In my opinion, the Counter Canter is one of the most underestimated exercises in our sport. It seems to be something practiced only for the sake of a single moment in a test. The single loop in first level, the serpentine at 2nd, and the dreaded 10 meter half circle that used to be in the Prix St. George test but is now found in 4-3. You will find pieces of counter canter at the FEI levels, all appropriately placed, as a clear tell of how balanced (or unbalanced) a horse is.
But never mind the test. Counter Canter is an excellent exercise for improving strength, balance and straightness. So why aren’t we doing it more?
Let’s be honest, it’s because it is a clear tell to how unbalanced, weak and crooked your horse is! When your horse is first learning, they will likely fall on their forehand and begin to run. It is not unusual that your horse may suddenly feel like two separate horses. The back end can fall so far behind it has to run to keep up. And since the front end has lost the push from behind, it may feel as though you are digging a hole to china. Your horse may switch leads in front, leaving the back end a tangled mess, in which case, you may be able to wash your clothes in what’s left underneath you. Or, your horse may just tell you it has no idea what or why you are asking and just break to a trot and demand an explanation.
It can be a terrible feeling and understandable why you may want to avoid it. Who needs balance? Let’s work on tempis!
But when you and your horse have mastered the counter canter, you will have developed the foundation for a TRUE canter that is straight through your changes, supple and balanced in the half pass and capable of the collection required to begin pirouettes.
I’ve created a few videos of my favorite basic counter canter moves. These are the exercises that I use in my canter warm up on all of my horses with the exception of the greenies who can hardly steer. Master one and move on to the next. Or, move on to the next when you are close to mastering the first. Make it a little more challenging and then go back to the easier movements to help build your horses confidence.
The first video is a simple single loop. Start shallow leaving the rail to the 1/4 line and return. Next, make your way to X and return, as shown in the video below. The most difficult part of this exercise is not returning to the rail, but regaining your horses balance AFTER you return to the rail. When your horse can return to the rail and ride through the corner without breaking or running, make a 10 meter half circle after your loop and ride your loop backwards. Just watch the video…
Once the single loop is understood, the figure 8 should be fairly easy. Start with very shallow corners and then increase the difficulty by riding deeper into your corners. Careful not to let your horses hind end swing out, as that defeats the purpose of straightening. This is where you may feel the inside shoulder falling in. The tough part is bringing the shoulders in line with your horses hind end without asking for a change. Keep the bend to the outside, but don’t over flex to maintain the lead. When your horse is truly supple, you will be able to change the bend back and forth at any point.
You can also build your single loop into a serpentine by stretching the loop past X all the way to the opposite rail. I find this to be the most difficult of the 3 exercises because it requires the horse to be more handy. The balance is shifted almost immediately when you touch the rail and then return back. This is the place where I have felt the true presence of collected canter with my younger horses. You can increase the difficulty by adding more loops or by sharpening the loop into more of a triangle. Again, careful not to allow your horses hind end to swing (as my horse does in the second loop).
The goal is to maintain the same canter all the way through all of these exercises. Focus on keeping your position the same so you don’t encourage your horse to lose his balance. Don’t change the tempo, don’t lose the jump and don’t let your horse pull you through the corners. But keep in mind, if your horse has never done these exercises, he doesn’t know he’s not supposed to swing, or break, or run, or pull, or bulge. Be patient and allow him to figure it out. Allow him to build the strength. It may feel terrible for a while, but there will be an aha moment when everything comes together. And that feeling of accomplishment is why dressage queens deserve their crowns!