The perfectly balanced square dressage halt has always eluded me. Don't get me wrong, stopping the horse with just my seat aids has been in my repertoire for quite a while, but that hind legs engaged, back up/shoulders up, balanced halt has been my unicorn. As time has gone on and my dressage knowledge has increased, I have realized that the "perfect" halt is an outcome of a properly trained, engaged, and balanced horse. That said, as other things have improved consistently, the correctly balanced halt has been hit and miss.
Then the other day an e-article popped up in my Facebook feed that had an interesting exercise for improving the halt. As I read it I didn't agree with the actual aids described for the halt that involved a lot of driving with the leg and holding with the hand, but the exercise itself started ringing bells in my trainer's brain.
Basically, the easiest way for the horse to practice halt is walk to halt to walk. However, it is very easy to lose engagement and energy doing this and have the horse halting with a lot of weight on the forehand instead of the haunches. The horse stops promptly but not with those hind legs more under the body and the shoulders slightly lifted. The more the horse practices like this, the more he gets used to having a lazy, on the forehand halt. The key to fixing this is quality transitions. Instead of practicing walk-halt-walk the exercise is to practice trot-walk-halt-walk-trot and take as much time as necessary to have quality transitions. The trot must be in the "Sweet Spot" with energy, relaxation, and balance and it is the thing that causes the horse to have more engagement than just working from the walk. As the horse gets more and more balanced and the hindquarters more engaged, there are less and less steps of walk between the trot and the halt until eventually over time you easily have trot-halt-trot.
Seems pretty reasonable, so we gave it a shot yesterday. What a difference adding in the trot makes. I got a trot that was in alignment, stretchable, in self carriage, with energy and then used my Dressage Naturally aids of thinking "get ready/contain the energy" then transitioned to the walk, then the same "get ready/contain" to the halt transition. I only asked for the transition when I felt like it would be balanced and immediate, so it took 5-10 steps for each transition. Then I did the same thing in the opposite order from the halt to the walk to the trot, established that good trot again, and kept cycling through the pattern. And I'll be damned if in a few cycles I wasn't getting the transitions after 2-3 steps, a balanced halt, and the pony was calm and through. At the end a couple of the halts were just a smidge on the forehand, so I thought I would test the hypothesis by working on getting a slightly better quality of trot to fix the problem of the halt engagement. I easily got the good trot, then got transitions in 2-3 steps and the most balanced, square halt, with his hind legs close together. We were done for the day. I think it will only take a couple of weeks of doing this exercise consistently to have nice trot-halt-trots. Pretty exciting.