Throughness – it is a word that many dressage riders hear often said. Why did that horse spook? He wasn’t through. Why is the trot tiny and unimpressive? Not through. Why isn’t my horse baking me cookies right now? He needs to be more through.
But what is throughness? Sometimes instructors seems to get marbles in their mouths when they attempt to describe the term. Yielding to the aids. Supple and cooperative. Preheating the oven while mixing the batter.
In this article I will attempt to break down the structures of throughness for better for overall better understanding.
I want you to think about your horse as a cube, like a toy block. Every cube has six sides. When holding it in your palm you can see that it has a top and a bottom, a left and a right, and a front and a back from your perspective. A horse is the same way. If we lop off his or her legs and head then we are left with the barrel of our unlucky horse and can treat it the same way as our toy block.
Dimension one – The Top: We consider the ‘top’ of the horse the back musculature. In a larger sense this extends into the neck, forming the entire topline, but for this discussion we will be speaking only of the back and wither. For a through horse the back must be pulled upward, toward the sky. The muscles must be toned yet swinging, but most importantly engaged in the first place. To read about a dropped back click here.
Dimension two – The Abdomen: The back of the horse does not engage in a vacuum. Its partner in crime resides in the opposite side of the barrel – the abdomen. In order for the back to engage so must the horse’s core and the same is true in reverse. A horse must have both ends in place so one can stabilize the other. Unless you have some anatomical freak, there is no way that a horse’s stomach can engage without the back pulling upward. Similarly, if the horse’s back is dropped then his abdomen is pushing down, toward the ground and is stretched long from nose to tail, just like if you arched your back and pushed your tummy out. We want the horse’s abdominal muscles toned and short, not long and slack. This informs the shape of the back on the other side of the horse.
Dimension three – The Forehand: Getting the horse pushing upward off of the forehand is one of the tenets of dressage. The freedom and maneuverability of the shoulder is what allows the horse to complete the lateral movements required in dressage, all the way up to Grand Prix. When a shoulder is weighted downward then the horse loses this control. The rider will then find braced downward transitions, runny upward transitions and struggles in completing the criteria of lateral movements or smaller figures. It is because the horse must constantly be changing the position of his shoulders and chest to lead into the next stride and this requires movement, which means that the stabilizing or following point must reside elsewhere.
Dimension four – The Hindleg: Ding! Ding! Ding! Here is where the weighted point resides and one of the reasons why it takes so long to train a horse to Grand Prix. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to carry the weight necessary to free up the forehand while still maintaining enough activity to propel into the next stride. This combination of weight loading while remaining actively in motion means that the horse is not allowed to lock is joints or body parts together to help carry the load. Think about if you were going grocery shopping and you ended up carrying a massive water melon to the register. You would probably be walking with stiff, small steps and locked arms and shoulders…panting heavily. Now imagine if someone asked you to step in long fluid strides without locking any joints. It would be a heck of a lot more difficult. It would put the burden of movement exclusively on your musculature without allowing you to compensate for your weakness through creative movement. That is the strength building process in dressage.
Dimension five and six – Left and Right: Everyone man or beast has their own asymmetries and physical quirks. Some of them are major and others minor. To send a horse to “the outside rein” means that they have closed the musculature of their inner bodies and opened the musculature of their outer bodies. Most of you will have felt that it is easier to bend a horse one direction versus another. What you are feeling is that one side yields easily and the other does not. The goal in dressage is to use bend in figures such as circles and lateral work in both directions to achieve even access to both left and right of the horse. The horse should “allow” you in on both sides of himself, building to a point where you have access to both simultaneously and can alternate inside and outside aids with the shift of your seat.
Dimension seven – The Mind: Last but certainly not least is the mind of the horse. Your horse’s mind, through careful training through the years, should be honed to a state of respect and cooperation. These characteristics will inspire faith in you as their rider. The “rules” of riding, if kept consistent and fair will give your horse the bravery to move forward in the training process without fear of the unknown. I believe that fear of the unknown and uncertainty are one of the major reasons for chronic misbehavior. Horses rely on a structure in the wild as well as within domestication. They will definitely test the parameters of the structure, but once finding it consistent, will settle comfortably within it. Of course horses are individuals and there are lazy, neurotic, strong, timid or showboating personalities within all of them. Building a consistent program will give lazy horses an expected standard of performance, neurotic or timid horses comfort and strong minded or showboating horses a place in which to thrive. Fundamentally they have evolved to work within a system of rules and expect that as a part of their lives.
And so, we have throughness as a physical and mental construct. It is something that is a different feel on each new horse and takes a different path to achieve. But without all seven of these components you will find that throughness is impossible.