Riding in Iowa, Day Four (Part 1)

I was asked by a family friend after I got back from the clinic, “What was the most profound thing you learned?”

I didn’t hesitate when I said, “I learned that you should tip your horse’s nose into the direction of the counter-canter”.

Now this friend, does himself, ride and make bridle horses, and he asked me to explain to him what it was that I meant.

Some of you are now thinking to yourselves, “you were in a Horsemanship 1 class and this is what you found most profound? A lot of times in H1 you don’t even get to lope your horses!” Am I right? I’ve been in two H1 classes where the lope was never discussed.  And I’ve never witnessed Horsemanship 2 so I don’t know what he covers in that one.

What I do know is that on the fourth day of the clinic, Buck rode his beautiful horse, Rebel, around for a short demonstration, and of course, everyone just kind of stops what they’re doing, and gets out of his way, and gives him the arena.  So we’re watching Buck, put his horse through his paces, and in that time, he counter-canters him.  A counter-canter, for those who don’t know what that is, is when your horse lopes in a circle to the right on his left lead. For those of you who don’t know what  a lead is, I’ll explain:

A lead is the foot (or feet) that your horse leads with at the lope/canter, which is a three beat gait.  If your horse is going left, his left hind and left front should “lead” him around the circle. Same if he’s going to the right- his right hind and right front will always be in front of his left hind and left front.  In order for your horse to counter-canter, he must lope a circle to one direction on the lead that is opposite the direction he’s going.

As I told my friend, who asked, “why would you need to counter-canter your horse?” , it does a couple things.

1. It allows your horse to come through a place where he might begin to anticipate a lead change. In other words, the horse will be loping a circle on the correct lead, and then you’ll take him across the center, on a diagonal, where you might ordinarily set him up to change leads (which we can talk about later if you’re interested), and you don’t. You hold him on the lead he’s already on.

2. It helps to balance your horse. If he can learn to hold himself in frame while he does this, it just adds to his ability and helps him become softer and more willing.

Buck and Rebel counter cantering to the left.

You don’t hold him on the counter-canter for more than a couple circles as it’s a very hard maneuver for you and your horse to learn, plus, we all know the best gift we can give our horse is the release, so if he does it and gets a release all the better for him.

How did this whole counter-canter discussion come about?

It started in the afternoon class; the cow working class and Kip, Buck’s friend and former “apprentice” if you will, said, something along the lines of, I noticed when you were counter cantering your horse’s nose wasn’t tipped in the direction you were going. Which led Buck to explain that he tips the nose slightly in the direction of the lead, and rolls the horse’s head up and in. I then asked for further clarification and said the following: So if my horse is loping on the right lead, and I take a left circle, I tip his nose in the direction of the lead he’s on. To which Buck replied, yes, but remember you hold your soft feel the entire time they’re on that counter canter, and your flexion is a lateral/longitudinal flexion both. You don’t need his face cranked that direction. Just the nose and you might see his eyelashes on that side. He then added, you know, you think you’re making a pretty good snaffle bit horse until you decide you want to make a bridle horse, and then these things start to make sense and you realize there’s so much more to it than you originally thought.

Now, I told Buck, when I first rode with him in Belton,Texas last year, that I wanted to make a bridle horse. After the above conversation I had with him before that afternoon class started, I am pretty sure he remembers that we had more than one discussion about it at that clinic.

I have to say the lightbulb really came on this afternoon. I have been working on the counter-canter with Gump and I’ve been missing some things. The two things I’ve been missing is 1. a proper amount of elevation and 2. I haven’t been “setting” his head correctly. Our counter-cantering has gotten a lot better since my “lightbulb moment”. We’re still not doing flying lead changes, but like Buck says, he does thousands of simple lead changes before he ever starts asking for the flying lead change.

The funniest part of all of the above, is when I told my cowboy Zach that’s what I’d learned that afternoon, he says, Yeah, I knew that already. I’m like, what the h%^& you’re holding out on me? Why am I just now learning this? He just chuckled. I guess I wasn’t in a place that I would have accepted the coaching.

This post got a bit wordy, as I suspected it would, so we’ll cover what I learned in the morning class in a separate post.

In the meantime, I’m going to to the barn today and ride my hackamore horse, Gump, and see if we can’t continue to improve!

Happy Trails!

More about my time riding with Buck is below.

Day One from Iowa

Day Two from Iowa

Day Threer From Iowa

First Clinic in Belton, TX:

Belton, Tx- Day One

Belton, TX- Day Two

Belton, TX- Day Three

Belton, TX- Day Four

Second Clinic in Steamboat Springs, CO:

Day One, Part One

Day One, Part Two

Day Two

Day Three

Day Four


  1. Hi Jenn,

    Thanks for the great write up about your ride in Decorah. I had a great time reading it, and reading through the posts on the other Buck clinics you’ve attended.

    My wife and I were auditors at the Decorah clinic (and we remember watching you and your horse). We’ve spent the last many months working on all the stuff we learned. Your blog helped remind me of a few things I have forgotten (there is just sooo much info at these clinics!). So thank you. And perhaps we’ll run into each other at a clinic in the future.



  1. [...] interested in the technicalities of horsemanship, Jenn Zeller has been doing a great series at The South Dakota Cowgirl on her recent trip to Iowa to ride with Buck Brannaman. She’s been to three of his clinics [...]

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