The Struggles of the Counter Canter

It’s always a lot easier said than done.

That seems to be my struggle as a rider for quite some time. Whether that is jumping or flat work, my brain knows what to do, but my body ends up doing something else.

Let’s take counter cantering as an example. This is something that we’ve been working on for the last few weeks. It seems simple. Just canter on the opposite lead. How hard can that be? Turns out, quite difficult.

Maybe it doesn’t help that my horse loves to do his lead changes automatically, but I’m definitely the problem. It’s all muscle memory and when I try to do something opposite of what I’m used to, it becomes challenging.

So here’s the exercise we’ve been doing. Canter down the long side, turn back going no further than the centre line and keep that lead as we head back to the rail on a diagonal. The goal is to keep the lead for as long as possible. Ideally, holding it way past the point of getting back to the rail. Spoiler alert, we haven’t gotten that far yet.

No matter how hard I try to hold onto that lead while going down that diagonal, I naturally ask for the lead change when I reach the track. It’s almost instinctual. If it’s not keeping an outside bend, it’s switching my legs so that the one closest to the rail is further back. Sometimes it’s as simple as twisting my body or shifting my weight. And since my horse naturally anticipates the cue to change the closer we get to the track, any slight movement is enough for him to happy switch leads. In fact, he gets quite frustrated if he’s not allowed to switch.

Kent Farrington

So we both need to work on retraining ourselves. Not everything needs to be so automatic.

These sorts of exercises really show your weaknesses as a rider. It shows you how organised and self-aware you are. Can you coordinate yourself to show the horse exactly what you’re asking? Even if it is out of routine or habit?

Right now, the answer to those questions is not really. It’s coming and every ride I’m making a bit more progress. I have to keep reminding myself that riding is a skill. One that you never stop learning and improving.

I don’t really have too many tips on how to do a counter canter properly as I’m not there yet. All I can say is to stay focused and be aware of what you are doing. What aids you could be giving your horse, no matter how small and unintentional, that is allowing him to switch his lead? I find that I tend to get further down that diagonal if, with every canter stride, I keep reminding myself to keep my inside leg back and to keep an outside bend. If I keep focusing and telling myself to keep these aids, I’m less likely to switch. If I let myself canter the diagonal normally, then I always get the change.

So I keep making a point to focus on myself. Maybe it will never become natural for me to ask for the counter canter. But maybe it will become less awkward. This is the sort of challenge that I’m eager to work through. I want to be a better rider. And to do that, I have to know how to ride. Sitting pretty and going around a course on autopilot isn’t good enough for me anymore. I want to be present in my riding and to understand everything that I’m asking. And when I finally can get that counter canter, it will be a welcomed victory.

Until next time, happy riding!