In this exclusive excerpt from “Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse” by Janet Foy with Nancy J. Jones, problems with, and solutions for, counter-canter issues are examined.
When you work on counter-canter exercises with your horse, you may be prone to the following problems:
Imperfections and Evasions
1. Won’t pick up the correct counter-canter lead.
2. Breaks into trot.
3. Loses his lead in front.
4. Loses his lead behind.
5. Leans in like a motorcycle going around a turn.
6. Does a flying change over and over (won’t “hold” the counter-canter).
First, take a look at the USEF Rule Book definition for counter-canter:
The counter-canter is a balancing and straightening movement that must be executed in collection. The horse canters in correct sequence with the outside foreleg leading with positioning to the side of the leading leg. The foreleg should be aligned to the same track as the hind leg.
The easiest test pattern is in USEF First Level Test 3. This simple loop allows the horse to maintain the same direction and lead with a small loop of counter-canter in the middle. The most difficult comes in the FEI Prix St. Georges where the horse must maintain the counter-canter through a corner, staying on the aids and in balance until the flying change is asked for at C.
How to Ride and Train
In order to correctly ride a counter-canter, the horse must have a well-balanced and collected true canter. The horse must also have a good understanding of your outside leg behind the girth. Most horses will lean into the arena in the counter-canter. Your outside leg acts as a barrier to help keep the horse upright and engaged on the leading hind leg. For example, if you are in the right lead counter-canter, the horse should be engaged on the right hind. This hind leg will be on the track or on the line of travel. Your outside leg behind the girth (outside is the arena side)—here, your left leg—will be important to keep the horse from leaning left.
Most riders bend their horse’s neck too much in the counter-canter. This happens when the rider feels the horse starting to lose his balance and lean to the outside. The rider feels this and uses more inside rein as a result. More neck bend causes the horse to lean more in the wrong direction. The rider needs to react to this loss of balance by increasing the submission to the outside leg behind the girth, literally pushing the horse back onto the leading hind leg. Straightening the neck a bit with the outside rein also helps.
Riders need to also be aware that they may sit in the wrong direction if the horse leans that way. Again, this will only increase the problems for the horse. Be sure you are sitting over the hind leg that needs to be engaged or carrying weight.
When first schooling the counter-canter, I often just canter out of the corner onto the quarterline, and canter straight down the quarterline. The horse needs to learn to not be insecure when you leave the rail. The second half of the lesson is to canter down the quarterline, but this time return to the track at the end of the long side and go into the corner. When the horse is confident with both halves of the lesson, ride it as one loop.
In First Level Test 3, the loop is: first corner to X to second corner. You can make it easier at first by only going from the first corner to the quarterline and back to the track rather than to X. If your horse tries to lean in the new direction, then actually push him a bit sideways in the direction of the lead with your outside leg before you return to the track to help him understand he doesn’t need to lean.
Do not try to go all the way around the arena in the beginning. Use shorter, easier lines so the horse can gain confidence. Master the First Level Test 3 loop. Then begin easy patterns such as a half 10-meter circle onto centerline from A or C, returning to the track at E or B. Counter-canter down the long side and prior to the corner, make a transition.
Securing the Line of Travel and Engagement
Once the horse can easily do the exercise explained on p. 116, I then like to reinforce the submission to my outside leg. I ride counter-canter down the long side and then walk. In the walk transition, I push him into a renvers (haunches-out) and stay in renvers through the corners. This will reinforce that he cannot lean into my outside leg in the turns. He needs to stay a bit positioned in the direction of the lead, but with more submission to the bend behind the saddle than in the neck. Too much neck bend will cause problems with balance.
Try to ride the counter-canter with the haunches on the rail and the forehand going down the second track, or in a renvers position with less angle. Once the horse understands, and I can feel he is no longer trying to lean, I will continue through the corners in the counter-canter. Your outside leg may need to stay active in these exercises for a while.
Increase the Submission and Suppleness
This is a more advanced counter-canter exercise and the horse should have the counter-canter fairly well established before working on it.
I like to be able to counter-canter and supple my horse in either direction. The horse should understand the aids well enough so he will canter in the direction of your aids, not the direction of the bend. This is important later when you begin flying changes.
Using the medium canter in counter-canter is a great way to help teach a horse the medium, especially when the horse wants to be crooked in the true canter. This is also a good opportunity to help a horse with a long stride learn to collect and shorten his stride a bit without the rider doing so many half-halts.
Remember to work in short periods of counter-canter at first until you build up the strength of the horse. Don’t be greedy and keep going until the horse makes a mistake. Find a place to end where the horse has succeeded and can be rewarded.
Training Exercises and Solutions
Exercise One: Understanding the Aids for Counter-Canter
This exercise will help with Problems 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6
First, make sure your horse is quickly answering your canter aids from the walk in the direction of the true lead. Also make sure you can do these departs on the quarterline with absolute straightness.
If your horse seems confused about picking up the counter-canter, then try turning on the quarterline, establish your bending and walk a few steps in a half-pass bending toward the rail and ask for the canter. You can also work on a short diagonal line toward the rail. Don’t make the horse nervous about this exercise, however. Have patience. If he makes a mistake, quietly make a transition to walk and begin the process again. Check your aids and your weight.
Exercise Two: Clarifying the Gait for Horse and Rider
This exercise will help Problems 2 and 5
When the horse breaks gait or drops the canter, usually the horse has lost his balance or the rider has shifted her weight to the wrong seat bone. Quietly go back to walk. If you allow the horse to keep trotting, he will think that is what you asked of him in the first place. Reestablish the submission to your outside leg and check your seat position before beginning again.
Exercise Three: Keep the Shoulders under Control
This exercise will help Problems 3 and 5
When the horse has started to lean on the outside shoulder and into the rider’s outside leg, the rider feels this leaning and tends to correct it in the wrong way by bending the neck more in the direction of the lead. Use a more active outside leg, and try to ride a bit off the track so you can push the horse more toward the track and onto the inside engaged hind leg when you feel this evasion.
I tell my students this is like walking down the street and tripping and losing balance. Your first reaction is to throw out your arm to catch your balance. The horse does this as well with his front leg. This disrupts the footfalls of the canter and the horse must trot.
Exercise Four: Keep the Haunches under Control
This exercise will help Problems 4, 5, and 6
When you have let the horse put his front legs on the rail during the counter-canter, resulting in the haunches falling to the inside track, walk quietly. Reestablish submission to the outside leg, and watch your line of travel. Sometimes trouble with the haunches can also be due to tension in the horse’s back. If the horse is tense, you must stop this exercise and go back and reestablish the topline suppleness and mental relaxation required in the Classical Training Pyramid.
Exercise Five: Keep the Horse Upright and Engaged
This exercise will help with Problems 5 and 6
When the horse stays in the counter-canter lead but does not stay in balance, counter-canter becomes simply “cantering on the wrong lead” as there is no balance, suppleness, or collection. Again, do shorter periods of counter-canter and go back to the straight lines you started with (see p. 116). Ride a bit off the track so you can push the horse a bit sideways toward the rail onto the leading hind leg rather than let him lean into the outside shoulder. Reestablish submission to the outside leg behind the girth.
Exercise Six: Eliminate Confusion between Counter-Canter and Flying Changes
This exercise will help Problems 3, 4, 5, and 6
There are many stages to learning counter-canter and flying changes. At some point in the horse’s learning process, the counter-canter will lack submission. Don’t worry; once the horse is more established in flying changes, usually this problem resolves itself.
Do not punish the horse for the flying change when he offers it. Remember, you never want to punish the horse for something you want later in training. The horse needs to understand the direction of travel and that perhaps the direction of bend or lateral suppleness have nothing to do with the aid for the flying change.
If your horse does a change without your help (remember, everything we teach him he will “use against us” eventually!), quietly go to walk. Emphasize your outside leg with a little bump or tap with the whip and pick up the counter-canter again. Be sure to check that your weight is correct as moving your weight slightly is part of the aid. You may need to use your outside leg as the active (or the “keep-cantering”) aid for a while, as the use of the inside leg may confuse the horse. Eventually he will understand that as long as the outside leg maintains the barrier, he must stay in the counter-canter.
My riding student and co-writer Nancy Jones had a 21-year-old bay Thoroughbred gelding who taught her about keeping her weight on the inside seat bone during the counter-canter. Chance Commander, given to her by Barbara Long, dearly loved the flying changes and waited for every opportunity to offer them.
When he and Nancy began working on counter-canter, they progressed from gentle curved lines to an exercise in which they rode a figure eight consisting of a 10-meter circle in true canter into a 20-meter circle in counter-canter. This was Nancy’s first venture into counter-canter circles, and sometimes her weight slipped to the outside seat bone. Voilà! As soon as she shifted her weight, Commander offered a perfect flying change, never losing balance or rhythm.
Nancy soon learned to keep her weight anchored correctly if she wanted him to remain in counter-canter!
Commander, incidentally, was a “schoolmaster” in the best sense of the word, and he taught Nancy the tempi changes and canter zig-zag as well—performing the flying changes just as calmly when she asked for them as when she didn’t!
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