29 May the essence of the halt
In every dressage competition test, at every level, in every country, the horse and rider will start and finish the test with a halt. The beginning of the test may read, “A: Enter working trot. X: Halt, Salute. Proceed collected trot.”
Maybe you are at a show where there is not much room around the competition ring. The rider may have to make a fairly sharp turn into the arena. Maybe the footing is different inside and outside the arena. Your horse might be confused for a moment and falter in the rhythm. Good judges are aware of these things. If the entrance is not perfect, it is not the end of the world. The essence of that first movement is the approach and the halt. Most good judges understand the essence of the first movement is the halt. However, very few judges understand what is the essence of the halt.
A recent explanation by a high ranking judge was that the essence of the halt is that the halt be square. This is not the essence of the halt according to classical dressage theory and practice.
As far back as the 1600’s, William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, wrote that the whole object of the school horse was to get the horses upon the haunches, and he said ‘let me teach you the best exercise I know [to do this], that is to trot and halt.’ Later, in a book by Baron de Eisenberg we see a horse Tratarat with exaggerated lowering of the haunches at the halt. The halt was used as an exercise by old masters to teach the dressage horse to flex at the lumbosacral area and come under with the haunches. It was an exercise even young horses could be taught in order to learn about collection. If a dressage horse stops and the halt is square but the hind legs are camped out behind a perpendicular line drawn from the point of the buttocks to the ground, the halt cannot be considered good. If two horses halt and one horse is perfectly square but its hind legs are out behind and another halts and it is not perfectly square but both hind legs are under and in front of that perpendicular line from the point of the buttocks down, the second horse is more correct according to the principles of classical dressage, where many exercises are designed to develop collection.
A second important element of the halt is to be straight – the haunches stay in line with the shoulders. It wouldn’t be of great value if the rider got the horse to engage but the horse cleverly learned to shift the hind end to avoid even load bearing.
When horses halt correctly, they are ready to stride off promptly from a good stance like a human runner in the blocks. We know from the study of biomechanics that horses will use their front legs to pull themselves forward or bounce the forehand up. Even if we know it occurs in moments, or certain parts of movements, one of the important ethical principles of dressage is to try to relieve the horse’s naturally overburdened forehand when we ask it to carry the additional weight of the rider.
The more I study dressage, the more I am amazed how much the old masters knew without the science of biomechanics. It has to be a testament to their keen powers of observation, and to the sometime limits of our modern culture of more and more information.
*This framed print hangs in the aisle way of our barn here at the Pennsylvania Riding Academy, for all of our riders and visitors to consider.