Getting To Grips With The Canter Half-Pass
by Nikki Alvin-Smith
Introduction of any new dressage movement to the horse will only be successful it has the pre-requisites in the training scale in its portfolio. Just as a chef that seeks to create a good meal should start with great ingredients, so the trainer should have high quality components in the horse in terms of suppleness, its understanding of lateral aids at the trot and a balanced collected canter.
The horse should have an established balance in counter canter without excessive bend of the neck and use of the inside rein. Cadence within the canter gait will demonstrate the horse has the ability to lengthen on cue and to move promptly forwards off the leg and the ability to ‘sit’ with its weight shifted backward under a rider’s stilled seat without use of a pulling rein.
The half-pass affirms whether the horse is evenly engaging both hind legs and whether it is lifted and free in his shoulders and truly moving forward to the bit with a soft correct contact. It also enhances the horse’s ability to shift its center of gravity and to flex and develop its musculature, as on one side its muscles are contracted (concave side) and the other its muscles are elastic and stretching (convex side).
Why are so many riders seen traversing the show arena in various contorted body position with their horse in poor frame? The horse becomes stuck and ‘backward,’ the horse either above the bit or behind the vertical. Where did they go wrong?
Always introduce the half-pass at the trot before attempting it at the canter, because at the slower gait it is easier for the horse to learn and gives the rider time to make corrections and address faults in balance, such as leading with the hindquarters. The trot half-pass will elevate the suppleness of the horse and when correctly executed the rider knows that the horse properly understands the aids and has the required gymnastic balance to fulfill those demands.
In a good half-pass the hoof falls will be even in rhythm and distance in stride. The horse should be looking in the direction of travel on a diagonal path with its body parallel to the side of the arena with the shoulders very slightly leading the movement. The horse’s spine should be bent slightly to the direction of travel. Hind legs should not lead or trail behind the shoulder. The rider should be able to see the inside eye of the horse with a slight bend in the poll and also look in the direction of travel with a focus a little ahead of the letter ‘point’ at the side of the arena. The half-pass should end one step before the track. The rider’s body should be upright with a very slight drop of weight in the seat to the direction of travel encouraging the horse to step up and under and take the weight. This weight ‘drop’ is naturally developed as the rider’s leg to the side of the direction of travel, the inside leg, will be just behind the girth while the outside leg will be slightly further behind the girth. This leg position will automatically lighten the seat on the outside effectively ensuring the rider’s inside seat bone carries more weight. The rider will use the outside leg in a tapping motion not in a holding position against the horse’s side.
To hold will cause the horse to push against the leg instead of moving away from it. The rider’s inside leg will be actively tapping on the horse’s side at the girth to create the energy, bend and the forward movement and to keep the inside hind leg of the horse engaged while the outside leg will create the sideways movement and ask for increased engagement of the haunches on that side.
A common issue for riders that can negatively affect their use of the leg aid is to take the outside leg back with a raised heel. It is important that the leg be taken back but that the rider’s outside leg be lengthened down. This way the rider’s seat will still be deeply anchored and his spine will remain aligned with that of the horse.
The rider will have a light contact on the inside rein and give small half halts as needed on either rein to correct the shoulder position. The ‘wall’ is the outside rein and this will hold the shoulder and encourage the horse to move sideways rather than straight forward. Half halts will be given on the outside rein to correct the pace of the gait and limit the forward movement asking for more collection. The outside rein will also control the degree of flexion.
The rider should always think of the first stride as a forward stride and not as a sideways stride. The ‘draping’ rider will work with the balance of the horse both longitudinally and laterally and allow their hips to be free and work with the movement without gripping or tension unless correction is needed in the movement in which case a slight stiffening of the back or temporary ‘hold’ may be needed to prevent too much sideways movement.
The rider should also check their breathing. As the horse moves forward, the rider breathes out, as the horse moves laterally, the rider breathes in.
In early training just a few quality strides of lateral movement should be rewarded by riding the horse straight for a few strides before returning to the ask for the half-pass. The number of strides being gradually increased as the horse finds its balance and its suppleness improves. If the horse falters at all in the lateral movement it should be immediately ridden straight. After any lateral work it is a good idea to ride the horse forward in a medium (or even extended canter for a phlegmatic horse) to keep its mind and that of the rider thinking forward.
What are the pre-requisites for training the canter half-pass?
Your horse must have an excellent shoulder in, renvers (haunches-out) and travers (haunches-in) at the canter as well as having mastered a 30 degree diagonal angle at the trot half pass for at least half the width of the arena without loss of balance or becoming irregular in pace.
It is imperative that the horse has good collection and self-carriage in the canter (developed from the counter canter work), is truly in front of the rider’s leg on the aids and works evenly in both reins and is straight. I do not recommend working haunches in too much on a straight line at the canter because horses invariably want to travel with their haunches to the inside and we don’t need to encourage that behavior.
There are many options to set up the movement and it will depend on your individual horse as to what works best. For most horses it is easiest to start to the right. You can begin the movement from a ten-meter circle at shoulder-in to the right at the short side of the arena on the centerline to make a circle back to the corner and as you again arrive at the centerline simply straighten the horse for one stride and then continue the bend to the right and ask for a lateral step or two. Horses are naturally magnetized to the arena wall so you will find your horse is happy to head in that direction.
You can also ride out of the corner of short side in the corner of the arena using a shoulder-in position through the bend of the corner and ride off the wall toward the centerline as you exit the corner applying the outside leg aid (left leg) to the shoulder-in to move the haunches over.
Both the circle and the corner provide an opportunity to collect the horse in readiness for the movement. Without a quality collected canter with some ‘pop’ and energy and a horse that is light in the shoulders the movement is doomed to fail. The horse must add engagement of its inside leg and step more up and under itself to be responsible for its own shoulders and the rider must be responsible for theirs. The rider should be square with the horse i.e. with matching shoulder position.
The leg aids should be given by extending the leg down in the thigh and not by bringing the leg up and back. The rider should turn their head to the direction of travel two strides before the ask for half-pass.
Just as half-pass training at the trot, it is helpful to slightly slow the horse down when training the canter half-pass in the beginning. On no account should the horse rush away from the aids. The inside rein is the suppling rein and offers an ‘open door’ to which the horse can step with his shoulder and so it must not be held. The timing of that yield of the rein is when the horse’s inside hind leg leaves the ground. The rider’s hands can move slightly toward the direction of travel together to the point that the outside hand is just to the left of the wither. The hand should not cross the spine. If the horse twists or tilts its head, then the rider’s rein aid on one side is too strong.
When training the half-pass it is good to ‘refresh’ the horse by doing a few steps of half-pass and then circling right for a few circles before leaving the circle in half-pass position once again.
Obviously for a half-pass to the left these aids are reversed. The rider must always stay in balance with the horse and not tilt to the side.
After any lateral exercise it is important to ride the horse forward and straight. This is no different at the canter half-pass. Placement of poles lengthwise toward the end of the centerline to create a ‘gate’ through which the horse must canter straight before hitting the short side of the arena can be valuable in teaching the rider to work accurately in the arena space when horse and rider work the half-pass toward the centerline from the outside walls.
As later the canter zigzag with a flying change added for the change of direction is on the training agenda, it is a good idea for the rider to learn to count the strides in half-pass from the beginning of training. A useful exercise to prepare for this is to come out of the short side of the arena and ask the horse to make four strides to the center of the ring and then four strides straight, before continuing in the same direction for another four strides more half-pass to reach the wall before continuing with four straight strides before the corner.
When the horse is proficient in the above exercise in both directions the flying change and change of direction may be added. Note that if the horse isn’t corrected from leading with its haunches during training of the half-pass, it will have great difficulty becoming straight in time to execute a good quality flying change.
The horse loses the bend in the neck and becomes straight or even inverted to the other direction. This is often caused by the horse trying to avoid the difficulty of the movement.
Answer: Ride the horse down the long side on the same rein, alternating between a few steps of renvers and then a few straight strides before flexing in travers. This can be done at the trot to remind the horse to relax his sacroiliac area and to respond to the leg aids rather than focus on the rein. It will also encourage the rider to rely less on the rein, and instead direct their aids to influence the hindquarters of the horse.
The horse does not move away from the outside leg or his haunches trail behind his shoulders. To resolve this issue the rider takes more pressure on the inside rein effectively now blocking the horse from moving away from the outside leg pressure.
Answer: Work the horse’s attention to the outside leg by working on counter flexion in shoulder-in (shoulder-out) and run through renvers and travers movements in both trot and canter. Still not listening? Add some walk pirouettes. Still not listening? Add some spur or whip to the outside aid.
The strides of the canter become short and the horse becomes tense. This is usually the rider using aids that are too strong or not setting the horse up with the right tempo or energy or the rider is asking for too much bend with a heavy inside hand.
Answer: Work with the horse at the walk to be sure it understands the aids. When back in the trot try using less aid and be certain not to hold the inside rein. Slow the horse down and find a better rhythm where it can relax. Then try the exercise again at the canter.
The horse speeds up during the half-pass.
Answer: The rider should take their shoulders slightly to the outside for a stride and then place them back parallel to the horse’s spine. If the horse runs off after a half-pass either start the half-pass farther down the school and end it by the short side of the arena and send it forward before reaching the track.
The horse’s haunches lead or the shoulder isn’t moving.
Answer: The rider must be certain not to block on the inside rein and are to provide the ‘open door’ as the horse’s inside hind leg leaves the ground. If its haunches are leading the rider’s outside leg is either too far back or their leg is too strong. Also the rider must not use too much outside rein and block the horse from moving its shoulder to the inside.
It is always beneficial to work the half-pass with lots of shoulder-fore in the canter between to remind the horse to be light and on the leg aids.
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is a professional freelance writer/content creator and PR/Marketing Specialist, and works with a variety of publications and manufacturers worldwide. She is an international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate Willowview Hill Farm, a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY. Please visit her website at https:/www.NikkiAlvinSmithStudio.com to learn more.