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Riding the "Wrong" Lead: The Beauty of the Counter Canter

The counter canter is a canter where the horse is on the outside lead, meaning that the leading leg and the bend are opposite to the direction of travel. For example, if the horse is going to the right, he is in counter canter if he is on the left lead and bending to the left. The counter canter is an important move in Dressage because:

·      It improves the horse’s balance, suppleness, and engagement of the hindquarters.

·       It teaches the horse to obey the rider’s aids and to stay straight and through.

·       It prepares the horse for flying changes, which are required in higher levels of Dressage.

·       It tests the rider’s coordination, feel, and ability to maintain the correct bend and flexion.

The counter canter is introduced at First Level Test 3 in Dressage, with a Single Loop to X at the canter and at Level 1 Test 4 in Western Dressage, with a  One Loop 5m off the track at the lope.  In subsequent levels it becomes more challenging and complex. To ride the counter canter well, the rider needs to have a good quality canter, be able to control the horse’s shoulders and hindquarters, and use the appropriate aids for the desired lead and bend. The counter canter should look balanced, rhythmic, and smooth, not like the horse is cantering on the wrong lead or falling over his outside shoulder.

Your horse is ready for the counter canter when you have a quality working canter.


·       Does your horse have a good 3 beat canter?

·       Does your horse canter on the proper lead in the corner and in a straight line?

·       Does your horse’s hind leg come under the body toward the center of balance?

·       Can your horse lengthen and shorten in the canter?

·       Can your horse do a nice clean walk to canter transition?

·       Can your horse do a 10-meter circle at the canter, in both directions?


The aids for counter canter on the right rein are:

·        Left leg on the girth for bend and impulsion

·        Right leg behind the girth to control the hindquarters

·        Left rein to indicate direction and bend

·        Right rein to control the pace and degree of bend -Balance

·        Sit centrally, with more weight on the seat bone of the leading leg side. You may need to move the hip forward on the leading side if your horse finds it difficult at first.



Exercises to introduce the counter canter:

At the canter go around the corner to the long side and go out from the rail into the quarter line, then ride straight. Practice this a few times in each direction. Once you can do that successfully, then ride to the quarter, go straight, and return to the rail maintaining the lead: H-K and M-F. Once you can do that successfully then ride from the rail into the centerline and back to the rail, completing a shallow loop serpentine in counter canter:  F-X-M and K-X-H. It is important that you always practice on each side to keep your horse equal and straight through his body.



If your horse wants to break, go into a 10-meter circle, and return to where your horse broke and finish the loop.

First Level

Test 3


Breaking into trot, changing the canter lead and swinging the quarters in or out are all signs that the horse isn’t balanced, so consider a shallower loop or revisiting the exercise when the horse’s balance is more established.


Always keep the loops shallow to begin with and build up the difficulty gradually as the horse progresses.


The horse should remain up in the poll and straight through their body in the counter-canter.


Be sure to reward your horse, as sometimes the horse does not understand why you want him to canter on the incorrect lead.


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