How to Counter-Canter

How to Counter-Canter

Improve your body position at the counter-canter and troubleshoot your horse’s balance, collection and flexibility.

sorrel horse and youth rider perform a counter canter (Credit: Rachel Griffin)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Director of Judges Patti Carter

Note: This article from the Journal archives was written in 2006, before Patti Carter accepted her new responsibilities as AQHA's director of shows.

What "Counter-Canter" Mean?

The counter-canter is a balanced lope (or canter) on one lead while the horse is traveling in a curve in the opposite direction. There should be no change in rhythm or stride, and the horse should be bent toward the lead, not the curve.    

For the basic counter-canter, he’ll have flexion in the direction of the lead. If he’s on the left lead, he’ll flex or bend to the left. In a counter-canter, you want the horse to maintain that flexion in the direction of the lead, while traveling in the opposite direction.    

So, if he’s on the left lead and you come around into a counter-canter, your horse is going to flex left even though he’s following a line of travel to the right.

You want to work through the counter-canter until, eventually, the horse is strong enough to honor flexion in the direction of the lead as well as counter-flexion (a higher degree of difficulty) and maintain rhythm.

It’s very different from being on the wrong lead. When a horse is on a wrong lead, he’s on the forehand, pulling himself along, and his hocks are out behind him. He’s not engaged, travels unevenly in the body and lacks rhythm. He’s heavy in the rider’s hands and doesn’t have balance.    

A proper counter-canter is a held lead where the horse is engaged and balanced. He’s up in the shoulders, the hocks come up underneath the body, and the horse has rhythm. He’s light in the reins.    

The purpose of a counter-canter is to strengthen the horse on the outside aids. The horse has to honor your outside aids to do it correctly.    

It also increases the workload of the back end of the horse, in the hocks and loins, leading to more muscle tone. It improves cadence and flexibility and leads to greater collection and balance.    

You can also use it to prepare for lead changes.    

A horse has to be engaged and have impulsion to be able to execute this exercise correctly. He has to be up in the middle of the body through the seat and leg, not leaning on the bit.    

It’s neither an English nor a western exercise. It’s a classic exercise that makes your horse strong and balanced and more broke. I do it to introduce lead changes for western riding. You could be asked to do it in horsemanship or equitation patterns.    

It’s just one more exercise to get your horse trained and test him to see how responsive he is.    

Troubleshooting the Counter-Canter

The counter-canter shouldn’t be a part of your riding program until your horse has already developed some degree of self-carriage and collection. A counter-canter should not be attempted until your horse is adjustable at the canter – he can increase and decrease speed within the gait. Unless he has that, it will be hard to do this exercise.    

Counter-cantering can help your horse develop a strong hind end and gain a greater degree of flexibility and collection. It will also let you know how well your horse obeys your outside aids and how straight you are sitting.    

Before you attempt the counter-canter, it’s very important to give your horse an educated warm-up. Your horse needs to be loose and moving forward. It could be part of the end of your warm-up but never the beginning.

Body Position for Riding the Counter-Canter

As the rider, it’s important that you have correct position for this exercise.    

You need to be even in the saddle. Your inside leg will remind the horse about the bend and provide impulsion. Your outside leg – your “asking leg” – will keep him on the lead. It will be an effective, controlling leg, and it should come back from your seat bones. The horse has to honor that leg.    

If you are riding with spurs, your horse needs to honor your seat and leg before you go to your spur.    

Your shoulders should be in line with your horse’s shoulders. Your hands will be in the imaginary box in front of the saddle horn. The inside rein should be slightly higher. The outside rein will reinforce the leg aid; it will also remind your horse to stay in frame.    

Your eyes will follow the line of travel. By looking where you go, your body should take the correct alignment.    

In this exercise it’s important to be as strong, consistent and correct as possible in your seat and upper body; you don’t want to “collapse.”    

Need to go back to basics on riding body position? Read this guide to body position. 

Counter-Canter Exercise

Make sure that you have a large enough area to work in: the larger the area, the easier it is to introduce this exercise. Make your direction change gradual. If your horse has never done a counter-canter and the maneuver is not done gradually, he’ll just swap leads or cross-canter or become unbalanced and break gait. He won’t understand what you are asking him to do; you need to make it clear and build his trust.    

I have riders start on a correct lead and do a large circle, say, to the left, on one end of the working area. Then flatten the circle out and come across on a long diagonal, so the horse is on a straight line, still in the left lead. Then make a large half circle to the right, still maintaining the left lead. Keep the horse on the counter-canter for just a half circle, making an ice cream cone shape. Then come back to another straight line diagonal and back on to a circle on the correct lead.    

In this exercise, you challenge the horse and then give him a reward. You introduce a little at a time. Even though he’s only making a half circle on a counter-canter, it’s a very demanding exercise.    

When he’s able to take that left lead, flatten it out, then hold the counter-canter through the half circle, and do all that while maintaining rhythm and cadence, so it feels comfortable to the horse – then you can add more of a circle to the counter-canter. Make the half circle into three quarters of a circle, then a full circle. Remember to use your eyes.    

Be sure to practice the counter-canter on both leads.    

Is your horse swapping leads in a counter-canter?

If your horse breaks gait or swaps leads, the problem could be a number of things:    

  1. Your area might not be large enough. Go back to getting your horse straight and then try larger half circles in the exercise.
  2. Your horse might not be honoring your outside leg aid. He’s pushing into your leg as opposed to standing up on it and staying on the lead you’re asking for. In that case, try practicing some lateral movements in both directions, such as a two-track or sidepass. When you can apply the outside aids and can keep the horse straight, the horse is moving freely off that outside leg and rein. Then try the counter-canter again.
  3. Your horse might not be strong enough or have enough self-carriage and collection to do it yet. You might need to continue working on strengthening him. Here are some of our favorite exercises for developing self-carriage