Counter Canter for Strength

You might think a counter canter is simply “loping on the wrong lead,” but that’s not correct. A horse on the incorrect lead isn’t necessarily collected, doesn’t engage his hindquarters, and pulls himself along his path of travel. A horse working on the counter canter keeps his hocks underneath himself, holds his shoulders up and square, and travels rhythmically, just as he would if he were loping on the proper lead for the arc he’s traveling.

There is, for both you and your horse, proper body position when counter cantering. A counter canter is not simply being on the wrong lead going in the wrong direction. You will gain greater body control, achieve more roundness in your horse’s body and improve collection. Done correctly comes at a cost…be prepared to use your body position and your legs to get your horse to lope lifted and rounded whilst loping on the counter canter – you won’t be there just for the ride, you will need to work .

A correct counter canter should be in every-body’s tool box when training your horse and preparing them for competition. You should know it’s about gaining more “openess” in your horse’s shoulders and hips, it is one of the very best exercises to show your horse how to gain length of stride and more “air time” (the time spent in the air and not on the ground – that would be “ground time”). Not only is it a great tool for improving your horse’s movement, it is also called for in horsemanship classes to test you in your skills.

Let’s then break it down

Working with the shoulder to begin with.

Working a circle to the right in this instance but be sure to perform the same exercises to the left, as well. If your horse (and usually every horse does) have a “bad” or weaker side, I would work on the “good” side simply to explain the exercise to your horse if you have never attempted the counter canter with him before. After a few days of starting the exercise with your horse’s good side, begin to switch over to his weaker side. Beginning your daily workout on your horse’s weaker side for a time will

1. Gain more strength in your horse’s lope on his weaker side without too much pressure and strain on those weaker muscles. Tip: I find if you leave a weak side to last you tend to want to stay on that side a hell of a lot longer than you should. This puts more strain on your horse and yourself. It can lead to an argument which, in time, leads to a sourness in your horse which can appear at the very time you don’t want it to, for example in a horsemanship class, under the eyes of a judge, the tail might get a wind up or he might show disobedience with pinning his ears or both!


2. Beginning on your horse’s weakest side first will ensure you are both fresh, strong and able to concentrate on having the lesson understood by your horse. You know you have another side to work before you finish for the day so you don’t tend to overwork that weak side for too long. Just be sure to finish off on a good note even if that has to be a tiny, little good note. As long as you get something that is correct and you are happy with, reward your horse and get on to working his better side.

I would ride with a snaffle bit for this exercise and two hands, makes it a bit easier to manoeuver.

  1. Lope off on a circle to the right with your horse on the left lead (the counter lead). If you can’t keep your horse on the left lead by starting off like this try starting off on the left lead, loping off in a left circle, which will be normal for your horse. Loping off in your circle working on a fairly decent size circle as it will be easier on your horse if you keep it large for now about a 60-foot circle. Turn your large circle into a figure 8, stay in your left lead lope, once you get to the centre of your figure 8 make sure you give some extra cueing and support to your horse to keep your horse in this now counter lead – loping now to the right but staying on the left lead. Tip: The smaller and the slower you try to counter canter on an inexperienced horse the more likely your horse is to break to a trot (maybe even flying lead change) to put himself back on the correct lead. If your horse wants to swap back to the correct lead, his body position isn’t correct, and he isn’t engaged enough. Use plenty of outside leg to create impulsion and forward motion. Remember, it’s about teaching your horse to counter canter, it’s not about a slow lope at this stage, get some forward motion, the slowness will come naturally when your horse is strong enough to go slow.
  2. Ideally, don’t work on the rail at all, once you have done a couple of right circles on the left lead then you can go to the rail to allow your horse to relax once he’s performed the manoeuver correctly.
  3. Position is key in this exercise. To do this, tip his nose to the inside (right) with your inside rein. Support his outside shoulder with your outside rein, held slightly higher than your inside hand. Make sure you are using your inside (right) leg on your horse, just on the girth
  4. Loping on the left lead traveling to the right makes your horse shift his weight off his lead leg and onto his off legs, which means he’s freer to reach with that lead shoulder and leg. This position increases your horse’s air time, which is the duration the lead leg spends in the air, versus the time it spends on the ground.
  5. You should be able to feel your horse’s lead leg extend more, reaching for the ground, you may even be able to see his lead leg reaching in front of his left shoulder. Shortening your inside rein helps keep your horse’s shoulders upright while getting his weight back onto his hocks, which means he’ll have greater impulsion from behind.
  6. When you can feel this happen for a few correct strides, remove all pressure take your legs off your horse’s sides and lower your hands. Here I would reward your horse with a correct lead circle for one or two rounds. So, stay on the left lead turning your right circle into another figure 8, once in the centre of your “8” sweep your horse onto a left lead circle and let him relax into a correct lead circle.

Work on opening your horse’s hips to get greater drive from behind.

Achieving better collection. Opening his hips will give your horse more reach underneath with the hind leg.

An over-canted horse has to bob his head up and down when in the lope because he no longer has balance and has lost cadence and top-line. To me, he is no longer correct.

  1. Opening the hip will require the riders position to be opposite from opening the shoulder. Slightly tip your horse’s nose toward the lead leg (outside the circle) to push his shoulders into the circle. Place your inside-leg pressure behind the girth to slightly set the inside hip to the outside of the circle. Over-canting changes a horse’s movement and rhythm for the worse, so be sure to balance all hip work with shoulder work to ensure that your horse remains balanced in his stride. Tip: I like to finish off the day with some shoulder work to balance out over-canting. Many riders are so intent on getting the big split behind that they omit correcting the “crab” or over-cant by going back and balancing it all out with shoulder work. An over-canted horse has to bob his head up and down when in the lope because he no longer has balance and has lost cadence and top-line. To me, he is no longer correct.
  2. Now you can change from working the hip to working the shoulder to keep your horse balanced with a rounded back to achieve greater collection. When he will- ingly completes a few strides with his hips open in this position, lope him over to the rail, making sure you pick the correct direction of travel for the correct lead. If you’re working on a right circle with a left lead, come out of that circle at a lope, changing now to the left direction, begin to travel down the rail (to the left) release your rein and leg pressure just enough to reward your horse’s correct response while still loping along the rail on a nice, loose rein. When you have gone along the rail in “show mode” for approximately 8 or 10 strides stop, back up a couple of strides, reward your horse with a pat on the neck. You’ve both done well!

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I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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