At the very, very basic level of horse riding you learn that legs mean go and hands mean stop. Then this is developed as the rider becomes more balanced and able to give more subtle, refined aids.
Recently I’ve been emphasising the importance of using the leg in downward transitions to a lot of my clients. This is probably because Matt needs a lot of leg in order to make a balanced transition.
Firstly, let’s look at what happens if you only use your reins to slow down. The horse raises his head, hollows his back, and the hindquarters get left behind. In the halt, they looked “camped out behind”. This poor transition causes the horse to be on the forehand and therefore unable to use the hindquarters effectively.
Now how does using the leg help to improve the downward transition? It’s important to realise here that the leg is working in a slightly different way to when you’re asking for a forwards movement, which tends to be more of a nudge. In a downward transition the legs are long and from the thigh, wrap around the barrel to hug the horse. As the legs close in this way the horse is encouraged to lift their rib cage and engage the abdominals, which in turn lifts the withers, lowers the head and lifts the back to enable the hindquarters to come under. Then the hindquarters are ready to take the weight of the horse and push the horse forward into the next movement.
To apply the closing leg aid you want to keep the leg long and squeeze the thighs and calf slowly, literally as if you are hugging your horse. Once you reach the correct amount of leg, which may be more than you think, you should feel their back lift slightly and the nose drop. The rein contact should be steady to support them and to prevent them rushing forwards or over balancing, but not restricting their head or creating tension in the neck.
Moving on from applying the leg in a downward transition to make the transition more balanced and maintaining impulsion, is riding a square halt.
This is what everyone wants their final centre line to finish with, but it’s easier said than done. At prelim level, the transition is progressive, but as you move up the levels you need to ride a halt transition from trot, medium trot, and canter.
Even if you don’t want to achieve a perfect dressage square halt, having a horse who halts squarely makes schooling a lot easier as they don’t switch off, so you can pick up trot again instantly. When hacking you can ask them to halt while a lorry passes and they’ll remain stationary and “on the aids” so you are more in control and safer. It’s easier to rein back from a square halt, which is useful when you’re opening gates.
How do you ride a square halt? Begin with progressive transitions, and use the closing leg aid to lift the rib cage into the halt, as we discussed before. Keep an even rein contact, and seat position to ensure they remain straight. The reins half halt, along with the seat, and once the horse stops you just need to wait. Don’t drop the reins, and keep closing the leg. After a minute or two to think, you’ll feel their body weight shift. A leg might creep forwards, or backwards as they straighten themselves. Then you’ll feel each leg take the load equally. The reins are preventing a forward step or a twist of the body.
It may take a moment, but it’s important that the horse remains attentive to you, so don’t let them look around and position your halt where there’s fewer distractions. Once you can feel them standing square they can be rewarded – a pat, a kind word – but they should stand stationary for a couple of seconds. You should feel the improvement as they step up into walk (or trot!) because the hind legs are working properly and the horse is less on the forehand.
Consistency is the key to getting a square halt, but as the horse begins to learn that this is the only acceptable way to stand, and develop more strength, they will halt squarely quicker and quicker each time.