Q: I watched a rider doing a movement I found fascinating. I discovered it was called “terre-a-terre.” Can you tell me more about it and how to teach it?
Name withheld by request
The terre-a-terre was one of the original maneuvers taught to medieval warhorses during the 11th century. Imagine being out in battle and the only thing keeping you in the forefront is the horse that you are riding. The warhorses of the medieval times were a tool and a weapon that carried out many significant jobs for the knights. The courageous horse had to carry a knight into battle and respond to leg pressure rather than reins. A warhorse was also trained to trample the bodies of fallen soldiers and to bite and attack on command. The terre-a-terre along with the levade and the capriole, were moves that were taught to these horses to aid in combat. The term“destrier”—which was the medieval term for a knight’s warhorse—was often used to describe these tall and majestic animals. Great strength and size were two other characteristics of these fierce and agile creatures.
It takes many years of training for a horse to perform the terre-a-terre fluently. You can think of the terre-a-terre as a series of levades in which the hind feet jump forward simultaneously before a capriole. This maneuver is always started in-hand before expecting the horse to carry it out under saddle.
The preparation for beginning the terre-a-terre takes about two and a half to three years. It is important that you take the time to train the basics—a confirmed and correct walk, trot and canter—to establish a solid base to work from. It is imperative that you are not only building a muscular and balanced horse, but also one with a sound mind to be able to perform these highly complicated moves. Besides a solid training basis, a horse must have naturally good coordination along with powerful and supple hindquarters to be able to learn the terre-a-terre.
The fluidity and the correctness of the movement in-hand serve as stepping stones to transfer this to an under-saddle maneuver. It is also thought of as a very collected two-beat canter in which the hind feet and front feet move together to form an almost rocking-horse-type movement. This can be taught through half steps and through the piaffe or a very collected canter. (It is important that along with the collection of the canter comes balance and straightness. If the horse is lacking in either of these areas, he will not be able to establish a consistent threshold in which to project himself forward). These movements allow the horse to increasingly engage his hindquarters by bringing them closer to the ground while allowing his hind legs to become his center of gravity. For a brief moment the horse is carrying all of his weight on his hind legs with an extreme coiling of his haunches. His front legs simultaneously leave the ground. When his front legs return to the ground, he takes a very light and balanced step before he executes the movement again.
Cueing your horse is very important in training the terre-a-terre. It is imperative that you are consistent with your cues and generous with your rewards. The rhythm of your cues and the placement of administering them help your horse stablish a confident understanding of what you are asking.
Eventually, the horse is asked to enter the terre-a-terre by sinking down in the back and rising in the front. This gives the illusion that the horse is sinking down into the ground before he springs up into action. This maneuver is a true test of the horse’s collection and balance. It is also a test to see if the horse truly is straight and obedient. When performed correctly, the terre-a-terre is a dazzling representation of the strength and agility the horse possesses.
Mario A.Contreras is a native of Mexico. He has been the head trainer for Medieval Times in Chicago for 21 years, specializing in classical dressage, doma vaquera and airs above the ground. He was awarded Horseman of the Year from the International Andalusian and Lusitano Horse Association in 2011. He teaches and trains outside Chicago (mchorsetraining.com).