Clear Aids and Clear Vision
U.S. Olympian Robert Dover teaches
how to half halt your way to success.

By Sandra Adair

You could feel the anticipation in the air as over 200 of us braved the frigid weather January 15-16 to attend Houston Dressage Society’s first Symposium of 2005. After all, we were about to learn from someone who had made it to the pinnacle of achievement in any sport, not once, but six times! Over the next two days U.S. Olympian Robert Dover would develop two separate but interconnected themes. “The rider must have a clear and correct vision of what they are asking for from the horse and be committed to making that the only reality.” What, you may ask, does the rider do when what they are getting is anywhere from ‘not quite’ to ‘no where near’ their vision? “The half halt is the answer to everything.”

The Essential Half Halt

In the one-hour lecture that preceded the day’s demo riders, Robert began with the basics. The driving aids, the seat (back, trunk, weight) and both legs, generate forward motion. The bending aids, both legs and the inside rein, work together to produce straightness.

Finally, one regulating aid, the outside rein, helps the rider control the effects of the first two sets of aids, and adjust the rhythm, flexibility, and ultimately the balance of the horse. The half halt is the marriage of these three sets of aids in the length of time of a full breath. As a rider inhales, they lift their chest up, their shoulders back, and lengthen their muscles upward from their abdomen. They brace their back and push the back of the saddle toward the front of the saddle (like pushing a swing), which together with pressure from their legs, drives the horse forward. “To half halt,” Robert explained, “Imagine a door in front of your horse. Close your outside fist and you close the door. You’re driving him straight and forward, but the door is closed. So he bends his hocks, raises his shoulders and shifts his center of gravity backward. Now exhale and open your hand to open the door, and your horse goes forward with more balance.” Robert exclaimed, “This is everything! Most riders ride from movement to movement. Effective riders ride from half halt to half halt. The only thing that changes is the amount of each aid, but never the elements themselves.”

A Commitment to Forward

As the Training /First Level pair of riders warmed up, Robert commented, “The difference between a great rider and an average rider is the understanding and level of commitment to forward!” He told junior rider Meghan Hall to challenge her 26-year-old mount, whose only speed at the trot was slow, to not just go forward, but to think forward. “You want his inside ear perked backward listening to you, but his outside ear perked forward. If he flicks it back, put your leg on. Forward needs to be a demand not a request.” The audience was delighted to see Cactus responding to her persistence and go forward at her rhythm! Then Robert asked both riders to do what he called the rubber band exercise, doing half a twenty-meter circle in working trot and lengthening on the other half. Cathy Ruoff’s gelding, Felix, became tense and quickened when she added her driving aids. “Half halt!,“ he reminded her, “Keep the bend or the half halt won’t come through.” As she continued asking for forward, Felix became unruly. Robert encouraged her, “Be totally committed to going forward in the same direction. Don’t let him turn. Let nothing dissuade you from staying on your line.” When Cathy won the battle, he praised her and the crowd cheered.

Robert took a moment to illustrate a true commitment to forward. “If Anky’s horse didn’t go forward from a light aid, in the next second you’d think a bolt of lightning had hit that horse in the butt! He would shoot forward like a bullet and you’d hear her exclaim “Good boy!”” Watching the Second /Third Level riders work the rubber band exercise, he emphasized that when coming back from a medium trot, the horse should still be forward. He advised Jesse Collin, “Don’t go slower, use your aids to change the horse’s shape, but keep the rhythm the same. Coming back from a medium should not be a subtraction.” He also had Jesse ride his half pass more forward by having him go forward on the diagonal first, and then ask for haunches-in, keeping the letter he was going to right between his horse’s ears. As a result, Jesse improved the overall quality of the movement considerably.

Deborah Pate’s lovely Hanoverian, Rufus, was quite energized by the weather and more than intrigued by the plant at C. Robert had talented young rider, Cara Lordo, visualize an invisible umbrella over herself and Rufus that would let nothing take their attention away from each other. “Don’t get sucked into your horse’s drama. See what you want it to look like in your mind’s eye, then use your aids and half halts to keep getting more of that picture.” When Cara rode a determined shoulder-fore past C, and then executed a lovely shoulder-in down the long side, even Rufus looked proud.

Refining the Aids

After lunch the audience was treated to some exceptional riding by several of HDS’s finest riders and their award-winning horses. Robert was quick to point out that for competent upper level riders the basics remain the same, but require refinement and finesse. As the Fourth/PSG Level riders put their horses through their warm-up, Robert gave the auditors a few more notes on collection. “It is not synonymous with slow. Collection is controlling an incredible amount of energy that is committed to forward, so that you can manipulate it to ask for a change, an extension, or the next step of passage.” Trainer Lyndon Rife had Amy Bock’s USDF Horse of the Year, Pestige, well connected and forward. When asked to collect his big canter for a pirouette, however, Prestige wanted to slow down. Robert had Lyndon put his whip in his outside hand in order to increase the revolutions of the canter stride. By getting a quicker response from the outside hind, he could get the forward and sideways he needed for the pirouette, not just one or the other. Robert advised Lyndon not to work so hard. “Give him one good kick, make him quick, then take your leg off and see what he’s learned. Use the whip, then try it without the whip. Don’t scream your aids, but whisper them, until only the air between your leg and the side of horse make him listen.” The pirouettes improved noticeably, and Lyndon made them look effortless.

As young rider Faith Morris worked her handsome Dutch gelding, Mentor, Robert asked for his trot to be more forward into a steadier connection. “80% seat and legs, 20% hands,” he exclaimed, as he had Faith use her driving aids into quiet hands until Mentor’s trot became more fluid. He asked her to keep a strong conviction to this connection, not by playing with the reins, but by refining her contact until it was elastic. “If it is as strong or as light as you want, then the horse is honestly on the aids, and you own their body and their mind.” He instructed Faith to demand Mentor’s attention to her aids. “When he starts to feel explosive, stop the half pass and make him go! Demand his obedience in the tempis by making it clear to him when to change, and to not change until you ask.”

Believing in the Vision

As the skillful Intermediare riders warmed up their horses, Robert had them focus on the quality of their gaits. He again emphasized that what impacts a rider’s success the most is their vision of what they think they want or will be able to get from their horse. He asked veteran Jody Stoudenmier to expand her vision of her Danish gelding Apollo’s extended trot. “Keep him bent and round. Bring your legs back a little, hands low, lean a little forward, breathe! See his legs flying up toward his ears!” When they got the trot he wanted, he continued, “Now put that last attempt in your mind’s eye, and make it your first attempt from now on.” To improve the extensions, Robert instructed Anna Burtell and Jana Tisdale’s Dutch gelding Hassan, on piaffe. “Don’t let him run through your aids. Keep him straight. Own your half halt. Keep him round but low in the neck, the front end quiet, the back end active. Get a few steps, pat him, then do it again, until you find the place where he unlocks his rhythm into trot.” Robert urged Anna, “Believe in your vision! Don’t just hope for it! Now fly!” Hassan exploded into an extended trot that took the audience’s breath way. One auditor remarked, “Her vision must have been perfection!”

During the final demonstration of the day, Robert worked with seasoned Grand Prix rider Pam Fowler Grace. He challenged her to make her piaffe feel as if she was holding back a passage, and her passage feel like she was holding back an extension. When Star in Stripes got excited, Pam would take her legs off. “No!” he corrected, “Put your legs on! When you’re working hard to figure out what to do, try doing the opposite of what you’ve been doing.” Christy Raisbeck, a long time student of Robert’s, had the same “hot” issue with Upan. “Don’t be tentative,” he told her, “The horse needs to be so sure you mean what you say, he doesn’t even think about saying “no!” If he’s not forward into the connection when you collect, extend again. When you half halt the canter on the spot, his feet should hit the ground like he’s on a trampoline!” On the other hand, Robert encourage Cheryl Person to do less, and trust her lovely Andalusian stallion, Brilloso, more. He invited her to use a vision of passage to access a loftier trot. She put her legs on, Brilloso propelled himself forward, and the audience got to witness what all dressage riders should have as their ultimate goal: a horse freely expressing their magnificence!

When the clinic was over, I noticed that the auditors were leaving even more excited than when they came. “I can’t wait to go home and ride!” I recalled my conversation with Robert over lunch that afternoon. When I asked him why he hadn’t written a book on dressage principles yet, he replied that he didn’t think he had anything new to contribute. Without a doubt, there are several hundred people in Houston that would strongly disagree!


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