The magic of counter canter

Finn practicing counter canter

Finn practicing counter canter. My position is less than ideal with my heel up and my hands a bit braced and flat, but note that because we are in counter canter (left lead), so my right leg is maintaining the bend by being behind the girth, and Finn has a slight bend to the outside of our 20 meter circle.

Who would have thought that counter canter would turn out to be my favorite exercise?

I thought I had left it behind and would only revisit occasionally, but lately I find I’m using it almost every day. Counter canter is the Swiss Army Knife of exercises! It balances and strengthens the horse in a way that seems so much easier for both of us. A quick definition: counter canter is cantering on the “outside” lead. So, if I am circling to the right, my horse would be on the left lead. This requires strength and balance and is a good test of obedience, too. (Note: Finn is in counter canter on a 20 meter circle in all these pictures, even though it may be hard for you to see which lead he is on. These are screen shots from a video and he was on the LEFT lead on a RIGHT circle.)

A month ago I was struggling with counter canter. Finn and I are beginning to show Fourth Level dressage this year, but…4th level test 3 has 10 meter counter canter half circles which were our undoing. The rest of the test – not too bad – the counter canter exercise: hopeless. Which is ridiculous.

Finn is small, well-balanced, athletic, strong, and trained. There was no reason we should be struggling so much with 10 m counter canter circles. Nonetheless, we just couldn’t get it.

Smart girl that I am, I asked for help. I had a clinic scheduled with eventer Matt Brown (, and in about one minute, Matt had identified the problem: ME. Oh big surprise. I was working way too hard (as usual) trying to hold Finn in position and on the counter lead, since Finn’s usual evasion is to do a flying change onto the other lead.

I felt I had to manhandle him onto that counter lead and carry him around the circle lest he change out of the lead. Wasn’t working well. We both were tense and stiff and it wasn’t pretty.

Matt had me pick up the counter canter on a 20 meter circle, and just relax, relax, relax. Relax my seat, my leg, my hands. Finn changed leads. O.k., walk, pick up the counter lead again. Now relax. Six strides later, Finn changed leads. O.k., walk, pick up the outside lead again. Relax, and canter. Within about a minute, Finn realized that he was going to have to stay on that outside lead or keep picking it up from the walk (gee, that’s a lot of work!), but that counter canter wasn’t going to be hard, I wasn’t going to push him, we were just going to softly canter around together. Amazingly, he began to balance on his own (you mean, I didn’t have to carry him? Nope). Sometimes he switched leads, sometimes he broke to the trot. I just picked up the outside lead again, from the walk, very calmly and in a relaxed manner. I had to let him figure out the balance and make his own mistakes, rather than trying to fix it all for him and muscle him through it.  We began the counter canter all strung out and on the forehand. We ended nicely balanced and jumping off the hindquarters, able to canter a smaller circle with balance. Hallelujah!

See how the "jump" improves with the counter canter?

See how the “jump” improves with the counter canter?

We’re still working on it, but what a difference. The counter counter improves the regular canter, too! I find if I do counter canter early in our work session, the rest of the canter work is better balanced, less strung out, and has more jump. It’s as though the counter canter on a circle fixes everything for me without me having to do any pushing or pulling (which I shouldn’t be doing anyway). I just guide him onto the circle and sit in a relaxed, following seat, keeping the impulsion and roundness, but not doing a whole lot more. I aim for the feeling that Finn is doing pushups with his hindquarters. That’s the strength building exercise I want. Recognize that this does take strength and don’t overdo it at first. Give frequent walk breaks and build up to it slowly, as you would any new exercise.

Struggling a little with balance here, but look at how he is coming under himself! Doing pushups with those hindquarters.

Struggling a little with balance here, but look at how he is coming under himself. Doing pushups with those hindquarters.

This works with less advanced horses, too. I tried it on Ellie, who is currently schooling at 1st Level, and it worked beautifully. Ellie sometimes struggles to find balance on the left lead. I thought left counter canter would be very difficult for her, but to my amazement, she found it very easy! In fact, her left counter canter was much better than her regular left canter. Something about the counter canter circle straightened her and helped her to get her hind legs under her more effectively. So my latest exercise for her is to do a couple of large counter canter circles, then canter out of it into a regular circle – trying to maintain the rhythm and quality of the canter – then back to the counter canter circle, and so on. Counter canter is my new GO TO exercise, along with shoulder-in, which I do all day long…

Happy (counter) cantering!