It was a dark and stormy night, purple clouds broiling in an angry sky. An adult amateur dressage rider was warming up in the indoor arena as lightning flashed and rain pounded the roof. The walls groaned and flexed as a howling wind pushed relentlessly, causing ‘B’ to bounce and ‘C’ to cha-cha uncontrollably.
The adult amateur wasn’t usually superstitious, but on this gloomy eve her confidence waned, causing her toes to quiver in her Ariats. Concern was written in magic marker on her face, despite an attempt to pretend all was well. Her horse was equally worried. He knew what lay ahead.
After months of work to improve the canter, the pair was moving into new, uncertain territory: the counter canter. Like the name implies, this is a counter-intuitive move wherein the rider attempts to convince the horse to canter on the wrong lead. The movement isn’t impossible, but for the uninitiated or rider of average ability, tis daunting.
Now some horses intentionally canter on the wrong lead just to drive their rider crazy, perhaps in revenge for stingy treat deportment or less than tactful leg aids. Some switch leads just for fun, throwing in a left lead in the front, right lead in the back — giving the rider the ‘being tossed about in a washing machine’ sensation that only a young back can survive. But when cantering on the wrong lead isn’t the horse’s idea, it takes a hearty dose of determination to make the magic happen.
And so the dynamic duo prepared to practice a feat of pushing forward while balancing back, with a sense of trepidation. The rider was more than a bit concerned about the other equestrians in the ring, people she had come to like and would miss sorely should she take one out. The horse was merely dreading having to work hard while in the less than skilled hands of an amateur. Second Level dressage wasn’t his idea of a good time.
Taking a deep breath, the rider asked for a right lead canter depart. No problem. A nice circle at the far end of the arena, neatly avoiding the nice lady taking a lesson. Cantering across the diagonal while remembering to continue, rather forcefully, to ask for the right lead bend as they began the counter part of the canter.
Convincing the horse that this was a good idea wasn’t possible, so the rider settled for an encouraging leg and trying to keep her seat in the saddle. Pushing the horse forward, using her core to keep herself in the saddle, while using the reins in an alternating manner to remind horse that ploughing on the forehand was unacceptable … it was an awkward sort of dance. The term dance being used loosely.
Down the long side for a few strides, then the epic half-circle in the counter canter to the other side of the arena. A hold-your-breath turn across the next diagonal put the horse back on the ‘correct’ lead and both horse and rider breathed a sigh of relief. A few repetitions of this maneuver had both horse and rider gasping for air, again taking care to avoid the nice lady having a lesson.
The storm let up for a moment as the pair took a walk on a long rein, primarily for the rider’s benefit. She scanned the arena warily, wishing the nice rider on the lovely little mare was wearing a flak jacket. They looked small and defenseless.
As the rider picked up her reins, which were always too long, thunder rumbled overhead. A portent of things to come?
The left lead canter was always more of a challenge, even on a good day. Gathering up as much courage as an amateur rider of a certain age can have, she asked her horse to move forward. Her horse gave a sluggish response. “Must I?,” he asked. “Kick him!” her trainer cried, hoping to be heard above the swelling storm.
The rider tried but her horse sensed her lack of confidence and broke to the trot halfway across the diagonal. If she wasn’t going to give it a full effort, why should he?
Panting noisily, the rider reassembled her scattered wits and added a dose of determination. Her horse knew her weakness and used his strength against her, pulling her forward, out of the saddle – happily taking the upper hand. Curses!
A bolt of lightning briefly illuminated the arena, for dramatic effect. The static charge tingled through the rider’s brain, eliciting the following thought: “No horse is going to run off in the counter canter. You need to push him forward.”
All thoughts of being run off with dissipated. With a new sense of determination, the rider sat back, anchored her elbows to her sides, and kicked on. They managed the left lead counter canter with a minimum of carnage, both horse and rider breathing a little more easily, knowing that what had begun as a ride of terror was only a figment of their imaginations.
Sometimes, overthinking it is the worst thing you can do.
As expected, the storm lost its thunder and the clouds rolled away harmlessly, leaving behind a brilliant moon and a rider happily basking in the obvious.
Author’s note: Please note that the above is a fictionalized version of a true story. It was not a dark or stormy night. The rest is true.