Counter canter…what’s the point? Part 1

Wrong lead, re-position, relaunch.  It’s the two-strides-forward, one-stride-back process of learning leads for riders and their horses.

Fast forward a year down the road to see the same rider who once dreaded her coach’s “Wrong lead! “ now initiating the wrong lead …on purpose. Why?

She’s discovered the counter canter as an essential tool in building a solid training foundation for her horse.

What’s the point of counter-cantering?  Here are five:

  1. Rider education.  In years of coaching, I’ve seen it over and over – once a rider gets the hang of  the counter canter, a light bulb goes on.  They graduate from elementary to high school in their grasp of leads and balance. You will too. It’s a huge step toward developing that elusive horseman’s term – feel. It’s the ability to distinguish one lead from another without looking;  an awareness for not only what feels right, but what feels wrong.  By mastering the counter canter, you’ll become a whizz at  controlling your horse’s hips and shoulders independently.
  2. Horse education. Many horses are taught leads in relation to direction of travel – routinely picking up the inside lead as they travel around the rail. Instead, I want the horses I ride to know their leads in relation to the way I position their bodies.  I should be able to strike off on either lead, on a straight or curved line, anywhere in the arena’s geometry. The counter canter is a nifty balancing exercise – the horse learns, after a few sessions of awkwardness, to develop straightness, coordination and self-carriage.  Counter canter is a logical, lower-stress step for your horse in his flying change education than defaulting to an abrupt change of direction to teach a lead change.
  • Preparation for the show ring. Counter canter is often asked for in a pattern or test.
  • Avoid score sheet penalties.  Wrong leads – whatever your riding discipline, this misstep is a biggie. Under AQHA rules, for instance, merely 1 or 2 strides on the wrong lead will cost you a major 5-point deduction in horsemanship or equitation.  Another 5-point penalty is knocked off for noticeably looking down to check your lead. In trail, western riding and ranch riding classes, even a “hiccup” onto the wrong lead is a 3-point penalty.
  • Warm-up ring navigation.  When my horse is balanced and confident on the inside or outside lead, I’m not dependent on the direction of travel to practice cantering on my lead of choice at a show. I can cruise around on the counter lead if necessary without interrupting the traffic flow and inconveniencing other riders.