[FoRK] remarks on "cantering" backwards

Dave Long dave.long at bluewin.ch
Fri Feb 25 05:24:28 PST 2011

A little while ago we ran across a rather impressive video, of  
Oliveira working a horse in a style for which today's Olympic dressage 
[0] tests would be merely a preparation, and indeed someone asked if  
it didn't include (several!) segments of the horse cantering backwards 


Well, a cursory search of youtube turns up a few other riders who  
claim to be cantering backwards, but strictly speaking, the gait  
they're using can't be a canter: the canter is a higgeldy-piggeldy  
three-beat gait (are there waltzes in any culture without horses?)  
and this movement is definitely in hinky-pinky two-time, with the  
front and hinds working together (as opposed to the natural diagonal  
pairings of the gaits used in the olympic disciplines).

In fact, it appears to be a terre-à-terre, as described by de la  
Guérinière in 1742 [2], and in the 1969 edition of his book  
(published posthumously) someone has added the comment[3] that:
> therefore true horsemen regard this movement, which has become very  
> rare, as the touchstone by which one sees the knowledge of a rider  
> and the skill of a horse.

It's perhaps not surprising that hopping backwards had fallen out of  
use by the 18th century, as cavalry engagements in those days tended  
more towards large scale maneuver, riding to places where one could  
get a good shot at the enemy, or not be shot at, rather than any kind  
of duelling on horseback.  However, if we go back to the 17th  
century, we find Pluvinel explaining to a young Louis XII[4] that he  
considers a horse's education complete when it is capable of moving  
backwards, with the caveat that one must not overdo such a strenuous  

Returning to the video, perhaps it shouldn't have been such a  
surprise that Oliveira, who was interested in the history of  
equitation (no doubt influenced, among others, by Pluvinel) and  
working in a portuguese context (no doubt also influenced, if only  
indirectly through the stock market[6], by the rejoneo), would have  
taught such a backwards movement -- the "vectored thrust" of the  


[0] cf "馬-fu", http://xent.com/pipermail/fork/Week-of- 
[1] and one wit has commented that no wonder Oliveira could work in a  
hall that small; he could back out of any corner without breaking gait 
[2] de la Guérinière, Manuel de cavalerie (1742) p. 129
> Le Terre-A-Terre est un Galop en deux temps, de deux pistes, dans  
> lequel le Cheval étant plus rassemblé & plus raccourci que dans le  
> Galop ordinaire, il leve les deux Jambes de devant ensemble, & les  
> pose à Terre de même : le derrière accompagne cette action d'un  
> même mouvement ; ce qui forme une cadence tride & basse, dans  
> laquelle il marque tous les temps avec un fredon de Hanches, qui  
> part comme d'une espèce de ressort.  Cet Exercice est violent, &  
> peu de Chevaux sont capables de l'exécuter avec toute la netteté &  
> la justesse nécessaires ; c'est pourquoi il faut bien ménager les  
> ressorts d'un Cheval dans les commencements qu'on le met à ce  
> Manège,  & il faut souvent le délasser, en le remettant au petit  
> Galop écouté.

[3] de la Guérinière, Ecole de cavalerie (1769) p. 249
> ... aussi les vrais Hommes de Cheval regardent ce manège, qui est  
> devenu trés-rare, comme la pierre de touche, par laquelle on voit  
> la science d'un Cavalier & l'adresse d'un Cheval.

[4] Ben Jonson
> They say princes learn no art truly but the art of horsemanship.   
> The reason is the brave beast is no flatterer.  He will throw a  
> prince as soon as his groom.

[5] Pluvinel, L'instruction du Roi en l'exercice de monter à cheval  
(1629) p.165
> ... ce qu'étant exécuté bien à propos le cheval sans doute fera  
> bien-tôt quelques courbettes en arrière ; auquel cas il le  
> caressera fort, & continuant de le contenter, il prendra garde de  
> ne l'ennuyer pas, parce que volontiers ils se fâchent plus de  
> manier en arrière que de toute autre sorte de manège.

NB. Here Pluvinel says the horse will make a few "courbettes"  
backwards.  Clearly this isn't the exercise we mean today by this  
term, and indeed the picture on p.164 shows that it's a much more  
collected development of the terre-à-terre (note especially the  
position of the anteriors):
[6] rather, the market for his stock?
[7] note the degradation over time: Pluvinel wants his courbettes  
(even figures done en courbette!), de la Guérinière is content with  
terre-à-terre, and we consider good canter pirouettes rare enough for  
international competition.  Pessimists will note the decline in  
standards of collection; optimists will note (a) the changing role of  
the horse in war, and (b) the advances in construction techniques  
which allow us to ride indoors, even without highly-bred, highly- 
trained horses.

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