This week we are looking at another dressage term that i think is very easily confused and that is throughness. It seems really fashionable at the moment with lots of judges and trainers talking about it but I've found that not many people actually know what it means. We might know it has something vaguely to do with roundness but also to do with the hindlegs somehow and it seems another of those magical dressage words that we try to achieve without really knowing what it is and no real idea of how we do it. It doesn't actually come up under any of the collectives in dressage though and yet it seems to be talked about a lot.
What does 'through' mean?
Throughness describes a horse that creates energy in the hindlegs, and then pushes that energy through the body of the horse without resistance or tension and through to the bit. I like to think of it a little like a hose pipe. At the hind end is where the tap is with water running into the hosepipe, this is where the water or energy starts. The body is the hosepipe, the place where the water or energy travels through and the front end of the horse is the end where the water or energy flows out and into the bit. If there are any kinks in the body of the hosepipe then the water wont flow out the front end and instead the pressure will build up until, eventually the hosepipe explodes and breaks away from the tap. Or if there are holes in the hosepipe, all the water is going to flow our of those holes and there will be far less water coming out of the front end of the hosepipe and with far less force. And it works the same with horses, if the tap isn't on (ie. the horse isn't pushing forward with his hindlegs then no energy will be created to push through the body); if there is tension or resistance or a lack of suppleness in the body then the energy wont be able to flow through to the contact.
As you've probably noticed through this whole description i have said 'through; a lot. Hindlegs create the energy to push through to the body, the body pushes the energy through to the front end, the energy needs to push through to the bit. And this is why we call it throughness because everything in the horses energy needs to be pushing forward or through to the front end.
What does a through horse feel like?
A through horse feels like you have a horse that is connected on all sides. That you have control over the back end and the front end, the horses shoulders, hindquarters,, head and neck and you are able to lengthen and shorten their back and move them left and right. In others words, you have a horse that has rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and (depending on the level) collection. So, essentially, a through horse is a horse that is meeting all those scales of training that we speak about. Its the ultimate horse for that level and is something that as riders we will always be striving for.
What do you need for a 'through' horse?
So from this description then we know we need certain things to be able to achieve throughness. Every horse is different and they will all find some things easy and other things hard. Our job is to get them all equally good. Sounds easy i know but its incredibly difficult and takes years alongside the training up to grand prix.
Impulsion: The horse must be in front of the leg and have a desire to go forward in all paces. And for this its about a balance. Thinking back to the hosepipe analogy, if you only have a trickle of water running out your tap and into the hosepipe the water coming out the other end will be small with not a lot of pressure. This is why if you don't have impulsion, you're not going to have a great contact. Similarly, though if you have a horse that naturally creates loads of energy in their hindleg. and forces loads of water down their hosepipe you might end up with an unbalanced horse running onto the forehand (think in your head when you turn the tap on too quickly and your horsepipe starts flailing round everywhere).
It all comes down to a balance of how much energy to create in the hindleg to allow that energy to flow through to the bit and create a horse that is through whilst not turning up the power so much to the point where the horse loses balance or rhythm.
Contact: A soft hand to allow the horse to take the bit in a submissive contact. When it comes to a contact it is all about a balance. Too light or too strong and the horse will end up unbalanced, running or tense and tight. We need the horse to always seek the contact and feel like their taking the bit forward and slightly down but it should never feel uncomfortable for the horse or for the rider and that's why we always say a soft contact. Because it should feel spongy and elastic and squishy. You will never be able to achieve throughness if your horse isn't holding himself in self carriage and able to balance himself. But at the same time you will also never be able to achieve throughness if your horse is on the forehand and leaning on the riders hand.
Suppleness and Straightness: These are the holes and kinks in our pipe that stop our energy flowing through the body. The rider can also create these by being unbalanced, not being straight in their own position and by relying or pulling on the reins. You can feel this when your horse falls out through the shoulder on a circle, it literally feels like the energy is falling out the side like how the water leaks out a hole in the pipe and you lose that connection between your energy source (the tap or hindlegs) and the rest of the body. As a rule when you train, a horse will naturally bend and supple the easiest muscles first and the stiff muscles and joints last so our job as a rider is to be able to make all their muscles supple and be able to control what muscles we want to give or yield with a certain aid. For this we need a horse that is supple yes but also straight.
Your position: this plays a huge role as, throughout our training we teach our horse to respond to our aids, our seat, reins and leg aids. When we are balanced and moving with the horse we move in sync with them and it feels easy to sit the trot and canter. When we are not balanced things can feel a bit jarring or awkward and its at this point that we sometimes use our aids when we dont mean to for example if you lose balance and grab hold of the reins for support or tip forward and your lower leg swings back or when you grip with your knees and thighs to balance yourself or when you tense or brace to keep yourself in the saddle. All of these will restrict and block your horse and stop that energy flowing through to the contact as well as potentially throwing them of balance too.
How can you achieve throughness
Throughness is a process. Ideally we start by getting a horse to take us forward, stretch along their whole back or their topline which improves their longitudinal suppleness or the suppleness along their backs and then we want them follow the bit (so basically he is constantly wanting to push forward into the contact, you lengthen the reins they follow the bit down and out, you shorten the reins they compress but keep filling the space and taking that bit.)
The contact is the bit where i think most people go wrong; coaches and instructors talk a lot about getting a horse in front of the leg but when it comes to a contact aside from different variations of getting your horse round it isn't really spoken about as much.
If you have a horse that takes you forward and reacts forward when you put your leg on then we need to teach our horses how to react to a pressure in the contact. Essentially what we want is when we put pressure on by playing or moving the bit in their mouths we want the horse to soften in their mouth neck and body. What it doesn't mean is that they should drop off the bit, come behind the vertical and make you feel like you have nothing in your hand. This is going to create a horse that may have a round neck but a tense and hollow back making throughness just not possible. The tension will stop any energy flowing from the hindlegs to the front end.
If you find your horse gets too strong try this in halt first when the hindleg isn't creating any energy,, if instead you find your horse drops behind the contact and off the bit try it in trot or walk where you can use the energy in the hindlegs to pushing through to the bit, keeping the horse pushing into the contact
But if we just have the hindlegs pushing into a contact that is simply a 'connection'; throughness comes from having a connection but also includes the over the back, supple, resistance free body that allows the energy to constantly flow through the horse resulting in a horse that is straight, balanced and able to hold themselves. So once you have a forward rhythm
its then a process of improving and maintaining as you progress through the levels. As we go up we ask the horse to take more weight behind but continue pushing with those hindlegs to create the energy to push through into the contact as well as perform the required moves. When we are at prelim level we don't expect the horses to be able to go consistently through yet, they may lose balance, be weaker behind, struggle to maintain a consistent contact or lose suppleness at time, they may also lose attention or get distracted or tense mentally which can also affect the throughness too. But as you progress through to grand prix minor losses of attention or balance is not expected as this will result in the horse not being able to perform the movements they need to do. So as you progress up the levels the throughness needs to become more established and more consistent. This requires a greater degree of suppleness, straightness, impulsion, strength and so, really, as riders we are constantly working on our horses throughness because, ultimately, a horse that is through is a horse that has all those scales of training that i always speak about (rhythm, suppleness, contact impulsion straightness and collection. Without all of these you cannot have a through horse.