On Saturday, my goal with Bentley was to learn the half halt. Since this is a difficult skill due to conflicting messages, I did a lot of reading beforehand to make sure I would be doing it correctly. Here is a summary of tips I tried from different articles: tested, and proven correct by yours truly.
1) Make sure you, the rider, are half halting correctly. Try your half halts on already schooled horses and take a lesson with a good coach. Half halt should not last more than once stride, or even more than an instant really. You should be half halting with your seat and back, and your hands will naturally provide the small pressure necessary as you tense up your core.
2) Prepare your horse with other exercises to get them into the schooling zone. Whatever it is you have already worked on and perfected. For us, we do a lot of bending at the walk and trot, mini serpentines down the long side of the rings and large circles that spiral down to small circles at the walk. This gets us communicating, thinking, and relaxed. Make sure your horse is going forward, if he is being lazy, the half halt wont be as effective in collection and may reward the laziness.
3) Start with a lot of trot to walk transitions, this gets them anticipating the downward transitions and shifting their weight to their hindquarters. Make sure that you are still forward through your transitions (meaning once you get to a walk, you have a good forward walk and your horse doesn’t run out of steam underneath you, you will know you have it right if the transition is smooth and you do not feel any jolt forward in the saddle) so that your horse is bringing his hindquarters underneath him.
4) Ask for the half halt, making sure you are using your leg to tell him “I want you to halt, oh wait no i changed my mind, keep going forward”. Forgive the horse if he goes back the walk or surges up because of the leg the first few times, after all, it is confusing for them! Use their reaction to judge the pressure you are applying with your aids. Adjust your riding accordingly. For example, if your horse slows to the walk, use less hands and seat with more leg. Reverse if you are taking off.
5) Continue to ask for half halt in different circumstances, both directions, before corners, around circles, and the moment you sense the horse getting a little flat and speedy. Practise practise practise! Make sure to reward your horse for a job well done. Throw in some full downward transitions to emphasize the difference between the two and to keep him guessing.
6) Keep assessing your riding to make sure that you are asking consistently and are light in your hands. I read that the weight applied by your hands should be no more than that of holding a chocolate bar in each hand consistently, slightly more for the half halt. Don’t pull on his face or your aids wont be effective! If he isn’t listening to your aids and going faster than your comfort level, don’t pull harder, just relax and keep asking and bugging him until he gets it right. Slow and intensify your posting and ask for the half halt every other stride.
So my experience with this was very positive. After all these exercises and tips, I had Bentley trotting around the ring beautifully. He is such an eager horse, he loves to go forward which I think made it much easier for me because I didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting him forward before we could work on these exercises. Laura (the barn manager) saw us working on this towards the end, and made a comment on how he was behaving better than most of the school horses. This being because we were doing it on the windiest day of the year, and arena doors were banging, sticks were falling on the roof, and wooshing sounds of the wind were spooking all the horses. But keeping him focused and challenged kept him quiet and calm, even though he was in the ring alone.
At this point, I believe he is ready to start work outside. My biggest concern with going outside was how distracted he gets by seeing all his friends in the field. Once we change the clocks and I can take advantage of a later sunset, I am going to work him in the sand ring with Heather S and/or Linda as I think he still needs a more experienced horse with him to keep him calm and focus on the horse who is with him, rather than the ones playing out in the paddocks. Maybe depending on how he goes, we may try a group hack around the corn fields.
I am also ready to try jumping him from the trot over some small X’s and maybe some small verticals. He is great with trot poles, and I have jumped him over X’s in hand, however most times he just half jumped the X’s since he realized he can just pick up his feet higher and trot right over them. He wasn’t an eager jumper when free lunging, but I am hoping with me up on top, I will have better control and his trust in me will help guide us. This DID work with Fraser, who also would not jump while free lunging, but was thrilled to jump with me on board. We will likely try this next time DJ comes with me to help coach me through it, and video it too! I need those eyes on the ground! Oh silly me, I forgot to mention too, we cantered over canter poles and didn’t touch them once. What a natural!
Lastly, I am hoping this means he is ready for other riders too since I love to share the joy of riding with all my friends and family, I want him to get used to the idea of other people on his back and behaving well with others. It is a very busy week for me, so I am hoping that my sister Heather will be able to ride once or twice this week to keep him exercised and hopefully it would be fun for her too. She has been riding Heather S’s horse Rurik, who is an off-the-track standardbred and is not an easy ride. She has really impressed me with her improvement and patience for Rurik, and together they are performing well in their lessons with Laura. I am confident she will be able to ride Bentley just fine with a bit of direction. Rurik has experienced some difficulty with saddle fit making him lame recently, so it would be nice for her to have a backup horse for her lessons just in case.