The counter canter is required of all competitors being considered for an award in the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search class and may be used to test riders in other upper-level equitation classes. At the counter canter, instead of traveling around the arena on the inside lead as usual, the horse will travel on the outside (counter) lead. The movement is difficult, not only because it demands good balance and coordination in the horse, but also because it is opposed to what the horse has previously been trained to do. Force of habit, as well an uncertainty about its balance, makes the horse want to switch back to the inside lead, particularly on the corners of the ring.
The horse starts the counter canter sequence by pushing off with the hind leg toward the inside of the ring. When traveling clockwise, the horse starts with its right hind leg, followed by the left hind and right fore striking together, then left fore (the leading leg) striking alone. The horse is bent slightly from head to tail toward the leading leg.
The rider’s aids for the counter canter when traveling clockwise are as follows: left indirect rein, left leg at the girth, and right leg behind the girth.
Your hands, in a left indirect rein position, bend the horse slightly to the left; your left leg at the girth aids your hands in maintinaing the bend toward the rail; and your right leg, in a behind-the-girth position (which is about four inches farther back than normal leg position), starts and maintains the sequence of footfalls. The right leg presses the horse’s haunches toward the railing at the start of each stride, so that the horse will not be able to move its left hind leg underneath itself far enough to change the sequence of its feet to the opposite lead. If you move both your hands slightly toward the rail as you approach the ends of the arena, the right rein will act as a neck rein to reinforce the pressure of your right leg and hold the horse on the counter lead.
You should feel the horse’s inside hind foot beneath your seat each time it strikes the ground. By monitoring this foot, you can control the sequence of the footfalls, both on the straight sides of the arena and the corners, so that the horse remains on the counter canter in a clear, three-beat sequnce. When traveling clockwise, the animal should be slightly bent toward the left on the straight sides of the arena and wrapped around your left leg a little tighter on the turns to prevent switching leads.
Collection is necessary to sustain the counter canter, since a horse in a long frame will lose its balance and switch leads on the corners. However, take care not to let the horse’s shoulders, neck, and head become too light through collection, since lightness in the forehand makes it easy for the horse to switch from one lead to another. If you sense that the animal is preparing to change leads, press it forward and toward the rail with your leg that is toward the inside of the arena. As the horse responds by stretching its head and neck out and down, follow this movement with your hands. Allow the horse to shift its center of gravity forward enough to add a little weight to the forehand, making it less tempting to switch leads. However, do not allow the horse to add so much weight to its forehand that it loses its balance and is forced to switch.