Friday, April 2, 2021

charlie's secret "GO" button??

Charlie and I have been going through the same sorta cycle ever since he came home back in 2016. Basically, the horse just kinda doesn't go. Unless he's going. In which case, he GOES.
tree blossom season!
It honestly sometimes feels really really bipolar. Like I'll spend the first half of a ride chasing the horse along, nag-nag-nagging. And then the second half of the ride trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. 

oooh and opportunistic cavaletti schooling! a friend set this up just as we were finishing and i figured, what the hell, let's take a few passes! charlie was perfect obvi <3 <3 <3
This is actually one big reason why I've converted to riding almost entirely in the hackamore for everything other than jump lessons. Charlie stiffens and leans into a snaffle in a way that he just.... doesn't with the hackamore. So I never really feel like I need to ride around with the e-brake half on, ya know?

getting back into incorporating long walks before or after every ride
But that still leaves me with the first half of the problem: just getting this friggin horse going. I swear I get so tired of kickin him on. And will find a million reasons to think, "OMG he's probably dying I should probably start digging the hole now!" Ahem, cough cough. 

forsythia is my favorite <3 <3 <3
Spending a winter "kinda giving up on dressage" really helped, tho, I think. I've spent the past months just sorta working on allowing forward, not interfering negatively with the horse's balance (tho possibly not necessarily influencing him positively either), and just working on some of my own position habits. 

Namely: detaching my clingy friggin heels and lower legs from my poor horse's rib cage. And everyone likes that better now haha.

blurry but kinda watercolor-esque?
It's springtime in earnest around these parts tho. And, to be perfectly honest, it's way past time to get serious about each other's fitness. Our baselines are ok -- but they're just that: baselines. It's time for more. 

Charlie's got fresh joint oil, his feet look good. He's been acupunctured and chiro'd and all the things. It's TIME.

death alley is much less spooky now that construction's about wrapped. that sky tho!
But. How to really get his ass 'in gear' for our rides without falling back into the same nagging habits?? I *think* I may have sorta accidentally discovered a neat trick this week. 

See.... Charlie has always been somewhat of an idiot savant when it comes to counter canter. Well -- let's be real, canter is his strongest gait anyway. And the counter canter just... honestly comes kinda easily to him. I've been told up and down and all around that it's also a fabulous strengthening exercise. 

finished rebuilt shed, plus older attached lean-to
So this week I reintroduced it to our rides. Basically, I ride giant sweeping figures of 8 around our roughly 30x70m dressage court. Just a few (maybe 3ish) on each lead, which works out to about 2min* per lead. 

(*Recall: I keep an interval timer app going on my phone that dings every 2min. I don't necessarily heed every ding, but it's a useful gauge for tracking time). 

just love those beautiful crazy post-storm spring skies!
Wouldn't ya know it. Something about counter canter just naturally improves Charlie in his overall lateral and longitudinal balance. It sorta gently realigns his whole posture so that his hind legs come up underneath --- almost like he remembers "OMG wow! I *do* have a hind end after all!" And suddenly it's like all his pipes open and he snorts a whole bunch and then... we're all clear!

After which, from that point on in the ride, Charlie switches effortlessly from slug-mode to... actually going forward haha. But without all the tension that is sometimes introduced with other "jazz-up" exercises like rapid-fire transitions. Funny how that works! 

The last couple times we've done it there have been little cavaletti set up in the dressage court that I've used as kinda a reward/proof of concept after the counter canter work. Obvi it's a small sample set but seems like Charlie really nailed it. 

So. Maybe this is the secret 'go' switch I've been looking for in my warm up all these years? Does anybody else spend a lot of time in counter canter? Does it have the same effect on your horse? Or are there other exercises you use to get the horse moving up and in front of your leg? 


  1. Interesting. Irish goes better after cantering too and I used to do it it really. One of the Old Masters (De Kunffy? Gah, cannot remember) said that th3 canter was a more natural gait and it should be done before trot.

    1. lol yea i've heard that before and definitely used that approach with charlie too... but he can be just as much of a slug in true canter too, like.... who remembers when he straight up FELL DOWN with me while cantering around in a lazy four beats dragging his toes?

      the counter canter, however, is a whole different story. i guess it helps him pick his shoulders up and bring his hind end underneath him without me needing to get on his case about it?

  2. The counter-canter is a great strengthening exercise so it definitely could be your are improving his strength which improves his naturally ability to balance which just improves everything overall!

    I used to wake Carlos up in the canter and it helps Dante get a bit more woken up too (since he's also a wannabe behind the leg horse like Charlie!)

    1. ha for sure! i think the biggest difference for chuck between counter and true canter is that the counter canter maybe makes him go more up hill? whereas he can sorta just plow along on the forehand in true canter... i'm thinking this is gonna become a key feature of our warm-ups --- for dressage tests AND show jumping

  3. I do occasional shallow loops for counter canter but haven't tried much beyond that. But yes I too am guilty of clingy heels!

    1. The shallow loops are a great way to start! I feel like once the horse gets the hang of it it becomes much easier

  4. I find the counter canter helps me to fix whatever straightness issues we're struggling with. Like it kind of forces you to put the pieces in the right spot or you'll lose the lead.
    My horses are all slow to get moving forward. I've found a couple laps of trot each way, then a few laps of loose rein canter in a half seat seems to loosen them up the quickest. Which then leads to forward... except for with Shiny. I only get forward on her terms usually... Ponies.

    1. Lol yea Charlie loves his loose rein half seat romps around too... tho even then he’s so sluggish lol. Whatever it takes I guess! And yea I think you’re right about counter canter requiring all the pieces to be just right, which might be fixing a bunch of issues subconsciously

  5. Really interesting about the timer, I'm going to have to use that once I get back into the saddle! It is so easy to get suckered into the constant nagging with the sticky horses and end up sacrificing your position because of that and then they're STILL not actually in front of the leg. For my very sticky appaloosa I would actually hand gallop him and then bring him back to 15 meter circles and square turns, but his favorite way of being behind the leg was also very much behind the bit and curling away from contact which sounds different than Charlie.

    1. Ha yea Isabel, the Arabian mare I leased for years at the beginning of this blog, was like that. Charlie’s a whole different sort tho and it’s been a constant lesson in adapting LOL!

      Re: the interval app, it’s super super useful esp for keeping things symmetrical and making sure I’m logging appropriate time in each gait. I also often use a metronome app (set to a trot rhythm) just to help us keep that steady rhythm. It’s shockingly effective lol

  6. I'm sure you remember my (continued?) struggles with the Go Button on Annie - in 2019 I distinctly remember our jump clinician saying "You aren't clenching!!!"
    Pretty much every lesson with him he'd tell me to STOP nagging and clinging with my legs. It's interesting how the body responds to the lack of forward because I honestly never noticed just how MUCH my legs were on her ALL THE TIME.

  7. My new trainer's favorite phrase right now is "more trot!" so basically, I feel you. I have purchased spurs as of this morning LOL

  8. My absolutely treasured Thunder, a mid-level dressage horse, is the kindest, sweetest, most reliable and also SLOWEST soul upon the face of this earth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this animal - he gets the very best of everything and he's as happy as a clam - but at the very start of every ride, the guy will ALWAYS question whether he really *has* to move forward off my leg. I have tried a thousand little tricks, and he really does understand my leg aid, but at the start of each ride he'll always see if he can lean into it instead of moving off it. So our warmup always incorporates the following: first a nice long walk on a loose rein to get the joint juices flowing, then up into a collected walk, transition to medium walk, back to collected walk. If he doesn't respond to a mere whisper of my calves, I touch sharply with the whip, and we do it again - normally then he'll be forward at once. Then we turn down quarter line and just reinforce it with 3 steps of leg-yield left, then 3 steps of leg-yield right, reinforcing with a sharp whip tap if he doesn't step off my leg immediately. After that, he's normally 100% off my leg and away - so I don't nag and we both can have a nice ride. If I neglect this in the first 15 minutes of our ride, then I'll be kicking and tapping and spurring and getting frustrated all day long!


Thanks for leaving a comment! If you have trouble with this form, please email: fraidycat.eventing at gmail.