Two Exercises to Perfect the Counter-Canter

Two Exercises to Perfect the Counter-Canter

Oklahoma State University instructors teach exercises to develop the counter-canter at the 2016 AQHA International Horsemanship Camp in Sweden.
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Writing from the Southern coast of Sweden for the 2016 International Horsemanship Camp at Hälldala Ranch in Sweden: We have had a fun-filled four days exploring Malmö, Sweden, visiting the Swedish Southern coast, and, of course, meeting our 29 riders at the International Horsemanship Camp! The OSU instructors and I were also featured in the Swedish newspaper, Ystads Allemande, in which there was an article about the AQHA International Horsemanship Camps.

The Oklahoma State University instructors and I had a fantastic experience at Hälldala Ranch, which is owned and operated by Mats and Inger Larsson. The Larssons' equestrian facility hosts monthly equestrian clinics and soon will have the capacity to host cattle events and large-scale horse shows. Oklahoma State University is led by AQHA Level 1 Judge Dr. Kris Hiney, the OSU Extension horse specialist and assistant professor at OSU. Dr. Hiney was assisted by Natalie Baker, the OSU Equine Center manager; Sarah Schobert, an OSU animal science graduate student and the assistant coach for the OSU Horse Judging Team; and Dee Church, who graduated this May from OSU with a bachelors degree in animal science. Dee Church will be attending Texas Tech University and will be the graduate manager of the Texas Tech University Beef Unit. The 29 riders who attended the horsemanship camp represented the diverse equine interest that the versatile American Quarter Horse offers. The OSU instructors did an excellent job catering to the diverse interests by lecturing on topics ranging from showing specific classes like showmanship, horsemanship, ranch riding and reining, as well as providing information on horse management and training. The riders were interested in learning more advance maneuvers, such as the lead change, so the instructors provided two exercises based on lateral and counter- bending to better prepare the riders' horses for a precise lead change.

Dr. Hiney began Day 1 with a theoretical lecture that emphasized that the horse's riding education must be built on a correct foundation in order to achieve correct advanced maneuvers, such as the lead change.

As Dr. Hiney explained, "You cannot skip any foundational steps when training a horse advanced manuevers."

In lieu of teaching the horse to change leads, the OSU instructors first provided exercises to train and school the counter-canter. The instructors explained that practicing the counter-canter can be beneficial for all horses; whether the horse has a seasoned lead change or you're riding a green horse that is still learning the lead change. Using the counter-canter as a training exercise is a great way to physically develop your horse's self carriage and balance. Ultimately, developing the horse's ability to counter-canter allows the rider to have independent control of the horse's neck, poll, shoulder and hips. Furthermore, the OSU instructors discussed how developing the horse's lateral and counter-bending ability better prepares the horse for counter-cantering and is the training foundation for lead changes. 


The riders began the bending exercises with two hands and learned how to use the direct rein and their leg aids to guide their horse laterally. A direct rein is where the rider applies pressure and direct contact to the horse's mouth with one rein. Most simply, when the rider uses a direct rein, the horse will guide in the direction that the horse is looking toward. First, the instructors told the riders to bend and counter-bend their horse while halted; then the rider should do this exercise at the walk, then progress to the trot and lope.

At the halt, the riders applied pressure through the inside direct rein and asked their horse to give to the rein pressure by bending to the inside to assess their horse's suppleness. The instructors emphasized that the rider must use soft and consistent pressure on the reins while asking their horse to bend. If the horse is resistant to the pressure, the rider should apply more steady pressure to the reins and then release once the horse softens. The instructors explained how horses learn through pressure and release, so the riders must be patient and reward their horse by releasing the reins when the horse supples to the rein pressure. The rider should never pull harshly on the reins, as this is counter-productive to training a horse. Once the horse supples to the direct rein pressure, the rider released the pressure and bent their horse to the opposite side using a direct rein. In doing so, the rider suppled their horse at the neck and poll, and encouraged the horse to be soft and relaxed. If the horse moved forward during this exercise, the riders continued asking their horse to bend with the direct rein until the horse halted.

Next, the riders practiced the lateral bend at the walk. Lateral exercises encourage the horse's suppleness through vertical and lateral flexion. With the lateral exercise, the rider uses their inside rein and aks their horse to bend to the inside of the circle. The riders learned that when bending their horse to the inside of the circle, they should lift the horse’s inside shoulder with the reins and apply inside leg pressure to ensure that the horse guides laterally on a consistent circle.

The instructors emphasized that the rider should practice this exercise four or five times and then allow the horse to do another exercise as a break from learning the new exercise. As the horse becomes comfortable with the lateral bending, the rider should use the same concepts through the trot and lope.


The rider can introduce the transition from the lateral bend to the counter-bend through a figure-eight shape. Again, the rider should start this exercise at the walk. The rider should maintain the horse's forward motion and suppleness on the counter bend to the outside of the circle, so the horse's nose is looking to the outside of the circle. With the counter-bend exercise, the rider should use the indirect inside rein, which balances the horse on the counter-bend shape by supporting the horse's inside shoulder. In a simple explanation, the rider uses the direct outside rein for the counter-bend, while using an indirect inside rein to lift and guide the horse's inside shoulder through the counter-bend. A general caveat with the counter-bend is that the rider's indirect rein never crosses over the horse's mane to the opposite side. The rider uses the outside leg to support the counter-bend, and the inside leg to encourage the horse to stay forward. The instructors explained that the riders need to be subtle with their leg aids during this exercise. The rider should make adjustments with their leg aids as necessary, whether the horse needs forward motion or to move their ribcage and hip. This exercise gives the rider independent control of the horse's shoulders as well as ribcage and hip control. The instructors shared a tip that the horse may want to turn on the haunches when first practicing the counter-bend, however, the rider must use their inside leg to ask the horse to move forward. Once the horse becomes comfortable at the walk, the rider can progress to the trot and lope.


On Day 2 and Day 3, the instructors began introducing the counter-canter exercises. The counter canter is where the rider asks the horse to pick up the outside lead while tracking in the opposite direction to that lead. However, when teaching the counter-canter exercise, the rider should start this exercise on the correct lead and on a circle.

The instructors emphasized that the rider should not focus on the horse's frame while initially teaching their horse to counter-canter, but rather maintain rein contact to guide the horse on the counter-canter on a circle. In order to maintain a fluid counter canter, the rider must lift the horse's inside shoulders, and ask the horse to look slightly to the outside of the circle while keeping their inside leg on the horse to ask the horse to keep the counter lead.

The instructors emphasized that this exercise is physically challenging for a horse, so the rider should be patient, and reward the counter-canter one stride at a time.

The instructors explained that if the horse breaks to a trot, then the rider should recollect from the trot and then ask the horse for the lope again. When teaching the counter-canter, the rider should never rush the horse into the counter lead again. Importantly, the instructors taught the riders that they should practice this exercise a few times, and then reward the horse with a break from the counter-canter once the counter-canter has improved in some capacity.


The instructors and I would like to say tack så mycket (thanks so much!) to  Westernryttarna I Skåne and Mats and Ingers Larsson for providing their generous hospitality and organizing the horsemanship camp. Over the next three weeks, the Oklahoma State University instructors will teach the July series of the 2016 International Horsemanship Camps in Europe. Stay tuned for more coverage of the AQHA International Horsemanship Camp; the OSU instructors and I will be in Denmark for the next AQHA Horsemanship Camp! Below are some other photos from the horsemanship camp in Sweden: