I wish that I had appreciated the value of the counter canter years earlier in my training career. Nowadays, I use this tool to solve many problems and to improve the canter work. I believe in teaching the horse to canter on either lead, regardless of the direction of travel, very early in their education. All too often, you find horses that have been taught not to canter on the "wrong" lead. They had been corrected whenever they took the outside canter, and it is difficult to persuade them to break this habit.
From the beginning, I am careful to teach the canter depart more from the inside leg and seat bone than from just the outside leg. Many people make the mistake of letting the horse swing the haunches in to obtain the depart. You need to teach the horse to strike off into canter straight from the very first lessons to prevent trouble with the flying changes later on. A flying change is nothing but a canter depart in canter.
Once a horse is balanced enough to hold the true canter easily under the rider, I think you can teach the counter canter. I find it easier to do this in an open space, rather than in a ring. This makes it possible to describe shallow loops and not demand the horse go around a sharp corner on the outside lead. In an open space, you can alternate loops of true canter with loops of counter canter, changing over as soon as the horse has a problem in maintaining his regularity.
When your horse is comfortable with this new concept, you have created a valuable tool that can improve the canter by straightening and strengthening his muscles.
I use the counter canter as a suppling tool. I will ride around the arena in counter canter, using a counter flexion down the long sides and a regular flexion around the corners and on the short ends. I also lengthen the canter down the long side and make a transition back to collected canter before the short end. I ride lots of serpentines in canter, changing from regular canter to counter canter and back again. I will even use a very small serpentine, with tight loops of about five meters, to improve the horse's ability to balance and bend.
When it comes time to teach the canter pirouettes, you can teach them from counter canter. Ride down the long side about six to seven feet off the actual track, and then ask for the pirouette toward the wall.
I find myself using the counter canter to keep the flying changes straight. Often in the beginning stages, a horse will have a tendency to swing more towards one side than the other. If you ride this change into counter canter towards the wall, the wall helps the horse to make a straighter change.
When I teach the sequential changes, I will always finish the lesson for the day by riding counter canter around the arena, so the horse learns not to anticipate the change and becomes more obedient to the aids.
By using the counter canter, I can now improve any horse in a much shorter period of time than in the past. Dressage is an ongoing process, and you never stop learning.
Sally O'Connor grew up in England and studied at The Sorbonne before coming to the United States. In the 1960s, as an eventing and dressage rider, she became a founding member of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association and organized and participated in some of the earliest dressage and eventing competitions held in the Maryland/Virginia area. She has also served on the Boards of the U.S. Dressage Federation and the U.S. Equestrian Federation. Based in The Plains, Va., she is the author of six equestrian books and mother of Olympic eventing gold medalist David O'Connor.