Monday, January 23, 2012

The Counter Canter

Definition: A counter canter is a lope in the outside lead. That is, I ask my horse to lope in the right lead if we are in a left circle.

Although almost all reining trainers now use the counter canter as a training tool, I remember a time when almost no one did. And, though most trainers now use the counter canter to school lead changes, there was a time when many trainers didn’t school lead changes at all – they just rode horses that naturally changed. Fortunately for me, I never was of that mind set and my mentor, Vern Sapergia, taught me how to train a horse to change leads.

“Those reiners have the option of picking another futurity prospect if a horse is not a natural lead changer,” he said. “We don’t. We may have only one or two in our barn so we better have a lead change program.” That's when I started counter cantering my horses.

Purpose of Counter Canter
  • To refine body control
  • To teach lead changes
  • To correct anticipation of a lead change
The Exercise
Loping in the outside lead (counter canter) is not comfortable to my horse so he must respect my aids enough to perform the exercise just because I am asking. He needs to be well schooled in basics before starting this exercise. If my horse seems pretty solid in basics, I will start to teach him the counter canter. As always, I don’t just walk in to my arena and start on the “exercise of the day”. I will have warmed my horse up with warm up exercises, jogged, trotted and loped.

Counter Canter to the right (Left lead on right circle): In one end of the pen, I lope off in the left lead in a left circle but instead of using the entire width of the pen for my circle, I make a smaller circle in the near corner. As I lope the circle (not counter cantering yet…), I ask for a little leg yield in to the circle off my right leg. To do this, I change his head to the outside and, with my weight on the outside, I apply right leg pressure until he moves in to the circle a bit. Then I release and do it again at another place in the circle.

When, and only when, my horse leg yields in to the circle with no resistance, I move off the circle in a straight diagonal line to the other end, keeping his head to the right so that he is slightly bent to the right and keeping right leg pressure (extremely important!). My left rein has some contact and my body’s job is to encourage forward movement. Not too much rein (or he will stop), lots of leg (to keep him in the outside lead) and lots of forward encouragement with my body. The goal is to keep him in a counter canter all the way around a large half-circle on the other end of the arena. As I come around the second corner, I establish a straight diagonal line back to the smaller circle. When he is on the line, I release leg and rein pressure and allow him to go back in to the “comfortable” circle (on left lead). If he performs this correctly, he will have been in the left lead the entire time. If my horse has just started this exercise, I will probably let him walk and relax before doing it again. Then I will school the counter canter in the other direction. If he is just learning, I may only school one way for a day or two. The following diagram and video (The mare in this video is very new to the exercise...) may help you understand this:

Diagram: Pattern for Teachin counter canter

What can go wrong?
  • The horse breaks to a trot as I try to counter canter. If this happens, I don’t pull my horse down even though he is not doing what I ask. The reason for this is because, if I want my horse loping, it is a forward motion and pulling him down is not. I do, however, keep my leg on him, keeping him in counter canter position while trotting. Then I repeat the exercise. I also check that I am not hindering his forward motion with too much rein pressure. The rest is just very clear body signals and riding hard. If everything is right but he wants to slow down or break out of a lope, I bump with my outside leg – without any release of pressure with the inside leg.
  • The horse changes leads. I don’t panic or punish! I do not, however, allow him to keep loping. I sit down (I don’t pull him down unless I have to) so he trots and continue as above in a trot them repeat. The most common reason this happens (if the horse is well schooled) is that I have released pressure with my inside leg, the asking leg. I must have steady, strong pressure; if I release for even an instant, it encourages my horse to change.
When my horse has learned the above exercise, I start asking him for a counter canter on a circle – or anywhere I want to in the arena. It’s a valuable training tool and I use it on all my reining horses every time I ride, including the warm up pen at the show – it’s a great way to change circles without stopping in the middle and school my horse at the same time. Of course I check over my shoulder before I change directions in a warm up pen with riders circling both ends!

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