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Old 03-01-2009, 11:49 AM   #1
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Counter Canter

As a hunter rider predominately, my horse has natural flying lead changes. I have never understood the fact that dressage riders teach their horses to counter canter before they teach lead changes. I was very surprised when i saw lead changes didn't come in until 3rd level!!! I am having a difficult time teaching my horse how to counter canter as he will always swap off. Any suggestions on how to help my horse learn to counter canter?
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Old 03-02-2009, 06:29 AM   #2
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Does your horse automatically swap when crossing the center of your arena? I used to ride a gelding that would swap every time you crossed the center. I learned to use my seat and legs to prevent them from changing - the canter aid is almost exaggerated at first. You can keep the horse bent to the appropriate side and can also exaggerate the weight of his inside hip (in relation to the bend). Everyone knows you don't even punish a flying lead change, so my leg and seat would get stronger when crossing the center. I'd let him go a few strides on the counter canter before praising him and asking him for a downward transition. If he swapped leads, I would just bring him back down to a walk and try again.

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Old 03-02-2009, 10:40 AM   #3
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I also have never understood why anyone would want to teach a horse to counter canter, especially when it is already doing flying lead changes. I don't know enough about dressage to know if a judge would actually be looking for a counter canter in a test.

In Western riding, or gaited horses, which is where I've spent my time in the saddle, the counter canter is not something to be taught, but avoided.

I've got a couple of the classic dressage books. I'm going to look this up!
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Old 03-02-2009, 11:05 AM   #4
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The counter canter is used as an exercise to strengthen the horse and reinforce his balance for lateral movements. The reason it is taught before changes is exactly the reason the poster is having problems. Once a horse has been drilled in his changes, he no longer wants to put the increased effort into holding a balanced counter canter. Dressage riders needs their horses to wait for them to ask for the change, not change automatically when the direction changes like in hunters. Do hunters need to counter canter? No. But equitation riders do! Also, the counter canter can be very useful for stretching out a horse who tends to be stiff through his rib cage.

To teach a horse who swaps out to counter canter:

1. Do shallow loops along the long side of the arena. That is, come off the wall about 20 feet then head back to the wall in an "S" shape. As your horse becomes comfortable with that, you can make your loops deeper.

2. Practice asking for the lead you want with different aids ie inside rein outside leg. Do this down the center of the arena until your horse can reliably pick up whichever lead you ask for. Once they can do that, try going around the entire arena using a slightly exaggerated canter depart aid to remind your horse to hold the counter lead. If he breaks, go back to trot or walk and then ask for the counter lead again.

eta:
The counter canter does appear in both USDF dressage tests and eventing dressage tests. It serves to confirm that the horse is truly "on the aids."
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Old 03-02-2009, 12:19 PM   #5
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I also find it helps if the rider pays more attention to when they allow the horse to change bend when changing direction at the trot. Often when people turn across the diagonal they don't use enough leg to shape the turn and so the horse falls onto its inside shoulder and the rider allows it to pick up the new bend far to soon. I find it beneficial to hold the old bend until a few strides from the other wall, and on occassion to hold the counter bend along the new direction. Make sure you always decide when to change bend.

Working on counter bend at the trot will also help both horse and rider get the feel for being bent to the outside of the ring as is needed for counter canter.

For canter work, I agree with what InstigatorKate recommended, with one addition; when going across the full diagonal, lets say from right to left, I will have the rider do a right hand circle at "X" (or sooner if they feel the horse getting stronger). This will encourage her to pay more attention to the request, and help the rider pay more attention to the aids they are giving as they need to be ready to set up for the circle.

Another reason dressage horses are held of doing changes is the differece between the two types of changes; when a hunter changes leads it is in a forward canter, and usually as the horse changes bend. Hunters do not need to remain truely straight in a lead change and the suspension needed for the chance is created by the forward gait. A dressage horse must be able to do lead changes from a collected canter and in a straight line; both of which require more strength and thrust than a hunter lead change does.

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