Counter canter is our latest challenge.
I have not worked canter to walk very much, as I feel that it is somewhat taxing on his body. I will wait for a day when it feels like his balance is in the right place. He also dislikes transitions down from the canter, so I do not want to sour him to the work by practicing them more often than fun stuff. The good news is that his canter to trot is the absolute BEST it has ever been. He is more in the bridle, especially the outside rein, and actively gathers himself before the downward transition. The upward transitions to canter have also improved. Our suppleness focus has been beneficial. He is feeling quite strong and capable.
Since our initial counter dance, Harley has realized that cantering on the "wrong" lead is a potential request. He takes full advantage of this when the counter lead is his preferred right lead. In fact, he can do a very collected, slow, counter canter right. We counter cantered a circle smaller than 15 meters with no difficulty whatsoever. The barn owner was standing right there giving a lesson, so I think he was showing off. He does that, not me. I swear! He can also take this slow right lead canter to the true direction. It is lovely to ride and only requires a very small hip movement on my part. He actually likes to stretch his neck while he is doing this, which is a very cool thing going to the right. His canter felt so ridiculously tractable, that I tried half-pass right. After we glided to the quarter line, I leg yielded him back to the track. He did not miss a beat. Easy.
But do not fret.
Everything is not easy-peasy-lemon-squeezey.
The left lead counter canter is tough. We have found the boundary to our comfort zone and cantered over it. Although, he will pick up the left lead on the long side tracking right, he gets tense and strong and puts his ears back. I am not sure if he is angry that I am asking him to canter in such a silly (difficult) fashion, if this is his way of concentrating, or a little of both. Or maybe he is telling me that I am sitting "wrong". I will have to be vigilant. More than once he has completed a lovely flying change onto the right lead shortly after picking up the counter left. This makes me happy, because ultimately I would like to counter canter through both corners and ask for a flying change on the next long side. However, we are skipping both corners!
I decided to make that exercise easier. I picked up the true canter left and turned him down the diagonal. I kept my outside leg on, which made his tail do all sorts of crazy spins and twirls, kept my inside left leg forward, and turned my head toward his left ear. With lots of soothing "Good Boys", he made it down the diagonal, albeit powerfully, and through the first corner, but changed in the next. Oh well. We will take it slowly, as I do not want to destroy his fondness for changes. In fact, I have tried to ride flying changes in between counter canter rides, so that he does not think that one is "Good Boy" and one is "Bad Boy". This makes for lots of fun and potential confusion. On one ride, he changed smoothly from left to right and then gave me a really solid, requested change from right to left down the next diagonal. On the very next ride, I asked him to canter down the diagonals without changing at all. I had to be so careful not to shift my weight or move my body. I feel the challenge, too!
Some things that have been added to our comfort zone include:
A three-loop canter serpentine with changes through trot
Relaxed cantering on the lunge line (Awesome!)
Half-pass in trot off the rail (starting)
In other areas, wires are getting crossed, which leads me to believe that we have left the comfort zone:
He is swinging his haunches in (a lot) before the counter left lead and leaning on my left leg. He cannot pick up the left lead properly in either case. He seems to bounce between over-reacting to my outside leg and bracing against my inside leg.
He is getting strung out in the left lead and losing balance. I returned to true canter and offered more support to help him shift his weight back again. This canter felt very nice. I must remember that this work is tiring and mentally challenging. I believe that gentle practice will make his left lead stronger as long as I am careful with how often and how long we work the counter canter.
We are making mistakes and experiencing miscommunication, but with time and care, hopefully, we will come out more solidly together on the other side.
And, maybe, with an expanded comfort zone.