I wish that when I was a teenager and really getting into riding, people had taught me the classical stuff - but I grew up in the foxhunting culture of the UK which back then was mistrustful of dressage as something 'foreign';
we were not that far the other side of world war two and dressage was something the French and Germans did and therefore something we didn’t do.
what we did do, as Brits back then, however was breed and produce incredible jumping horses, especially for cross country. When I was a lad it was nothing to tackle multiple fences in excess of six feet high and ten feet wide in the course of a day's hunting. We did it without thinking about it.
of course we did a lot of dressage without knowing it - teaching horses rhythm so they could meet the fence correctly and shorten or lengthen their stride as needed, keeping them soft on the bit and the hand soft and forward so the horse could feel his way into the fence undistracted, and making sure that the horse could keep his balance around a turn even if he was on the wrong canter lead.
of course no one called it counter canter back then and if the horse popped a flying change in well that was a matter of luck, but the feeling was that a horse in a 'wrong' canter lead should always be corrected how wrong we were. It took me a while, once I started studying dressage properly, to lose my resistance, based on that early conditioning, to the counter or 'wrong canter'.
Now, however, the counter canter is my friend - it strengthens and supples the horse, it makes the horse think, it prepares the horse for the changes, it balances the horse...
And it's harder to achieve then it looks.
it was or mentor Marta Renilla (who rides for Spain now) who really made me concentrate on the counter canter, explaining how it freed the shoulder, and made the ride really plan ahead - that if you tried to take the corners too sharp for example, the horse would usually throw in a flying change so you had to ride every step, and this made you ride every step of your other exercises. It also made you count and be much more aware of rhythm - invaluable when thinking about tempi changes
Alfredo Hernandez encouraged us to think of counter canter as its own lateral movement - renvers in canter and isolate it from use simply as a preparation for flying changes, and enjoy it for its own sake, playing with the steepness of the angle until the horse could really canter well in any position.
Marijke De Jong showed us how it could be done in-hand with the rider walking at the horse's shoulder, which really got the horse sitting on his haunches (of course this worked for true canter too), and then how to develop this into changes in hand - which is pure magic.
The incredible Valenca family showed us how counter canter really helps a rider understand how the outside rein control and balances everything and - this was interesting - helps you and horse maintain tempo and rhythm in pirouettes.
And being still a foxhunter at heart - when we go out on the cross country course at home, the counter canter still helps us meet our fences correctly.
Thank you mentors. We are forever students.
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