Boost Your Dressage Scores Part 13: The Counter Canter

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During this series, I have covered the dressage judging scale from a mark of 0 to 9, explaining how the marks are awarded, and how to train and achieve the qualities the judges are looking for. 

In the past two issues I talked about lateral movements, how they help promote collection and improve your horse’s training and physical development. I explained about riding the shoulder in, the travers and renvers, half pass and pirouettes. 

This month I begin to wrap up the series by looking more in-depth at the canter. In particular the counter canter and the lead up to flying changes. 

The canter

Just like all other movements and skills, the horse’s canter training progresses by systematically shaping each task from a basic attempt through to performing the movement rhythmically, with bend (straightness), on the bit (contact), engagement, self-carriage and in harmony with the rider.

A horse that is cantering can be seen to have a greater extension of one foreleg than the other; this leg is called the leading foreleg.

If the inside foreleg is extending more on the circle, the horse is said to be on the correct lead, and if the outside foreleg is extending more, the horse is said to be on the wrong leg.

Cantering on the wrong leg is also the movement called counter canter. The horse is trained to turn and change direction without changing the leading foreleg.

A flying change occurs when a horse changes the leading leg and appears to ‘skip’ onto the new lead, changing the leg sequence in the air, or suspension phase of the canter.

A single flying change is trained first and is asked for in a dressage test at medium level.

Flying changes can be grouped together to become tempi changes, starting with changing every fourth stride and then every third stride at advanced level.

Two time changes occur every second stride and are introduced at Intermediare 1 level and one-time changes are every stride (Intermediare 2). In this case, the horse is truly ‘skipping’ every stride when doing one-time changes.

Useful Tip

Some horses naturally do flying changes if they lose their balance, so as to regain their balance in the new direction; these are the ones that are difficult to train to counter canter. (Counter canter is simply cantering on the wrong leading leg.) 

Conversely, horses that find counter canter easy are sometimes difficult to train to execute a flying change. In any case, all horses can do both. Our job as trainers, is to be able to achieve a flying change from a signal.

Training prerequisites

The counter canter and flying change required in dressage tests are produced with a certain level of collection. Counter canter requires changes of direction without changing canter leads; the rider using turn aids to manoeuvre the shoulders.

For flying changes the horse should be able to:

  • Do simple changes (canter/walk/canter transitions),
  • Be adjustable in stride length and tempo,
  • Be manoeuvrable in the hindquarters also.

The rider should:

Be able to ride shoulder in, travers, renvers and half pass in canter. These movements help to improve the horse’s collection and improve control of the forehand and hindquarters.

Counter Canter

In counter canter the horse should stay flexed to the direction of the leading leg, however, in the beginning and up to the level of straightness, it is best to keep the horse straight from his poll to his tail and his body straight or aligned.

Counter canter is, in fact an exercise designed to straighten horses, so there is no bend to the leading leg as such.

The rider maintains his canter position to the leading leg, his outside leg, which is on the inside in this case, is in canter position, slightly back behind the girth, so as to prevent the horse from doing a flying change while steering.

Training the Counter Canter

Counter canter involves steering the horse’s shoulders with the rein aids. Timing the turn aid to occur as the horse’s shoulders are up facilitates him to turn. A rider can feel this either as his hips are going forward and up, or as his shoulders are back.

Raising the horse’s poll helps to ‘raise his forehand’ and facilitate the turn.

There will be a shortening of the horse’s stride as he begins to collect, however, the tempo of approximately 95 beats per stride should not change.

Riding Counter Canter Loops

Begin in true canter going large, on the outside track, aim to turn in from the outside indirect turn onto the diagonal line, and ride 2-3 strides on that line.

Then ride a straight line parallel to the wall 3-5 meters in, use both reins to steer onto this line and canter 4-5 strides.

Return to the track using an indirect inside rein.

This movement is called riding a loop off the wall. The size of the loop is increased gradually, until you can ride a loop from K to X and back to H.

When riding this movement, the rider should reach the centreline, a little before X and be on the centreline for 2 strides before returning back to the track. It takes 5-6 strides to reach the centre line and 5-6 strides to go back, making the number of strides the same makes the movement smooth and in a rhythm.

Training Tips

A lighter turn:

Remember that if the horse is slow to turn, a light whip-tap on the shoulder can be used (provided you have previously trained your horse to turn off a light whip-tap on the shoulder). An outside tap on the shoulder to turn in and an inside tap on the shoulder to turn out. 

Breaking or disuniting:

If the horse is ‘breaking’ in the canter or ‘disuniting’, then the rider will have to quicken the tempo with leg and seat when he feels the horse’s back stop cantering. This often occurs after the turn stride. The rider’s outside leg can be used to quicken, as it is the horses outside hind leg that is losing the beat or tempo of the canter.

Quickening or lengthening

If the horse is quickening or lengthening the stride in the turns he will be going on the forehand, so raising the poll and shortening the stride will help. 

If the horse lengthens as you turn, shorten his stride at this time – during the turn and, if he lengthens after the turn, shorten his stride after the turn. 

The aim is to maintain the same length of stride and tempo throughout the movement.

Half circle, returning to the track in counter canter

Another movement in dressage tests is riding a half circle in true canter and returning to the track and continuing in counter canter on a straight line along the wall.

When returning to the track, use an indirect inside rein (the outside rein of the canter) to return to the wall. This will prevent the horse from having his shoulders in and hindquarters on the wall, when this happens, the judge’s comment would be that he is on two tracks.

Always position the horse’s shoulders in front of his hindlegs. It is best not to leg yield back to the track.

Half Circle in Counter Canter

This movement can be continued to riding a half circle in counter canter.

Most horses want to cut the first corner, and have their hindquarters to the outside. Use an indirect inside rein to go deeper in the corner aiming to turn in 3 strides, then ride straight with a straight neck for 3 strides reestablishing the tempo, and use an outside indirect turn aid to turn the second corner in 3 strides.

If a horse wants to also cut the second corner, an indirect inside rein can be used. He will feel as though he has dropped the inside shoulder and motorbike around the turn, a raised inside rein in the indirect turn aid will help to keep the shoulders upright.

Riding a counter canter around the outside edge of the short side is a matter of reducing the number of turn strides to 2 and riding 5-6 strides straight before turning again.

When to add flexion

Once these movements can be ridden without a slowing of the tempo or lengthening the stride, and the horse’s shoulders feel upright, then the flexion to the leading leg can be asked for.

Remember that flexion is at the poll, the outside eye is visible and that it is not neck bend. Horses that are ‘overbent’, ‘closed in the gullet’ or too ‘short in the neck’, or those that are too ‘deep’ and low, do not flex correctly and will end up tilting their nose, so have the poll at the highest point before flexing.

The rider’s seat in canter

The movement of the horse’s back in the canter is a forward and backward circular motion. A rider will feel the horse’s hindlegs through his gluteal muscles (seat bones), they scoop forward as the hindlegs go forward. This is also associated with the beginning of the rider’s shoulders going backwards.

The forelegs of the horse are felt at the front of the rider’s pelvis or hips; his hip flexors need to lift with the forelegs. This moment is associated with the position of the rider’s shoulders back. It is like being on a swing or rocking horse. Your seat moves the swing forward and your shoulders and hips lift the swing up.

Feeling for problems

A rider can feel if the shoulders are downhill because his hips do not lift adequately, the horse will be on the forehand. The horse may be long and flat in the stride or short and choppy.

The rider can also feel if the horse is not forward enough because his seat bones are not being pushed forward as the hindlegs step forward. A lack of activity or jump in the canter relates to a loss of tempo, a quick movement of the gluteals plus the quickening signal (leg or light whip-tap) will increase the tempo.

If the stride length is too short the canter will feel up and down, there is insufficient ground cover and the signal to lengthen should be used. We need to train our horses to quicken but not lengthen to achieve correct collection.

The correct feeling of the seat is influential in delivering the aids at the correct time to enable the horse to respond more easily. So the turns and the various stop aids of changes of gait, shortening and slowing are asked for as the hips are up and shoulders back, whereas the go (up a gait, lengthening and quickening) aids are applied as the seat goes forward and the shoulders begin to go back.

The moment of suspension is the moment between the hips lifting before the seat feels the hindlegs going forward. This is important for the correct timing of the delivery of the flying change aid; it is applied in the suspension phase.

Developing the Canter for a Flying Change

The next stages to developing the canter for a flying change will be riding simple changes, changing the flexion in the canter, and riding lateral movements in the canter, like shoulder fore, travers and renvers, as well as half pass.

These exercises and how to train the actual flying change and progress towards riding tempi changes will be explained in full detail next month in the final article of this series.

  1. To read Part 1 of this series click here.
  2. To read Part 2 of this series click here.
  3. To read Part 3 of this series click here.
  4. To read Part 4 of this series click here
  5. To read Part 5 of this series click here
  6. To read Part 6 of this series click here
  7. To read Part 7 of this series click here
  8. To read Part 8 of this series click here
  9. To read Part 9 of this series click here
  10. To read Part 10 of this series click here
  11. To read Part 11 of this series click here
  12. To read Part 12 of this series click here

To find out more about Equitation Science International and the work of Dr Andrew McLean and Manuela McLean, visit the ESI website.

Manuela McLean
Equitation Science International | Website

Manuela McLean is the wife of world renowned Equitation Scientist, Dr Andrew McLean. Together they authored “Horse Training the McLean Way” and more recently “Academic Horse Training”. With Andrew’s focus on training and Manuela’s focus on getting the message across to riders, they have developed a rider- and horse-centred systematic training of horses according to the principles of learning theory. Manuela’s specialty is improving the rider’s posture and balance to enhance the delivery of signals. Manuela trained Joanne Formosa and Worldwide PB in just 8 months, to win a gold medal at the London Paralympic Games in 2012.

She holds an NCAS Level 2 (Dressage Specialist), a BSc (Biology) and Dip Ed.

Dr Andrew McLean

Dr Andrew McLean brings together a rare combination of academic and equestrian achievement. In the early 1990’s Andrew determined to explore the science of horse training. He found very little was identified or described, leading to his PhD on the topic. A prolific author of books and journal papers on the science and ethics of horse training, he also represented Australia in Eventing, ridden to Grand Prix in Show-jumping and Grand Prix in dressage.

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