When your horse is working at a medium/advanced medium level, you’ll probably be thinking about teaching him advanced exercises such as piaffe and passage. In preparation for piaffe, you can teach your horse half-steps.
Half-steps are not required in dressage tests and are purely used as an educational training tool by advanced riders.
So, what are half-steps, and how do you ride them? Keep reading to find out!
What are half-steps?
Half-steps are a shortened form of the collected trot with a reduced moment of suspension and are typically used to prepare a horse for learning piaffe.
When performing half-steps, the horse must maintain the correct, pure trot rhythm as he shortens his stride. The trot must be collected and the horse’s frame should be shorter. The joints of the hind legs should show increased flexion, and the horse must remain animated and active, as the hind legs step more underneath his body to carry more weight.
The moment of suspension in the pace is obviously reduced, but the steps must still show an uphill, forward tendency.
The horse should remain very active, not slouch or shuffle along.
The goal of half-steps
The idea of teaching your horse half-steps is to prepare him for the difficult advanced movement, piaffe.
Half steps teach the horse to move in a rhythmical trot-like pace with his hind legs swinging well underneath his center of gravity, creating a forward and upward tendency.
The good news for horses and riders who might never achieve piaffe is that half steps do help to increase the horse’s carrying power and the flexion in his hind leg joints, and that will certainly improve the overall quality of the horse’s trot work.
Who can learn to ride half-steps?
Half-steps are a challenging exercise that should really only be ridden by advanced riders on horses that are physically strong enough to carry out the movement correctly.
That said, less experienced riders can use half-steps to teach their horse to carry more weight behind. However, the movement must be ridden correctly for the horse and rider to get the best value from it, so it’s advisable to ride half-steps only under the supervision of an experienced instructor.
Common problems with half-steps
As you would expect with such a difficult exercise, there are quite a few common problems to be aware of before you begin training your horse. Those include the following:
- The horse loses impulsion
- The trot tempo is too slow
- The horse lacks activity behind
- The horse is on the forehand
- The two-beat rhythm lost
- The horse’s hind legs trail out behind and do not step under
- The horse comes croup high
- The horse becomes tense
- The horse comes against the contact
- The neck is too tight and short
- The horse drops behind the vertical
- The horse’s back becomes hollow
Essentially, all these issues arise because the horse loses energy and stops working forward to seek the contact. Even when the tempo of the pace is slower, you still need to have your legs on and keep the horse forward and up to his work.
Before you can ride half steps correctly, your horse must work correctly as per the dressage Scales of Training.
That is, the horse must work in a correct rhythm and be supple through his back to an elastic contact and round frame. He should go willingly and freely forward with plenty of impulsion from behind, remaining straight and taking the weight on his hindquarters so that he is well balanced and working with an uphill tendency.
You must also be able to ride an effective half-halt that the horse understands and responds to correctly by increasing the degree of engagement and collection he offers you.
Once you’ve achieved all of the above, you can begin to teach your horse half steps.
There are several different approaches that you can take, depending on what works best for you and for your horse.
Method 1 – Half-steps from collected trot
You can teach half-steps by first increasing the degree of collection of the trot.
To do that, use your seat, back, and legs to ask the horse for more energy, while using a restraining hand to prevent the impulsion from disappearing “out the front door” as speed. Be careful not to drive the horse too hard, as that can cause him to hollow his back.
It can be effective to lighten your seat slightly so that your horse’s back can come up underneath you. Use both legs behind the girth to create more energy while you alternately restrain and relax the contact through the use of half-halts.
Method 2 – Half-steps from collected walk
It is possible to teach the horse half-steps from the collected walk.
Using the same aids as per the previous method; increase the energy with a balanced use of the half-halt. Think of the horse pushing upwards rather than covering more ground.
Warning: This approach can cause problems with the rhythm, especially if the horse becomes tense. Sometimes, the walk loses clear four-beat and can end up going lateral or pacing. Alternatively, some horses misunderstand what the rider wants and simply start to jog. If you encounter any of these problems, then it’s advisable to choose another teaching method.
Method 3 – Half-steps through a false transition
Ride the horse in a collected trot.
Repeat the exercise a few times so that the horse begins to anticipate the upward transition. That helps to maintain the energy that can often be lost when you transition to a slower pace.
Now, make as if to ride the downward transition but don’t go the whole way. Instead, keep the trot rhythm, and ask the horse to increase his energy input in the half-steps.
Don’t ask for too many half steps at first. Be content with a couple of half steps, and then ride forward into the collected trot again.
Half-steps are typically used by advanced riders as a training aid or stepping stone between collected trot and piaffe.
Before you can teach your horse to perform half steps, you need to have him working through his back, into a secure connection with the contact, and in an uphill balance.
The good news is that even if your horse doesn’t have the conformation or athletic ability to perform true piaffe, half steps are a great training tool for increasing your horse’s weight carrying ability.
So, by using this exercise as part of your regular training regimen, you can improve the overall quality of your trot work and your horse’s balance.