We have been working on counter canter. This initially required that I spend a ride explaining to Harley that I really did want him to canter on the "wrong" lead. He did not believe me at first and saw it as an opportunity to flying change. I had to be very clear, but gentle with my corrections, because I do want him to change when I ask, just not when I want counter canter. The last thing I want is to squash my horse's exuberance in the name of obedience. After half a dozen repetitions he decided to try staying on the "wrong" lead and finally got the praise he was seeking. From there on out, he has remembered that sometimes I want him to keep the "wrong" lead. It is called counter canter, Harley!
Once Harley started offering a flying change here and there, I read about the order in which you should train counter canter and flying changes. Like all things in riding, and dressage especially, there are different opinions out there and a laundry list of things that your horse should be able to do before training X, Y, or Z. Harley offered a flying change in a figure eight before learning canter to walk or a simple change in dressage fashion: canter-walk-canter. He knew half-pass at the walk and trot, but we had not seriously attempted it at the canter and I would not even say that he had much collection in his canter at the time (May 2010). We had spent a little bit of time in counter canter, but only by cantering down the diagonal and trotting at the fence, which was very helpful in setting him back for the downward transition. So I was wondering, should I really be letting him flying change at this point? Harley had not read the manual, horses never do, but he already would change leads at liberty playfully and often at speed, so offering a change under saddle was not a huge "leap" of faith for him. A flying change is a natural way for the horse to change balance when changing direction, although it has been my experience that not all horses offer this under saddle on their own. I decided to subscribe to the school of thought that said, "Teach your horse a single flying change before drilling counter canter, or he may think that a flying change is not allowed." This seemed to fit Harley and so here we are at the schooling counter canter part of our plan. It feels good to be here.
After some hit and miss success on our own, in July I told my teacher how difficult it was to ride the counter canter, especially because Harley wanted to change. This was during our bodywork lesson, so I was not riding that day. Not having a horse under me was, apparently, not an obstacle for my teacher. She found an inflated yoga ball and asked me to sit on it like I was astride a horse. Then she positioned my legs and seat in canter and asked me to pretend that I was riding. She placed my inside leg on the "pedestal" that is the balance point for the lead. She then "hooked" my outside leg and heel back behind this pedestal. My outside heel was to nudge my horse to leap in each canter stride, while my inside leg (the whole thing) stepped over to the next balance point. Since we were counter cantering, this meant that my inside leg had to step toward his shoulder instead of away from it. She had me keep my eyes and body positioned toward the inside bend, even if we were (pretending) to go toward the outside in counter canter.
Once I modeled the counter canter position in both directions on the yoga ball, my teacher asked me to stand on my own two feet and "be the horse" as we countered cantered loops up and down the barn aisle. I had to keep my legs in the position that I had adopted on the ball and I had to keep looking in the direction of my (imaginary) horse's bend no matter where we were cantering to. My teacher gave me pointers and postural corrections, just like I was riding. Sometimes she moved next to me and shifted my weight over my outside leg, so that my inside leg was free to move wherever I wanted the canter to go. It was pretty cool and I couldn't wait to try it with Harley.
Since then, I have practiced counter canter with Harley several times. Guess what? It works! Harley understands from our previous rides that counter canter is allowed and my improved position and understanding of where my weight needs to be and how to shift my inside leg around to direct his shoulders has almost made counter cantering seem easy. We can come across the diagonal and maintain the counter canter through both corners and the next long side. I usually ask him to trot at that point, but I am sure that we will be able to go across the diagonal again or continue around the ring before long. On one ride, I even tried picking up the outside lead on the long side. Harley found this to be a piece of cake when the counter lead was the right lead, his favorite. He did well on the first couple tries when the outside lead was his left, but then I overloaded him by asking him to canter two thirds of the way around the arena. I think that he got tired, because he balked very strongly and did not want to counter canter on that lead until after a walk break. By balking I mean dancing sideways dramatically and refusing to go forward on the left lead. I changed direction and asked for the left lead in true canter and he picked it up, but felted disorganized in his stride. I believe that was fatigue. I have to remember that counter canter stretches the horse behind the saddle and requires a lot of strength and suppleness. I cannot be greedy if I want to reap the benefits of the exercise.
My first goal is for Harley and I to be able to counter canter all the way around the arena. Once we can do that, I want to ask Harley to flying change from counter canter to true canter. I do not want to spend too much time in counter canter, before asking for the change again, because I do not want to confuse him into thinking that one is good and the other is bad. If we can be successful with the new exercise, I believe that this will be a new milestone for us. I am excited, but trying to keep my excitement from rushing things.