H&H’s expert guide to counter canter: all you need to know

  • 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 while travelling around the arena on the right rein, while to the left it requires a right lead and right bend on the left rein. The main difference between counter canter and cantering on the wrong leg is keeping the bend over the leading leg and therefore maintaining the horse’s balance. The horse should show flexion at the poll to the outside of the circle.

    From the rider’s point of view, this movement 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 without a loss of balance.

    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 this 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

    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. Then the 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.

    Dressage rider Amy Stovold’s favourite exercise for introducing counter canter

    “At least some counter-canter is found in most British Dressage tests from novice level upwards, and is used to demonstrate the horse’s balance, suppleness and straightness while still maintaining the natural quality of the canter.

    “Counter-canter helps to develop a horse’s canter rhythm, improve his balance and ability to carry the weight behind, and is a great exercise to use before starting flying changes. It is also really good for improving a horse’s suppleness.

    “Using the correct aids and maintaining a straight, central position in the saddle are very important in the counter- canter to ensure that the horse stays balanced.

    “I teach a horse counter-canter as soon as his canter is balanced and he is carrying the weight on the hindleg.

    “For this exercise, the horse should be established in canter and the walk-to-canter transition, and be able to stay balanced in counter-canter.”

    A simple exercise

    A counter canter exercise

    1. Start in canter at M on the left rein and turn down the centre line at C.

    2. Start heading towards the three-quarter line in the direction of B before making a shallow loop right. Start with fairly shallow loops so that the horse understands what you are asking of him. You can then build up the difficulty by making the loops steeper until you are riding a serpentine in counter-canter.

    3. Counter-canter across the diagonal from B to K, then continue in true, left-rein canter. Your aids should always stay the same throughout counter-canter, so on the left rein, your right leg will be behind the girth and your left leg will be by it. Your outside leg will support and maintain the counter-canter. With a younger horse, you may need to support them a bit more with your outside leg and inside rein. There can be a slight neck bend over the leading leg, particularly with young horses, to help them balance. As the horse progresses, the neck should be as straight as possible. The hindquarters should remain straight so the horse is able to push through from behind efficiently. If there is too much swing in or out from the hindquarters, the horse won’t be able to sit and push as well as if it is straight.

    4. You can then change the rein and perform the exercise on the right rein. It’s important to ensure that you perform the same exercises on both reins to keep the horse equal and straight through his body.

    Tips and pitfalls

    • Breaking into trot, changing the canter lead and swinging the quarters in or out are all signs that the horse isn’t balanced, so consider a shallower loop or revisiting the exercise when the horse’s balance is more established.
    • Always keep the loops shallow to begin with and build up the difficulty gradually as the horse progresses.
    • The horse should remain up in the poll and straight through their body in the counter-canter.

    Additional reporting by freelance writer Stephanie Bateman.

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