February 13, 2010
Training for Counter-Canter
Copyright © 2010 Robin Brueckmann
Counter-canter first shows up in USEF tests at First Level Test 4, and in FEI tests in the Five Year Old Test. Itís an exercise that demands strength, balance, obedience, and suppleness from the horse, and practicing counter-canter improves all of these qualities as well.
There are many benefits to counter-canter, and also a number of pitfalls that a trainer may encounter along the way. To avoid these issues, itís important to first know what they might be, and to have an approach that minimizes problems and improves the likelihood of success.
Even on the minimal degree of difficulty from First Level Test 4, horses still exhibit problems. They fall into several categories:
ē Leaning in on turns
ē Becoming heavy in front
ē Losing the line of the figure
ē Breaking gait
ē Cross-canter or flying changes
Of these mistakes, the most serious are losing the canter lead, either by breaking to trot or doing some version of a flying change. Leaning in, or becoming heavy in front: these are both balance issues, and to a certain extent, strength issues as well.
When you train for counter-canter, you can completely eliminate any potential for making gait mistakes by practicing the questions of counter-canter in the trot. I take my young horse onto a serpentine, starting with a three-loop serpentine, in the trot, and I maintain one bend for the entire serpentine. For instance, if I start with a left bend, I maintain the left bend throughout the entire figure. The horse will present balance and steering issues in the same way that he would if we were cantering, but there is not potential for losing the lead.
By using this figure, I allow the horse (and the rider, when Iím teaching) to experiment with steering away from the direction of bend, and the horse learns how to balance when counter-bent. This is really the origin of the gait problems; when the horse does not feel he can maintain his balance, he will break to a lower gait to regain his comfort level.
The one-bend serpentine is a great exercise on its own, just done in the trot. It requires that the horse develop greater strength in his inside hind leg, which takes a longer path when he is on the counter-bent loops yet has to step under his midline to maintain his balance. This teaches him how to engage himself without being dependent on the reins for balance. When steering becomes independent from bend, the horse must listen to the riderís seat and weight aids rather than the reins, which has positive repercussions throughout the rest of the horseís training.
Itís a great rider exercise, too, for the same reasons. The rider can no longer steer by the reins alone; she must use all her aids together to help the horse understand the exercise. As she becomes more proficient within the exercise, the horse listens to lighter aids as he develops the strength he will need to perform the exercise in the canter.
I have the rider perform gradually more and more loops, until the figure resembles the extreme loopiness of the old six-loop serpentines that we used to do in the Grand Prix, or even eight or ten loops along the length of the arena. The horse will have more tendency to lean into the turns as the loops get tighter, and that gives the rider the opportunity to address how to ride so that the horse learns to do it on his own.
When it is time to do it in canter, the loops suddenly become much shallower. I go to a very shallow loop at first, going from the corner to the quarter line and back. I aim in quickly so that there is more time to get the horse back to the second corner without losing his confidence or balance. Often, the horse demonstrates a more or less marked preference for one lead over the other; perhaps he can maintain balance in a deeper loop on the right lead than the left, or vice versa. This is normal, and is a part of the gymnastic progression of training. Keep the loops shallower for the harder lead until he becomes stronger and better balanced. Gradually, I let the loops become deeper, first going to the center line, then the second quarter line, and finally going the entire width of the arena, for the figure required in Second Level Test 1. On a given day, I may progress from quarter line to center line to far quarter line, but the next day when we start again, I go back to the quarter line. I donít expect the horse to magically be able to replicate what we achieved yesterday; I make sure he experiences success, day after day.
If I take my time with this sequence, I end up with a horse that never experiences breaking or cross-cantering. It may take a month or a year, depending on the horse, to progress to the full three-loop serpentine in the canter; whatever time it takes, it takes that long. Stiffer horses generally have an easier time maintaining the canter lead, but they will have a harder time with the one-bend serpentine in trot as the loops get tighter. More supple horses will want to pop their shoulders into the turns, and they are more likely to offer flying changes. I never want to reprimand a horse for offering a flying change, so I want to make doubly sure that I have done my preliminary preparation thoroughly in the trot before I make any effort in the canter itself.
By understanding and anticipating the challenges of counter-canter, I can prepare my horse effectively so that he understands the exercise and answers the questions it poses correctly. Itís much easier, and faster, to take the time to prepare the horse fully, than to just ask for the test movements and then fix problems that crop up. Itís easier to develop the horseís confidence in the first place than to regain it once heís lost it.
Ride well, and enjoy the benefits of counter-canter, without any problems!