You have finally managed to truly be able to dictate what lead your horse strikes off with in canter each time. The shouts of ‘Wrong Leg’ following you around the arena are a thing of the past… However, now everything you have learned is being turned a little on its head when you realise that sometimes, you can indeed canter on the ‘wrong leg’!
Cantering is fantastic and when we are learning how to canter we tend to become a little obsessive about being ‘on the correct lead’, which is drummed into us as being the inside leg. So, it goes without saying that the potential to get more than a little confused when counter canter is first introduced is quite high for most riders!
So why do we bother with counter canter? Counter canter is a great way to increase your horse’s balance and suppleness, while also giving both his brain and his body a great workout. The counter canter will also help to maintain a level of discipline and responsiveness to your aids, as you are asking for your horse to not just assume what must happen (such as a flying change or a change of lead) but to rather wait for your instructions and then follow them. It is also a great way to increase collection in the canter through the use of the half halt.
However it is really important to first make sure that your horse is indeed ready for the counter canter. Being ready will entail being able to ride a balanced canter and also being able to change gears within the canter to some degree. So, shortening and lengthening the stride in canter. Of course, it also involves moving forward off your leg and a certain level of self carriage in your horse, as you ideally want him to lighten the front end while performing the counter canter.
Another factor which can have a big influence over the success of the movement is how the rider perceives ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ when riding their horse. We are generally thought at the beginning of our training that the inside is the side closest to the middle of the arena or circle, therefore making the outside being the side closest to the rail.
However, as our knowledge and understand of riding grows, remember to ‘update’ this thinking with the true meaning – the inside and outside is dictated by the flexion of your horse. So with counter canter, the inside is the side that is leading the canter, the leading front leg of the canter.
The other extremely important prerequisite is straightness, both through the canter itself, but also in the transitions both in and out of the canter.
Very often, we riders tend to get a little carried away with the concept of our ‘inside leg’, particularly in the canter. It can often be to the point where our horses are essential doing travers or haunches in as they canter. I think this is due to riders hearing all the time that the horse must be ‘bent around’ the inside leg’. I find that thinking of your inside leg as being more of a ‘wall’ that keeps your horse going in the direction you want is more helpful. Then using your outside rein as the second wall, will help you remember to keep your horse straight between the two. Yes, there is a slight flexion to the inside, but your horse’s back-end and front end must continue on the same track.
Therefore your horse’s responsiveness and understanding of your aids and what you are asking is also vitally important. Particularly the fact that he must not always move away from your outside leg. In the counter canter, you will ask him to place a little more of his weight on his outside hind leg, and you will use your outside leg to ask for this increased engagement. If your horse only knows your outside leg to mean he must move away or over, he will begin curling his hindquarters away from your leg, rather than maintaining the straightness you desire and using his outside hind leg to create the energy required to keep the balance and rhythm in the canter.
The reason I mention this here is because very often when a rider is riding counter canter, the hind quarters are being forced out rather than maintaining the track the front end has created. Let’s say you are tracking right, and riding counter canter (so cantering on the left lead). Your horses hind quarters must not swing out more to the left as your round the bend to the right, they must rather continue to follow the shoulders, which will create a path and an arc on the circle or track you have chosen.
So assuming your horse is capable of all the above, you can begin thinking about counter canter. I like to first introduce the concept from walk to canter on the long side of the arena. The reason is, if you have not asked for counter canter previously, your horse will be so used to the true canter, that he may quickly become confused and frustrated by the rules suddenly being changed.
Begin by testing your horses responsiveness to your aids. As you are warming up your horse and then beginning to work him, use your half halts to begin engaging him a little more, both his body and his attention. Ask for circles and turns, on both reins to loosen him up and also, tune in his responsiveness to your inside leg.
In the canter itself, ask for transitions (lengthening and shortening) within the canter. As you canter, begin to collect things up a little more. Remember, when you are collecting your horse must continue to move forward. Ride the ‘can – ter’ ‘can – ter’ ‘can – ter’. Test if you can maintain forwardness, rhythm, balance and straightness while doing so.
When you are sure that your horse is responsive and carrying himself sufficiently, ask for walk down one of the long sides of the school, however about 2 meters from the outside track. The reason I say this is because very often our horses associate the outside track with cantering on the correct or true lead. Your aim here is to have him listening to you and also in the frame of mind that ‘anything is possible’. Before you reach the middle of the long side (E or B if your arena is marked) ask for the walk to counter canter transition.
You may find that your horse gets a little confused initially – he may not be quite sure where to put his legs and may even do a flying change one or two strides into the canter. If the transition is less than great, bring him back to walk, circle around and repeat the process, but this time adding a few more half halts before hand, so your horse is really paying attention.
Once he is in counter canter, allow him to canter on and round the bend in a large arc. Do not try to ride into the corners or to make a small curve or semicircle. Try to maintain the ‘can – ter’ ‘can – ter’ ‘can – ter’ and also, try to keep the hind legs in line with the shoulders as you are riding. I find that focusing on the ‘channel’ between the inside leg and the outside rein often helps with this.
When you have ridden a semicircle or half circle in the counter canter and are on the other long side of the arena, bring him back to walk. Use your time in the walk to assess how the counter canter went;
- Was the rhythm maintained throughout?
- Did the canter continue to move forward or did it get a little sticky in places?
- Was your horse straight through the shoulders and hind quarters?
- Did he respond to your aids and then wait your further instruction?
When you and your horse are confident riding the counter canter in larger shapes you can then begin to ask for more difficult turns as well as moving into counter canter by changing the rein in canter but not changing the leg.
Movements such as serpentines, where I would initially suggest a 2 looped serpentine, and shallow loops can be incorporated into your schooling session. Also look out for any stiffness on one side or the other and work towards loosening and then developing your horse slowly over time, so he can perform the movement to the same degree on both sides.
The counter canter can seem confusing to both horse and rider which is why I again stress the importance of making sure your horse is ready for it before you introduce it.
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