Understanding counter canter

What is the difference between counter canter and cantering on the wrong leg?

Counter canter to the right is canter with a left leading leg and left bend. Counter canter to the left requires a right lead and right bend. The main difference between counter canter and cantering on the wrong leg is keeping the bend over the leading leg.

From the rider’s point of view, counter canter can help to improve co-ordination and develop “feel”.

You’re only ready to ask for counter canter when you can ride a good quality canter, and are able to demonstrate lengthening and shortening within the stride.

The horse should show flexion at the poll to the outside of the circle.

Counter canter helps the horse because:

  • It has a good suppling effect
  • It teaches obedience to the rider’s aids
  • It can help to straighten a crooked horse
  • The horse’s balance improves and the hindquarters show greater engagement
  • It is an important step towards flying changes

Your horse is ready to attempt counter canter when:

  • He can canter on a named leg on a corner and in a straight line
  • He can canter a 15m circle without losing rhythm, balance, straightness or impulsion
  • He can lengthen and shorten in the canter

The aids for counter canter on the right rein are:

  • Left leg on the girth for bend and impulsion
  • Right leg behind the girth to control the hindquarters
  • Left rein to indicate direction and bend
  • Right rein to control the pace and degree of bend – it has a balancing effect
  • The rider should sit centrally, but put more weight on the seat bone of the leading leg side, although you may find you need to move the hip forward on the leading side if your horse finds it difficult

The real thing

When both horse and rider are ready to try this exercise, the usual method of performing counter canter is to set up a good, rhythmical, balanced canter, asking for a small amount of collection. Thenthe rider changes the rein, but maintains the canter for a few strides.

As you become more experienced, it is possible to ask directly for counter canter.

Getting it wrong

One of the difficulties is keeping your horse straight on a single track. Great care should be taken to keep control of the horse’s shoulders and be aware of where the hindquarters area.

Make sure your horse does not move his shoulder in or his hindquarters out. Yet do bear in mind the horse’s natural conformation does not permit an excessive amount of counter bend on a circle, so go for quality rather than quantity.

Another common fault is a change in rhythm or tempo. Horse and rider should be a picture of smoothness, fluidity and calmness.

Other faults include an incorrect bend, or losing the correct sequence of legs and either becoming disunited, dropping back into trot, or performing a flying change.

Once your horse is in counter canter, only ask for a few strides each time until he becomes fitter and more supple.

Use large circles or sweeping bends and gradually collect up your horse and make the shapes smaller. If you feel the quality is deteriorating or your horse has shown a couple of good strides, ask for trot.

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