also to reward the exit point, the transition out of the exercise. So to create a balance between the exercise and a search forward by not only focusing on the weight shift backwards. I wrote a little bit about transitions and thoughts around that HERE.
Maybe goes without saying but we need to have a look at the front of the horse first. Yes, weight shifts will help your horse with their balance but if our horse has very strong lateral preferences and/or is very heavy on the forehand you will quickly get into trouble if you haven't adressed this first.
The hind end is where the power is built, that's the engine. But only focusing on
building power there will do the horse no good. It's like trimming a car with a bent chassi. It will affect the car's stability and the deck pressure. Make it prone to other damages, hard to turn and is possibly unsafe for driving, especially at higher speed.
And of course we are talking about a living being with their own thoughts about the world here. So here is where I spend most time in the beginning. Taking this part slow is building trust. Imagine someone holding your head and neck, some of your most important balancing tools, and moving you in ways that don't yet match your own experience of your balance.
The search forward
The weight shift
I often start this part from a body part target. There's plenty of different ways to do it but I find this is SO much fun for both of us and gives so much extra body awareness for the horse.
Teaching the horse to search for contact with my hand without stepping backwards is a good start. With Koppar here in the picture moving my hand to different parts of his hind end is what helped him get the "sit" instead of locking his hind legs. I start by clicking for resting my hand on the body part I want to speak with and gradually evolve it it to the horse making the contact. This is by no means the first body part target I start with (often that is shoulders) so by this time the horse has an idea what's going on in a training context. The first body part target can be hard to figure out for most horses and riders. I also teach it a lot from backing up and from different head targets but I found that road often takes us longer, where one challenge is to get rid of stepping backwards with hind legs that we put there.
Work with tack and from the saddle
Ok, that's some of the elements we can start looking at. This went longer than expected and I don't feel finished yet. So. Will return to this subject also with tack and from the saddle in a future post. If you are curious about halt work I have an upcoming course next year (2024).
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