Counter-bending is one of those dressage things I have understood in theory, but have never ever been able to get right in practice. The theory is that by counter-bending the horse on various figures like circles, serpentines, and half voltes the horse becomes much more supple and balanced. It is supposed to have the gymnastic effect of regular, inside bend figures but on steroids. The only problem is that it has always felt awkward and weird to me, and has never felt like it was doing much for my horse. Until Dressage Naturally.
DN starts with the premise that the reins are just for extra connection, refinement, and to place the height of the neck. Not for stopping or steering, so the rider learns to use much more refined seat and weight aids. As the rider progresses through the DN system, the Sweet Spot of Energy, Relaxation, and Balance is achieved through a body to body connection without as much emphasis on the use of the reins. As the Sweet Spot gets more refined through circles, figures, and transitions, the work naturally moves into the Flexibilty exercises of leg yield, spirals, figure eights, serpentines, and counter-bend. The idea being that the horse and rider need to learn to balance on one bend consistently before learning to switch bends back and forth. The leg yields and spirals really help the horse to learn to shift weight in the direction of travel, which then transitions into asking for changes of bend/weight like in figure eights or the large serpentine seen above. Then the work moves on to quicker changes of bend with smaller figure eights and serpentines. So far, so good, a horse that is supple on each bend and can switch in a balanced way between bends. But how does counter-bending work as the next step?
In the past couple of months the Sweet Spot has felt easily achievable for Jet. Prompt transitions, stretch down from my seat, self carriage at all three gaits, on basic figures, all very smooth. The Flexibilty exercises of leg yield, spiral, figure eight, serpentine, and counter-bend have gone ok but more like 80% instead of 100%. I had the breakthrough moment a couple of weeks ago, that when bending, my weight needs to be slightly shifted to the outside of my body by moving my outside rib cage toward my outside elbow, and the magic started to happen. All of the sudden the bend and balance were much better. The leg yields and spirals were so much more accurate and crisp. All from a tiny weight shift that put Jet into my outside aids and the outside of his body. Then I started to play with counter-bend a bit and it was pretty easy, felt balanced, and Jet was totally cool with it. All from a slight change of biomechanics in the regular bend. Because I finally have the bend with inside slightly pushed towards the outside, when I switch to the counter-bend, Jet shifts to the other bend and into the "new" outside of his body and toodles right along. No twisting of the neck or body and no resistance. The interesting thing is that the harder work showed a hole in the basics, and by fixing that basic and getting Jet into the outside rein/body the harder work became easy.