Building a Foundation through Counter Canter

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!

Before You Judge

We all know dressage is not easy. If you think about it, as riders, we get on a 1200+ pound animal and expect to have control of all four feet at all times. I mean, a mere inch of the left hind in the wrong direction can mean the difference of a score of 8 or 6, maybe even more, depending on the judge. We work day in and day out to make sure our horses are in tune with our aids just so we can dress up and let everyone judge our work from a single ride lasting less than 10 minutes.

Basically, we put in all our time, effort, and money, just to be judged. We signed up for this right?

Well, technically, we asked to be judged by a certified professional.

Not the peanut gallery standing on the sidelines who wasn’t brave enough to enter themselves, but came to watch and criticize all the horses and riders because it makes them feel like they actually know something.

Not the professionals who think they could ride the horse better because they have no idea what your horse was like when you started working with it, and don’t know that your horse probably wouldn’t move a hoof if they stepped foot in the stirrups.

Not the armchair equestrians who have never even sat on a real dressage horse, watching a YouTube video from home – made by some narcassistic sociopath with a facebook page and a vendetta against any rider who decided they weren’t going to put up with her immature delusions.

And worst of all, not the experienced rider making jokes about the beginner amatuer, who maybe harbors a little more fear than the average horseman, who is just trying their best to get a little better.

Dressage is a sport to be judged. And I’ll be honest, I’m guilty of blindly criticizing, but I will usually catch myself and try my best to put myself in the riders boots. Because I know what it feels like to work so hard, and feel like you’re ready, only to show up and have everything fall apart at the seams underneath you. And at that point, all you can do is try your best to hold it together, pat yourself on the back for trying, and hope to learn something from your experience.

I think the time that you spend criticizing others says something about your own ego and insecurities, but I also think it’s a learned behavior. Amateurs may hear their own trainers judging someone else. One rider may make a comment, which can turn into a 30 minute slam session between peers about the current rider in the ring. And these days, we have social media adding fuel to the fire with people who’s only claim to fame comes from spreading negativity across the globe with the click of a POST button. And if no one ever steps up and says “Hey! We all have our bad days, lets focus on our own flaws”, then the cycle will continue.

Life is hard enough. Dressage is even harder. And no matter what you think, YOU DON’T KNOW THE WHOLE STORY.

The thing about goals in the horse world…

“A goal is an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envisions, plans and commits to achieve. People endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines”. -Wikipedia

The equestrian version of a goal: an idea of the future or desired result that a person envisions and commits to achieve in which said person’s horse plots to challenge.  Equestrians endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines their horse stretches to the absolute limits.

When I first realized my goal of Prix St. George with my homebred mare, Petite Belle, it was fall of 2016.  My goal was to ride our first FEI test by the end of winter that season.  I overshot my landing by almost a year.  Aside from being stuck in 4th level purgatory for almost a year, being patient this time wasn’t that hard.  I was excited to wear my tails for the first time on a horse that I brought up myself from the day she was born, but I was willing to be as patient as possible, because it was worth it, and I wanted to do it right.

I could not have asked for a better first try.  Our test was harmonious and respectable, but it lacked the pizzazz and correctness to compete with the big dogs in my class.  I was fine with that.  Room for improvement.

So I continued to enter more shows, expecting to improve upon each previous test, with my eyes already set upon Intermediare 1.  But no matter how hard I worked, I was stuck.  Instead of improving upon my scores, they actually lowered.  And I became frustrated with myself and frustrated with my horse – as perfect as she is.

The problem was lack of patience.  While I know better than anyone that slow and steady wins the race, I was determined to prove myself amongst the sharks in the sea called Wellington, Florida.  The pressure to prove my skills not only to my peers, but to myself was causing me to place unreachable expectations on both myself and my horse.

“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave when we are waiting.” -Joyce Meyer

I could sense that my 11 year partnership with my sweet mare was being compromised.  My horse who once placed 100% trust in me no matter what, was suddenly nervous and questioning my guidance.

After our last show, frustrated with my performance, I remembered something my trainer, Susan Jaccoma always says: “You aren’t going to the olympics tomorrow.”  (Relax, she’s not implying that I can’t go to the olympics, just that there is no reason to place so much pressure)  So I had to swallow my pride and take a few steps back.  I had to access where the root of my problems were and work from there.

I don’t know how long it will take before I get back in the ring with Belle, but I am in no rush.  Where I am right now, I am learning so much more than I have going down centerline.  I am making an FEI horse, and that is no easy task (as I repeat this in my head over and over).

That’s the thing about goals in the horse world:  You have to be able to dial them down when they aren’t in line with your partner.  The relationship is like a marriage.  You can’t decide to move to China when your partner is happy in Minnesota.