Counter canter is just another type of canter, like medium or collected. It’s all about confidence. Treat it as you would your usual canter and your horse will do the same.
Most problems occur on corners, turns and changes of rein. Riders freeze if their horse becomes tense hoping to sit it out until they reach the long side. It is possible to make it without going disunited or trotting but it won’t give your horse confidence.
Freezing and taking your leg off is something all riders do at some point. When you really think about it there isn’t a single situation when it’s a help to your horse. Breaking this habit by riding forward when things get tricky will make an instant difference to your counter canter.
If corners and changes of rein are the toughest why introduce counter canter there? How often have you ridden a test where the counter canter is introduced by riding a short diagonal followed by a short stretch of counter canter to the corner marker? It’s not the end of the world but there is a much easier way to introduce it. Try this.
Practice canter transitions on the centre line. Here you can ask for both legs without confusing your horse. Keep his head and neck straight (turning his nose an inch to the inside is more than enough initially) and concentrate on your aids. You need to be clear with your legs so he is quite sure which leg you are asking for.
If you want to counter canter your horse must be able to pick up canter on a straight line. Ask for transitions on the long sides. If he can’t do this spend time teaching him. Establish your basics and everything else will be easy.
Now introduce counter canter. Get straight on the long side and ask for it. It really is that simple! Don’t change anything. Ride it exactly as you would ride any canter transition. (NB. On the right rein you’re asking for left canter so remember it’s your right leg that comes back and your left leg that asks for the strike off.) Small changes in your weight will affect your horse. As soon as you’re in counter canter return your outside leg to its usual position.
If your horse understands your aids there’s no reason why he shouldn’t give you the leg you ask for but if he gets it wrong don’t panic. Stay calm, bring him back to trot and ask again on the next long side. When he gets it right be quick to reward him.
With the transition established you need to work on the pace. The short side is the most difficult. Cut off the corners to make it smoother for your horse and you’ll find it’s easier to get round. Aim to canter two circuits before you trot. A quick spurt of unbalanced strides will do nothing to settle your horse. Shallow corners and positive riding will give him confidence.
Counter canter is a pace not a movement. Your approach to it will have a huge effect on your horse. The longer you spend in the it the more normal it will feel. If your horse gets tense don’t freeze. Relax and ride forward. The worst that can happen is he’ll break into trot. If he stays tense he’ll do that anyway. Good luck.