A few weeks ago I had a Saturday morning lesson involving learning how to master the art of the counter canter at 7:30. Why is it on a weekday when I am getting ready for school, this hour is painfully early, but when horses are involved it seems a perfectly normal time to be out and about and active?
As I began to groom Rio, my trainer’s Morgan mare, Lauren asked how I’d been. “Good. I think I’m picking up a few tutoring jobs for the summer so I thought I’d mention I’d like to shareboard/half-lease a horse.”
She asked me how many rides per week and what times. I said three and that I was flexible.
Then, the following words burst out of my mouth without my permission:
“I NEED another horse, and I want a Thoroughbred. Not a crazy one.”
“I need a tall horse,” there was that NEED word again. “My last one was 16.3. And I like a bay with a pretty white blaze.”
I know perfectly well that it may be a bit juvenile to choose a horse based on color and markings. It reminded me of the era when I was Internet dating. I felt shallow when I dismissed a potential online suitor because he was not my physical ideal. I reassured myself with my Grandmother’s saying, “There’s a lid for every old pot,” and comforted myself knowing that someone somewhere would think a Duck Dynasty beard is attractive and bald is beautiful.
Lauren affirmed my desire, “It’s actually really helpful for me to know that. I’ve shown people horses before and when they’ve not been specific enough, sometimes they don’t like what I show them.”
I shared my dating anecdote and added, “You know horses are such an expensive hobby, in addition to getting along with its personality, you have to really think it’s pretty. Why not?” I did add that if I had unlimited resources, I would take in all horses, imagining my pretend ranch with one pretty horse and the rest of them ho-hum in the looks department (just to prove I’m still a Midwesterner and haven’t conformed to my Orange County environment which glorifies youth, beauty, and money).
Lauren agreed. As we walked toward the arena she showed me a non-descript bay Thoroughbred who was munching on his morning hay. “Here’s one. He’s been here about a month, and was a rescue case. He’s green though.”
I asked what he was like and the word she used was willing. “He walks, trots, and canters around the arena pretty well.”
There was no blaze. Someone else will want a green, reddish bay Thoroughbred who’s four. Not me. I don’t think.
We proceeded to the front arena, the one right next to the parking lot, closest to the entrance of the property. I had not ridden in it. It seemed to be the domain of the Western riders. When I walked inside, I noticed dressage letters along the rail!
In the Arena
The lesson commenced and I was reminded that I have to close my fingers around the reins. This is something I have struggled with for years–riding with loose fingers. When I think about it, I have a decent handhold on the reins, but maybe my fingers are lazy? At any rate, it’s amazing how something seemingly simple can be so elusive.
This is the part where it might get boring to my non-riding audience, but hang in there as a special guest arrives to spice things up!!!
The focus of this lesson was the counter canter. I hadn’t done this in. . . more years than I care to remember, as I’d been on an unfortunate horse hiatus.
Here’s the Deal on Cantering
When you see race horses gallop, a canter is kind of like that but slower and a 3-beat gait. In a canter, the horse’s foot falls go like this: back leg, the other back leg paired with the opposite front leg, then the other front leg. Wikipedia actually has a nice little description and video to show this more clearly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canter#Sequence_of_footfalls
(By the way, the Wikipedia lady cantering on the gorgeous gray horse should really be wearing a riding helmet. Just sayin’.)
When a horse canters it moves on what is called a lead. This refers to the front leg moving independently, the last beat of the gait. When you ride in an arena, you are supposed to be on the left lead if you are tracking left and on the right lead if you are tracking right. The reason a lead matters in cantering is it has to do with the horse’s balance.
When a new rider is learning this whole lead thing, it can be a little tricky for her to determine if the horse is cantering correctly (with the inside leg “leading”). By looking down at the horse’s shoulders, it’s easy to see which leg is moving more forward than the other one. So hopefully, if you are circling to the right, the right shoulder will move forward more.
To make things even more interesting, a rider is not supposed to look down at all to see if the horse is on the correct lead. With more experience, it’s possible to just feel it. I can’t explain it; it just happens.
This is a very long winded way of saying, that when you ride a canter in an arena, the horse should be on the right lead when going to the right and on the left lead when going to the left. That is, unless you are counter-cantering.
Asking for the “Wrong” Lead
The counter-canter is still a canter, that three beat gait, it’s just that this time around the horse is asked to intentionally travel on the “wrong” lead.
So, class, if the correct lead is right when traveling right and left when traveling left, when you are counter-cantering to the right, which lead should the horse be on? If you said, “left” you’re right! (Who’s on first?)
The counter-canter is a balancing act. Literally. Horses are very smart. So with training they start to know, “My rider likes it when I canter right and am on the right lead (and vice versa).” Many of them will respond automatically, picking up the correct lead on their own.
When you ask for the counter-canter, in a weird way, it’s like asking the horse to do the incorrect lead. The caveat is that the rider’s aids (influencers such as weight, legs, seat, etc.) are what override the arena boundary. So through non-verbal communication with this large beast, the rider is essentially saying, “I know that you think you’re supposed to pick up the right lead since we’re heading right, but what we’re really going to do is canter like we’re riding to the left, but we’re still heading right.”
Easier said than done!
A Momentary Diversion
While my brain was processing the info required to ask my various appendages to do the opposite of what has become second nature for decades, a familiar blue SUV pulled up alongside of my car.
“That’s my husband. Not sure what he’s doing here. He was supposed to be going on a bike ride.” I rode his direction, wondering why he didn’t park his car, but left it idling as he hopped out. I said hi and he just waved. He was acting a little odd.
“I gotta go,” Mark said as he hopped back into his car. I waved.
I apologized to Lauren for the interruption and said, “I don’t know what he’s doing.”
“I don’t think he knows either.”
Then I began the counter-canter more shallow loops, which are patterns that looks something like a slightly asymmetrical teardrop. You begin cantering on the correct lead down the long side of the arena and then initiate a turn so you travel back the direction you were just coming from, keeping the correct lead which has suddenly morphed into a counter-canter, due to the change of direction.
At first I wasn’t influencing Rio enough to make it clear what I was asking and so she automatically switched leads to be correct (which was incorrect since I was aiming for the counter-canter). Then it clicked and we were a counter-cantering machine. Until Lauren asked us to change directions. And do the exercise going from right to left.
So basically I was doing the exact same thing I had just been doing for several minutes. And suddenly it was like I was attempting an entirely new challenge.
“Why is this so hard going the other direction?” It reminded me of the swing dance workshop I attended where the instructor had all the women dance the lead’s (men’s) footwork. How can I know something so well that I don’t have to think about it, but when on the other foot, it becomes an entirely new experience?
It Takes Brains to Ride Well!
At that point I realized that in addition to the obvious physical benefits of riding, there must be a brain benefit. I’ve read books that claim brain health can be nurtured by learning a foreign language, doing crossword puzzles, and even driving a different route to work. I’d like to add counter cantering to that list!
The hour lesson ended and I felt I had done a decent job with the seemingly simple, shallow loop counter-canter exercise.
As I settled into the driver’s seat, I noticed a white scrap of paper on my windshield.
Mark had stopped by to leave a love note on my car. He was surprised to see me in the front arena because he assumed we’d be in the normal arena located on the back of the property.
So that’s why he acted so weird. I get it now.
Riding audience, what insights can you share about the counter canter (or regular cantering) well? Non-riders, have you ever realized before that riding is such a mental sport, not just “you sit there and the horse does all the work?”