Is your half-pass half-ass?
Is your half-pass half-ass? In other words, does it feel sloppy or sluggish or tense when you ask your horse to shape his body and yield laterally to your leg, body, and hand cues?
I want to tell you how to fix it up nice. But first we have to dive into what “it” is. And what it’s not.
The half-pass is a simple enough concept for humans to understand but it’s not as easy for the horse at first. Three things have to happen all at once for it to look professional. It’s okay to break them down individually and work on each piece independently for a long time, but eventually, they have to come together.
1st thing: Your horse has to yield laterally without reaction or resistance to your leg pressure when you apply it.
2nd thing: Your horse has to maintain forward momentum and not stall out.
3rd thing: Your horse has to yield to your hand and body cues, softening and slightly shaping his/her body in the direction of travel. The direction being, half-forward, and half-side-passing.
Think of side-passing as moving directly sideways toward an object without any forward momentum. We use side-passing for opening and closing gates while mounted and sidling up to our friend to steal a snack from his saddle bag, etc. Half-passing, on the other hand, can be thought of as half sideways and half forward. At least conceptually! It can be thought of as facing north and drifting toward northeast without ever turning toward northeast. For this to happen, the horse has to listen to your holding and asking cues. Some of your cues signal the horse to move in that shape and direction, while others hold or prevent the horse from slipping out of shape and pointing the wrong direction.
How professionals make those half-passes look so good is by independently practicing those three parts. Not always in order, but always in an attempt to be able to, one day, put them together. 1. Sensitize your horse to your leg pressure without causing them to fear you or your pressure. 2. Sensitize your horse to your hand pressure, guiding them kindly toward a slight bend in their head, neck, and body. 3.Teach them to carry forward without stalling or quitting until they’ve reached a desired destination or desired quality response.
The reason that half pass can look and feel “half ass” is because the rider always tries to put those elements together too soon, before they are actually working well independently. There are things that need practicing before they are ready to put together in harmony. I’m not saying don’t try it early, just learn where the responses break down and then go back and fix them independently instead of forcing ugly half-passes for the next six months.
The real question about training the half-pass comes down to helping the horse understand the goal. This one is about horse psychology. My favorite game for this is to place a target of some kind along an arena fence. An orange traffic cone is a good target. I travel toward the target, stop at the target and reward the horse for making it to the target. Then I approach the target from the center of the arena rather than head on, along the rail. Each time I reward the horse for reaching the target. Eventually, keeping in mind I have a sensitive horse, willing to respond to hand and leg cues, I ask the horse to approach the target with a different body part, instead of head on. In other words, I may ask him to lead with his shoulder or hips, landing at the target shoulder first or hips first, instead of his head. This causes the horse to slip sideways toward the target, but as always, he is rewarded for reaching the target and, here’s the key… mentally, he starts enjoying the game.
There is so much more to talk about related to half-passes so I’m just going to keep it simple today. Take a look at the picture below, it speaks volumes to the shape, direction, and style of half-passing. In the picture, the horse is facing North and traveling to the North-East corner, crossing all four legs beautifully, and keeping a slight bend through the body in the direction of travel. You can do it too, you just have to make sure your horse is independently responsive to your legs, hands, and mentally engaged in a game he can win. Eventually, you can do these half-passes anywhere. First, start with the cone, and second… understanding that horses naturally lead with their head and shoulders, try to slow his shoulders down and try leading with the hips for a while and notice how it sensitizes the horse more than anything else for what the end result is.
If you’d like to see an early training video for developing half-passes naturally, using the game I described above, comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s go have some fun!
PS. Half-passes have real value in performing arts and practical application. You don’t ever have to do them, but if you choose to learn and master through movement you’re entire horsemanship experience will change for the better. Partly because they are not easy and hard things often bring great rewards, and partly because a strong, willing, flexible horse demonstrates a partnership like nothing else on the planet.