The White Buffalo

The White Buffalo: a sacred Native American symbol that signifies abundance. The animal itself is rare and held in the highest respect. 

The White Buffalo in Dressage: The Half-Halt. An abundance of uses in the saddle and of definitions; every dressage rider has their own, very right, and very strong opinion on what a half-halt is and what it is not. Every god-fearing rider respects the sacred half-halt. (Thanks, Julie, for the inspiration for the title!)

A few weeks ago, during a break in a lesson with Paul, I asked how he describes a half-halt. After talking with him, I was driven to collect more opinions on the most important commingling of a rider’s aids. This commingling makes it one of the hardest concepts to grasp, learn and teach. This blog post is not meant to tell you what a half-halt absolutely is. If I have learned anything in this search for an answer, it is that there is not a clear one. At its most basic, a half-halt is simply whatever you need it to be. [Helpful, right? I aim to please.]

Read a single dressage theory book or watch a film and it is an unavoidable phrase. To new and old riders alike, though, it is one that is riddled with questions. Am I half-stopping? And how does one half-stop? There are a million opinions on The Big Double H, but most agree that is not aptly named.

One of the most debilitating side effects of the name ‘Half-Halt’ is that it can paint the picture of pulling to fix your horse. In Paul’s book, Riding Towards the Light, he states, “In true dressage the hands only work at refining the edges, adjusting something that is already relatively in balance. They can never by themselves put the horse back into balance, any more than a person can pull [a] seesaw back up to an equilibrium if the balance is tipped off center.”

Leah Nelson, a USDF Certified Trainer, Owner of Sweetwater Equestrian, and Treasured Friend/Mentor, echoed how the name can mislead riders to “intuitively misinterpret the term half-halt when they first hear it because it sounds more like slowing down than shifting balance.” This rebalancing is the core idea of the half-halt.

During my lesson, Paul told me that a half-halt is an aid that is used to do exactly that or prepare your horse for your next movement. It can be on one or two reins, and will differ in the weight of the aid. We agreed it is ambiguous; a German Grand Prix Man’s half-halt will be significantly different than a Young Rider trotting down the Centerline at First Level, but they are the same at the core. There are a million half-halts and there are a million degrees of half-halts. Leah Nelson shared this idea when she said “Each horse, in each moment, at each level of training may require something a little different.”

I am incredibly lucky to have so many talented trainers to learn from + discuss ideas with, including Andrea Velas. She also describes a half-halt as a rebalancing, and that it should never disrupt the rhythm of the horse or the rider. If you disrupt the rhythm, you are doing it wrong. We then talked about how she teaches a half-halt to a new rider. She will begin with doing walk-trot and trot-walk transitions and then begin to turn them into trot-pauses; the horse will not completely stop. This teaches the rider to begin thinking about what the hind legs are doing, which is imperative in the half-halt. You are not fixing or stopping the front end, you are adjusting the whole horse.

Julie Davies Pagel, owner of Full Sail Farm, Bad A$$ Pony Club Advocate, and a horsewoman I truly look up to, similarly teaches half-halts. She “tends to break down the concept like this: teach a correct halt from the walk. Leg and seat “on”, stretch up tall (think knitting the lower abs to the upper abs-brings the pelvis slightly under) while closing the hand. Softening when the horse halts. Then start the halt process but before the horse actually halts, soften the aids and drive forward again. Think of it as a “not-halt”. This can progress to trot-walk, trot-not-walk too. As the riders skills develop, the whole process is compressed.”

It would be inappropriate to discuss half-halts without discussing the most important part of them; the release. Paul writes in Riding Toward the Light that, “If the driving aids/or the restraining aids are applied to shift the centre of balance back further, they must be released the split second the rebalancing occurs.”

Leah Nelson echoes this when she says “The bottom line is that the half-halt has the effect of rebalancing the horse more onto the hind legs and that if your half-halt doesn’t include a release and a driving aid, you’re doing it wrong. The rider should feel increased control, attention or ‘state of readiness’, and ease in the contact after a successful half-halt. It’s important to keep in mind that every half-halt may not work and no half-halt lasts forever.” If there is no release in your half-halt, you will simply be holding your horse up, and the adjustability of your dance partner will quickly disappear.

Half-Halts are incredibly difficult to learn/explain/put in a box. When I was discussing this White Buffalo with Paul, I said there are times when Half-Halts simply translate into “Do something.” The trainer on the ground can’t talk fast enough to say that you need to half-halt on the left rein which might need to be mirrored by a two-rein half-halt all in the span of 8 seconds. This has driven us to adopt a catch-all phrase. This also makes it something that you have to learn by just riding. Feel cannot be taught, but before you know it, whatever degree or kind of half-halt needs to be done will become intuitive.

Julie Davies Pagel talked about how they are difficult to learn when you don’t have the opportunity to ride a well-trained Schoolmaster to develop an independent seat. Many people aren’t thrilled, either, with spending months on a lunge line to develop this skill. But, “if you struggle to sit in the saddle in balance, you grip with your legs to keep you in the saddle or balance on the reins-explaining an aid like the half-halt is either impossible to perform or will just sound like noise to the greener horse that really doesn’t understand it anyway. So, what we often have are riders trying to develop independent aids while teaching a greener horse how to go around without falling on his face, running you into the wall, or burying you into the ground.” To these riders who are training themselves and their horses at the same time, I urge you to take every opportunity you have to ride a well-trained horse + to keep your chin up during the journey of dressage. And I remind you: we have all cried in the bathroom/truck/saddle.

The White Buffalo of Dressage will remain just that; The Half-Halt is a sacred and well-respected art form in itself, and one that can quickly be lost or muddied. You can’t look too hard for it, or else you will never find it. Instead, it is something that must be learned by spending hours in the saddle. It does help, though, to have great horse people around you to talk about its greatness.

A sincere thanks to everyone who helped contribute to this blog post. You have all had a major impact on my riding career, and for this the WP and I thank you.

Off to go practice my half-halts,

Erin and The Wonder Pony

If you want more literature on the half halt, this is a great article from USDF. Thanks, Leah, for the tip!

Week Seven Question: When were the Dressage Letters of today first introduced in competition?

Week Six Trivia Answer: There is a really great video by Paul about this, but a Half-Pass is not the same as a Haunches-In on the diagonal because of the bend and the action of the front legs. In a Haunches-In, you want the front legs to remain pointed straight with no crossing action and the forehead of the horse pointing to the wall you are riding towards. In a Half-Pass, the horse’s neck will not remain straight as there is a bend to the direction they are traveling, and the front legs are crossing over one another.

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