You're doing great at the canter! Your horse is able to strike off at will, maintain a strong but balanced canter, stay straight and transition down. You can pick and choose which lead you want. You can maintain a steady, even contact in canter, and you can even improve your "connection" by asking the horse to move forward even while in canter!
Just when you think you've finally got it all down, you discover that it's time for something new - the "counter" canter! Since when is it ok to canter in the wrong lead?!
Well, as you likely know, the "wrong" lead and the counter canter are different in two distinct ways.
First, the wrong lead is "wrong" because you asked for the true lead and got the opposite answer! So in fact, it was an incorrect response to possibly incorrect aids.
Second, the wrong lead will likely be imbalanced. The horse possibly drifted to the outside from the shoulder, or from the hip. The body is probably not bent in the direction of the lead. And so the horse is moving along at a choppy three-beat gait, which looks and sounds like a counter canter, but is brought on by lack of strength or balance.
While counter canter and the "wrong" lead are one and the same, the way you arrive to each is the distinguishing factor.
So how can you start riding a counter canter, in a way that doesn't disrupt the horse's balance too much, doesn't put too much mental strain on the horse, and allows for continued forward movement, all at the same time?
The loop is a standard dressage figure, used often in trot and canter. The trick to the loop is that it starts with one bend, changes to the other bend, and then ends in the original bend - all along one rail length!
In dressage tests, the middle of the loop is placed at X, which requires the horse to do a fairly steep diagonal line (the green dotted line in the image). But when first training the loop, I like to start with the "shallow" loop (pictured here in red), mostly because it does not require as much engagement and left-to-right suppleness.
The midpoint of the shallow loop lands on the quarter line. The shallow path is usually easier for horses or riders that have not tried the loop before. Over time, I make the loop deeper until we can use X as the midpoint.
After you've made progress at the trot, you can start working in the canter. The idea is that you start in the true lead (left lead at F), and travel off the rail toward X, stay in the same lead (counter canter) as you head back to the rail, and finally end up in the original balance at M, heading now toward the short side of the arena.
The relative straightness of the line is the reason why this exercise is a fairly simple way to introduce counter canter. The straightness helps the horse maintain almost the same amount of power in the hind end, and there are only a few strides of actual counter canter before the horse goes back into the true bend.
Now, I just mentioned that you want to change bends in trot when you go over the midpoint of the loop. So if you started with a left bend, you'd switch to the right bend over the midpoint.
In canter, it will be different, because in general, you will stay in a mild left bend to help the horse to keep his left lead through the counter canter section. As you get better at it, you can "approach" straightness, but in general, we stay in the same bend throughout the loop.
Because you're essentially just travelling in canter along a series of bends, the aids are common to the turn aids:
Inside leg at the girth (to prevent the shoulders from falling in)
Outside leg behind the girth (to prevent the hips from swinging out)
Inside rein slightly open
Outside neck rein, or direct rein for half-halts and straightening the outside shoulder
Weight is on the inside seat bone
Rider's shoulders are parallel to the horse's shoulders
In The Beginning
When you first start a horse on the loop in canter, you might get two results.
- The horse might break stride at the midpoint, where the change of balance occurs. In this case, just balance the trot, and canter again as soon as you can. The next time through, try to ask for more engagement with your outside leg to help keep the horse's outside hind leg active.
- The horse might do a flying change at the midpoint. Many horses learn to do flying changes based on balance changes, and this is what the loop will help you to overcome. You want to teach the horse to respond to the aids rather than just switch leads every time he changes direction. So if your horse changes leads, calmly transition to trot, and canter off in the left lead again.
In both cases, consider making your loop even more shallow, like the blue loop in the diagram. This might help your horse stay in better balance and not feel like he has to make that flying change.
Well, there is so much more to say about the counter canter! But this might give you a solid starting point that will help you begin to explore all that there is to learn about canter, and the canter leads. Enjoy!
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