Wrong lead!” The coach calls out and the rider deflates. Fast forward a year down the road to see the same rider initiating the wrong lead…on purpose. Why? She’s discovered the counter canter as an essential tool in building a solid training foundation. Here’s a list its benefits:

1. Rider education. Over and over, I see a connection once riders master the counter canter – a light bulb goes on. They graduate from elementary to high school in their understanding of leads and balance. Once you get it, you will gain an awareness of not only what feels right, but what feels wrong. And you’ll acquire independent control of your horse’s hips and shoulders.

2. Preparation for the show ring. Counter canter is often asked for in patterns or tests.

3. Horse’s education. Many horses are taught leads in relation to direction of travel (eg. always picking up the inside lead as we 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 pick up either lead, on a straight or curved line, anywhere in the arena – “ring geometry,” I call it. The counter canter is a nifty balancing exercise; the horse learns, after a few sessions of awkwardness, to develop straightness, coordination and self-carriage.

4. Avoid scoring penalties. Wrong leads in any riding discipline are a big misstep. Under AQHA rules, for instance, merely one or two strides on the wrong lead will cost you a “major” 10-point deduction in horsemanship or equitation. You’ll get a “minor” five-point penalty for noticeably looking down to check your lead. In several other classes, even a “hiccup” onto the wrong lead is a three-point penalty.

5. Warm-up ring bonus. When I can navigate the practice arena on either lead, I’m not dependent on the direction of travel to train the canter lead I wish at a show. I can cruise around on the counter lead if necessary and not inconvenience other riders.

6. A building block for the flying change. More on those in the next issue…

How To do It

Establish independent control of the hips and shoulders first. Turns on the forehand and haunches, shoulder-in and haunches-in are the phonics for building the language of counter canter. At the canter, including all lateral work at the canter, I use my inside leg at the girth, and my outside leg behind the girth, careful to make a distinction of six inches between these two leg positions, and thus, between the parts of the horse I want to move. In counter canter, these positions will be reversed.

Keep the horse straight. Establish the outside lead on a straight line for a few strides before attempting your first “counter turn.” We’re inclined to pull on the inside rein to guide the horse around a circle. Doing so at the counter canter allows the horse’s shoulder to bulge to the outside and is guaranteed to motivate the horse to trot to change leads. Keep your horse straight with a direct outside rein, guiding his shoulders around the circle with your outside leg at the girth and, if necessary, an inside opening rein.

Start small. Pick up the outside lead on a straight line and then ask your horse for just two or three little counter canter turns. For example, traveling around the arena, begin a couple metres from the track. This will help if your horse is inclined to assume, “I always pick up the left lead when the fence is on my right.” Go straight for several strides, then open your left rein, keeping your right rein straight, and angle the next stride slightly to the left. Release after that little turn and lope straight for another two or three strides, before asking for another turn.

Think geometrically. I picture guiding the horse around an octagon shape instead of a circle, comprised of little mini turns. As my horse responds to each little corner, I relax my aids momentarily to give him a “yes.” Initially, your horse is likely to be flustered being asked to lope around on the wrong lead. It’s amazing how a momentary release after every little turn assures your horse he got the right answer!

Counter canter was requested at a recent horse show I attended. Some riders groaned, others looked panicky, and some just blustered right into it. Those who had done their homework struck off on the outside lead, managing each turn in a picture of calm and balance. With practice, you too can be confident on the lead of your choosing.