|Schooling in the arena last night|
For the dressage-impaired, counter-bend is basically just bending your horse in the opposite direction of what you normally would do because sometimes dressage is like that. I think there are some higher-level debates on whether true counter-bend is even possible as well as the use of counter-bend versus counter-flexion (i.e. flexing the horse at the poll rather than through the body), but I'm going to stay away from that for now because I don't really have the background and knowledge to present anything compelling. But in case somebody who actually knows something reads this post, I wanted to at least acknowledge that I'm aware that there is something floating around in the stratosphere.
When I first heard about counter-bending, I was floored. I mean, I had just spent about 30 years trying to perfect bending my horse in the right direction. Why would I want to bend him in the wrong direction ON PURPOSE? Well, I'm not sure about your horse, but for Nimo, counter-bending and counter-flexion exercises are gold. He tends to be stiff through his neck and shoulder and any exercise with counter-anything in it really helps him free up his shoulder and become more supple and balanced within minutes.
Counter-bending is not really about bending your horse in the wrong direction, though. It is about maintaining forward motion and balance and then improving it through asking your horse to do something different. Instead of plodding around on a circle like you usually do, you're asking the horse to follow the circle pattern but in a completely different way, which means refocusing and paying more attention to where the body is.
The aids for counter-bend are unknown to me. I'm sure you could Google it and find something about what to do with your seat bones, legs, and reins, but I have found that I just have to feel my way through it. If I start thinking about what I'm doing, Nimo either stops, doesn't bend at all, or goes in the wrong direction. The trick for me is to continue to hold the line of the circle (or serpentine, in this case) while supporting Nimo as if he was turning the opposite way. It ends up being a bit of a mind game with myself, but we're actually able to do the exercise with moderate success, so I figure my method is working:)
I typically do a three-loop serpentine, but you could absolutely do this exercise with two loops or as many loops as your arena will allow. If you're just getting started with counter-bend, you may want to begin with a 20 meter-size half-circle on your serpentine, but you can absolutely use whatever size your horse is comfortable with. Last night, I did the exercise with 15 meter half-circles, and it worked well. However, I think 10 meter half-circles would have been pushing it.
The final objective of the exercise is to do an entire serpentine in counter-bend while trotting. I will typically do a serpentine with normal bend first. Then I'll do a serpentine with the middle loop in counter-bend before finally doing the whole serpentine in counter-bend. And then I'll cross the diagonal and do the serpentine from the other direction. The trick, much like with a regular serpentine, is to plan your changes of bend to fall in the middle of the arena on a straight line and to work on making the change as smoothly as possible.
For me, common issues are: not enough counter-bend, irregular half-circles, loss of rhythm, and loss of impulsion. I find that my best plan for successfully doing the exercise is to make sure Nimo is very warmed up and that we've maybe done some leg-yield work first. Then I focus on making sure my rein contact is even in both hands and that I sit back and try not to let my legs drift back and up. I used to make the mistake of trying too hard and contorting my body and that doesn't seem to be necessary. Like I said above, I sort of just imagine doing the exercise while riding it and let my body do whatever adjustments seem necessary to convince Nimo to go the way I want him to. I realize that is probably less than useless to someone just learning, but luckily I just blog about stuff instead of having to earn a living teaching:)
Anyway, if you haven't had the opportunity to use counter-flexion or counter-bending in your schooling, I highly recommend it. I did look on YouTube to see if I could find any good videos and alas, I could not. But if you happen to find one, feel free to post it in the comments.