Counter canter is beneficial to your horse’s training because it develops straightness and collection and it ultimately improves the true canter. Due to the nature of canter, there is always a leading leg and the horse is always naturally positioned slightly through his body toward that leading leg, which defines the “inside” of the horse. So, in canter, there is always an inside and an outside. That inside hind leg naturally carries more weight because it steps farther under the horse’s body, toward the center of gravity.
In counter canter, the focus is on helping the outside hind leg to step up under the horse’s body, thereby encouraging it to carry more weight and be better able to properly propel the horse forward in a good balance. The rider’s half halts on the outside help to equalize the weight-bearing of the horse’s hind legs. In the process, the horse’s body straightens and closes. Counter canter is one of the few exercises that allows the rider to activate and engage the outside hind so directly.
Finding the Feel
The counter canter should feel exactly like a quality collected true canter: balanced, easy to sit and with an uphill tendency. Because the horse is well balanced, he enables the rider’s position to be correct; that is, the rider’s inside seat bone on the leading side is slightly lower and the horse elastically fills up the outside rein. In this situation, your horse is very receptive to half halts and his shoulders are maneuverable so you can straighten and surround your horse quite precisely with your aids.
When you ride down the long side in counter canter on a straight line, you, of course, ride it the same way you would ride a true canter. But as you approach the corner or go onto a circle, you need to displace the shoulders to the inside and the haunches need to follow the track of the shoulders. As I begin the turn, I think of renvers, displacing the shoulders to the inside of the arena so my horse doesn’t feel like he’s going to go straight out of the arena. But, unlike in renvers, you keep your horse straight and aligned; that is, his body stays aligned with the shoulders in front of the hips and the neck stays centered as it comes out of the shoulders. This is especially important because all the while the horse’s hind legs must be in line with the front legs so that he continues to track straight.
In counter canter, the horse not only must be in front of your inside leg, he must also respond correctly to the outside leg. That is, he should go straight forward from the outside leg aid instead of swinging his haunches away from it. A common rider problem is the inclination to push the hindquarters of the horse away from the outside leg. As a result, the hind legs are displaced toward the outside of the arena instead of the shoulders being moved to the inside. To counteract that tendency, you want to be conscious and make certain that your horse goes forward from your outside leg aid. When he’s in front of the outside leg, he pushes well off his own outside leg and tracks straight. For example, if you’re tracking left in right-lead canter, you want to be sure he pushes forward rather than sideways from your left leg. Your horse must stay aligned so your outside (left) half halt goes through to his outside hind leg.
As in the true canter, the inside leg should be on the girth and the outside behind the girth. Make sure your horse is supple on the inside rein, allowing you to stretch and elastically fill up the outside rein. Then you will be able to use it and lead the shoulders in the new direction as needed. Here are some of my favorite counter-canter exercises. Normally I repeat any exercise three times to help my horse understand.
Exercise 1: Introducing the Counter Canter
Initially, I simply want my horse to understand that he should maintain the canter lead through a change of direction. As in teaching all movements, it’s very important to let the horse have a comfort level, so I choose lines that take me to the new direction easily and give me ample time to return to the direction of the true lead. You want your horse to maintain a basic balance and feel comfortable with coordinating the movement.
Try this movement from Second Level, Test 2:
1. Track left in true canter and ride down the long side from H to K.
2. At K, do a half 10-meter circle and return to the track at E.
3. At S, do a half 20-meter circle to R in counter canter.
4. The test requires that you do a simple change at B, but you can change across the diagonal and repeat. Then do it in the other direction.
Exercise 2: The Importance of the Outside Leg Aid
Try this exercise fairly early in your horse’s counter-canter training because it teaches the basic ingredients—especially the importance of the outside
1. Track left in true canter and ride down the long side from H to K.
2. Go through the corner at K and transition to walk.
3. Halt 1 meter past the first quarterline, keeping your horse’s positioning to the left.
4. Do a large turn on the haunches on an arc around the corner, taking you to K. This turn on the haunches is done on such a big arc that it has a half-pass feel to it, so you might call it a hybrid of turn on the haunches and half pass.
5. At K, keep the positioning to the left and pick up left-lead canter.
6. Next, you have two options: Change rein from E to M and repeat the exercise. Or if your horse is more developed, continue with the counter canter down the long side and through the short side, Change rein from M to V and repeat the exercise.
Exercise 3: Help the Horse Understand the Half Halt
This exercise helps the horse understand the half halt. It also helps him understand the correct response to the outside leg and it confirms the horse is in front of the inside leg. The shoulders must stay in front of the haunches.
1. Track left in right-lead canter (counter canter) down the long side toward M.
2. Ride the line from M toward H. At G, halt through the walk. (If your horse is truly an FEI horse, you can go directly from counter canter to walk–halt.)
3. Retaining the horse’s positioning to the right, do a full pass sideways to C. Keep your horse’s right positioning. This full pass teaches the horse obedience to the outside leg and keeps him in front of the inside leg.
4. At C, rein-back from the left rein approximately a horse’s length, or 3 to 4 steps. For this, the energy has to track directly back on the left side, which is technically the outside.
5. Pick up the right-lead counter canter again and repeat the exercise at the other end of the arena.
In the rein-back the energy should track directly back on the outside, enabling a good transition to right-lead canter.
Exercise 4: Improve Pirouettes with Half Pass and Counter Canter
Horses often pirouette better from the counter canter. Ride this exercise and you will find that combining half pass with counter canter will be beneficial to both and will help your pirouettes.
1. Track left and pick up true canter.
2. Ride through the beginning of the short side and turn down the second quarterline.
3. Half pass to the other quarterline and then go straight toward the short side.
4. Turn right and go straight down the next quarterline, parallel to the long side.
5. Ride a travers, keeping the front legs on the quarterline and the haunches displaced to the left.
6. Then collect the horse toward a pirouette. How much you collect will depend on your horse’s ability.
7. Then straighten your horse.
8. Next, you have two options: You can come down the next quarterline, still tracking right, and repeat the travers and the pirouette canter or do the exercise in the other direction.
The more accomplished your horse is, the easier the counter canter will be for him. Incorporating other movements in the work will help: turns on the haunches or pirouettes in walk, 8- and 10-meter voltes, playing with transitions within the gait. Try renvers and travers in walk. Horses become more responsive after doing these exercises. When you focus on your ability to develop your horse’s responsiveness, counter canter will help collect your horse easily.
Before I introduce counter canter, I want to be sure my horse is correctly on the outside rein and well established in walk–canter and canter–walk transitions. The upward transition from walk to canter helps the horse understand the placement of the aids in relation to the lead he is asked to take. That is, the horse understands that the rider’s outside leg tells him which lead and the inside leg tells him to go forward. Together, the horse learns to go forward into the desired lead. The downward transition from canter to walk is valuable because it teaches the horse to understand half halts and gives him the ability to shift weight back to the hindquarters, which improves the carrying power. Before asking for counter canter, horses need to have this basic understanding of and ability to collect. Then the counter canter can be used to increase the quality of the collection.
Counter Canter in Fourth Level, Test 3
One reason I thought counter canter would be a good topic for this article is that the new Fourth Level, Test 3 incorporates the old Prix St. Georges movement in which the horse is required to do a 10-meter half circle in collected canter and then a 10-meter counter canter half circle. This movement reminds us of the value of using voltes in canter work. To do it well, your horse’s shoulders must be maneuverable to the new direction and the haunches must be directly behind the shoulders. Your horse must demonstrate straightness on the centerline. This movement, when done well, improves the degree of collection.
1. At C, pick up a true collected canter on the right lead.
2. R–I half 10-meter circle,
3. I–S half 10-meter circle in counter canter with flying change at E,
4. V–L half 10-meter circle,
5. L–P half 10-meter circle in counter canter and flying change at F.
VIDEO: Counter Canter Basics
VIDEO: Exercises to Improve the Counter Canter
George Williams is an international dressage competitor whose career highlights with Chuck and Joann Smith’s Grand Prix mare, Rocher, include numerous championships. Williams trained in Germany at the Reitinstitute von Neindorff and with the Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol. Williams was a resident trainer and rider alongside Karl Mikolka at Tempel Farms, in Wadsworth, Illinois, for 20 years. He is currently president of the USDF, a member of the USEF Dressage Committee, Chair of the USEF High Performance Eligible Athlete Committee, member of the USEF High Performance Dressage Committee and USEF National Youth Coach. He and his wife, Roberta, operate Williams Dressage, LLC, with their daughter, Noel.