A First Look at Counter Canter

Learn the basics of this challenging test of First Level skills.

Credit: Beth Baumert To ride the counter canter well, one must understand that it is a balanced canter performed on the outside lead. This means that if the horse is tracking right, the rider purposefully asks him to canter on the left lead.

As the journey through First Level nears its end, one of the most challenging movements awaits—the counter canter. But the hope of success will come from the preparation that First Level has given the horse and rider for this challenging test.


The counter canter is a true test of the purpose of First Level. The horse must have developed enough thrust to perform the counter canter with throughness and balance while maintaining a soft connection. To ride the counter canter well, one must understand that it is a balanced canter performed on the outside lead. This means that if the horse is tracking right, the rider purposefully asks the horse to canter on the left lead.

There is a distinct difference between a horse cantering on the wrong lead and a horse who is in a balanced counter canter. A horse who is cantering on the wrong lead has typically done so out of stiffness or a weakness on one side. When watching a horse canter on the wrong lead, it looks as though the horse is falling over his outside shoulder (the outside refers to the shoulder on the opposite side of the leading leg) and is frequently strung out. 

A horse in a balanced counter canter is straight, engaged and maintains a soft connection. A correct counter canter has several benefits. It can be used to improve the quality of the canter, the connection with the outside rein and the horse’s ability to learn collection.

The Purpose of First Level: Remember the First Level purpose as defined by the USDF Rule Book: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics and, in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and to maintain a more consistent contact with the bit.”


Counter canter should not be introduced until the horse is able to stay connected and through in the working canter. The horse should be able to understand and accept a half halt and be able to stay within the circle of aids willingly. It is for these reasons that the counter canter is not introduced until First Level Test 3. Up to this point in the First Level journey, the horse has been developing his aptitude for these qualities and should now be prepared for the introduction to the counter canter.

By now, the rider should have the necessary skills to confidently coordinate the aids for counter canter. The rider should also have developed enough feel for the correct balance of the horse. This means that she is able to recognize the origin of stiffness in the horse and have basic tools to address it. The feel for the horse’s balance will be crucial for developing a balanced, connected and supple counter canter. First Level Tests 1 and 2 have challenged the rider’s feel for these requirements through the repeated testing of throughness with balance in half 10-meter circles, leg yields and lengthenings.

The Basics

When riding the counter canter, the rider’s aids must be consistent with the aids for a balanced canter. The basics for this are keeping the outside leg slightly behind the girth, keeping the inside leg at the girth, using the inside rein for flexion and using the outside rein to help maintain straightness. The rider should be balanced over her hip, which shares the same side as the horse’s leading leg (this is considered the inside hip). Her shoulders should be slightly pointed in the direction of the leading leg to help keep the horse balanced in the direction of the leading leg. 

The rider should ride shoulder-fore in the direction of the leading leg when riding the counter canter. Shoulder-fore will help the horse remain soft in his rib cage while maintaining a supple outside rein connection. It will help keep the horse balanced over the inside front leg (or the leading front leg) rather than land with more weight over the outside shoulder. If the horse is putting too much weight onto the outside front leg, he will feel as though he is falling over his outside shoulder and could also be bulging with his rib cage to the outside. One image for understanding this feel is the idea that the shoulders are a balancing scale—when one side is weighted heavier, the horse will lean in that direction.


When attempting counter canter for the first time, it is wise to regularly practice exercises that clarify the circle of aids to the horse, such as those we’ve discussed in previous months: counter-bending figure eight, turn on the forehand and
go forward to come back. These exercises will help set the horse up for success when beginning work in the counter canter. Another beneficial element of counter canter is that it involves some collection. Therefore, using exercises that will help introduce collection will make it easier as the rider begins counter canter. 

The above exercises also reinforce how the horse stays between the aids while keeping the engagement into a half halt. The counter-bending figure eight is helpful for getting the feeling that the horse should stay connected to the outside rein without falling with the outside shoulder. The turn on the forehand will help the horse step into the outside rein without stiffening. Finally, the go-forward-to-come-back exercise helps keep the horse engaged into a soft connection with a thought of how to introduce collection when coming back. 

These exercises, as well as continued work in the counter canter, will move the horse and rider closer to Second Level, which tests collected trot and canter in Second Level Test 1. They also help teach the horse a better understanding for staying connected to the outside rein with more engagement from the hind leg. 

Exercise: 10-Meter Circle to Counter Canter

This exercise introduces a short amount of counter canter without overwhelming either the horse or rider. It gives the rider a good feel for keeping the horse in front of her inside leg to maintain a shoulder-fore position. The horse will be able to come back to a more relaxed and supple feeling after the challenge of the counter canter. When beginning this exercise, remember the purpose of First Level and return to those basics if the horse becomes too tense. 

This exercise asks for a short amount of counter canter followed by a small circle in the direction of the lead, which helps keep the horse balanced.

1. Pick up either the left or right
canter lead.

2. Canter a 10- to 15-meter circle in the direction of the lead from the centerline.

3. After completing the circle, continue forward on half a 20-meter arc in counter canter, maintaining a shoulder-fore position toward the leading leg. 

4. At the end of the 20-meter arc, perform a 10- to 15-meter circle on the centerline in the direction of the lead.

5. Repeat the pattern until your horse stays supple and soft in the connection before performing the same exercise with the other lead. 


When riding this exercise, the rider needs to be sure to keep herself balanced in the direction of the leading leg. This will help the horse remain balanced in the direction of the lead when counter- cantering and prepares him for the circle that follows. The rider should focus on keeping her shoulders square with the horse’s shoulders while maintaining the balance over her inside hip (the hip on the side of the leading leg).

The rider should take care not to bring the horse’s neck too far in the direction of the leading leg. This occurs in an effort to pull the horse toward the leading leg to keep him from swapping leads. When this happens, the horse will lose straightness and alignment of the outside shoulder and may fall to the outside, causing him to stiffen and possibly swap leads or cross canter. To correct this problem, the rider must keep the outside aids connected. At this moment, the rider must think of straightening the horse with the outside aids first and then repositioning into shoulder-fore.

The horse may lean or stiffen on the outside rein when first attempting this exercise. In this moment, the rider can quietly change the flexion to the outside while supporting the horse in the direction of the lead. She must keep her outside leg on so the horse doesn’t lean more to the outside when she softens him on the outside rein. This is also a good correction if the horse loses the outside shoulder.

Utilizing the circle to soften the horse and reestablish relaxation will be important in building his confidence for the counter canter. If the horse is still tense once a full circle has been completed, the rider must take the time to circle again or take a break. It is important not to force the horse to counter canter by continuing the exercise for too long, but rather to build his confidence in small amounts. 

Counter canter is a difficult step toward the next level in dressage, but it is possible with correct preparation. First Level gives the horse and rider many necessary tools for achieving the next step. 

Next month we review the challenges of First Level and how they have prepared us for Second Level.







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