Q: I see a lot of reining and Western riding exhibitors counter-cantering their horses in the warm-up pen. What's the benefit? And how can I teach my horse to do it?
Coral Gables, Florida
To learn more from Champion Western horseman Bob Avila, download a FREE guide?Perfecting the Lope: Champion Western Horseman Bob Avila on How to Train a Horse to Counter-Canter and Change Leads While Loping.??
A: The counter canter? (Loping to the left on the right lead and vice versa), makes your horse work a hundred times harder to balance himself than he does on his regular leads, so it advances your skill in controlling his body.
Teaching the counter-canter is a great prep for lead changes, as it accelerates the strength and balance your horse needs for the maneuver. It's also a great tool for a horse that anticipates lead changes on pattern. Rather than letting him change leads where he thinks he ought to, you can use the counter-canter to ride him through the trouble spot without changing leads-and thus refocus his attention on you.
Before you attempt the counter-canter, be sure your horse is going forward at the lope, meaning he's driving himself forward from his hindquarters. If he's dragging himself along on his front end, loping on the "wrong" lead will be impossible for you both. A lot of riders don't know how "forward" feels; it's the drive coming up into the seat of your pants as he lifts you up and down in a rotary-type motion. If the motion feels flat, you've lost the drive from his hind end.
Start with a regular lope circle, let's say to the right. Concentrate on the feel of the cues holding your horse on the right lead; preserve that feeling as you begin the counter-canter. When the lope is established, guide him smoothly off the circle into an open area of your work space where you can make a similar circle to the left. Then make a generous turn to the left, holding your left leg firmly against his rib cage to keep him on the right lead.
(Tip: The wider your turn and the larger your lope circle, the easier it'll be for your horse to maintain his right lead. As he develops strength and balance, you can up the degree of difficulty by making your counter-canter circles smaller.)
To guide and balance your horse in the new direction, lift your right rein, and move it against his neck, keeping his shoulder up and pressing him leftward. Move your left hand out the same distance so the space between your hands stays the same, taking enough feel on both reins to balance the energy you're generating with your leg.
As you guide him with your hands, push up and over with your left leg (stretching your calf down as far as you can, so it's almost under his rib cage in a position to lift as well as push) to get his rear end over. If you don't push enough, he'll probably switch leads instead of staying on the counter-lead.
When you've managed to hold the counter-canter at least a quarter of the way around your circle, drop to the trot, then repeat the maneuver, this time to the right on the left lead. Perseverance is key, especially with an older horse.
Bob Avila is a top reining horse trainer who has won junior and senior reining titles at the AQHA World Show. He's based in Yamhill, Oregon.
This article first appeared in the October, 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.