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Training Throughness with Nicole Tough

The concept of throughness can be a tricky one to grasp, but it should be the goal of all our work, writes NICOLE TOUGH.  

This month, we’re going to demystify the concept of throughness, an invisible quality which should be the goal in all our work – starting with the simplest of transitions at basic level – and which should never be compromised as we proceed up the levels. 

But what does throughness mean? Throughness is the idea that energy starts in the haunches, ripples over the topline and is ‘caught’ by the rider’s hands. It is achieved when the rider’s aids (leg, seat and rein aids) go freely through the horse, from back to front and front to back. 

This analogy might better explain it: Imagine in our ridden horse that we have Hindquarter Island and Forequarter Island, and they are connected by a bridge (the back). When the traffic (energy) is flowing from Hindquarter Island to Forequarter Island, and the bridge is clear, we can reach our destination without delay. But when there is a traffic accident (a block), on either of the Islands or on the bridge, it needs to be cleared before the traffic can start flowing again.  

Throughness to the dressage rider is like the Force to a Jedi Knight!

All horses block in some way. Willingly working through the body, with no hesitation, whingeing, or resistance is hard. To make their workload easier, some horses will lean on the bit, where others might hide behind the bit. Some horses run away, and some horses stop and quit. Some horses come behind the leg, where others may become tense and anticipate. Some go crooked, and some go rigid. We, as their trainers, need to learn the tools to manage and correct the blocks/evasions, to channel the energy through the horse’s whole body. 

These tools encompass the pressure/release combinations of our aids. We need to learn how to feel and influence the horse’s quarters with our leg, their backs with our seat, and their jaws with our reins. 

Contact issues are the most common cause of traffic accidents that prevent throughness. Originating in Forequarter Island and feeling like a braced jaw, the horse blocks against the rein aids to prevent easy flexion of the poll joint. Their rider will feel like they are holding the head and neck of the horse in position, and are unable to achieve self-carriage.  

Conversely, suppleness issues can cause traffic accidents that also prevent throughness. Originating somewhere along the bridge, the rider might feel like they have empty or weightless reins. This horse has blocked in the back, causing a bowing or bracing of the underneck and a subsequent hollowing of the back. Another suppleness issue that can block energy from flowing through is the natural crookedness of the horse. Horses are, by nature, crooked in one direction and more rigid in the other. The rider dealing with this block may feel one rein as really sensitive and elastic, while the other is like immovable concrete. In this case, the traffic accident (the block) has occurred on one lane of the bridge.  

Unfortunately, riders can fall into the trap of taking a short cut: using the rein aids to mask the problem in the shortest possible time, especially in a competition situation. But in doing this, all we create is a bigger traffic jam that prevents the horse from being supple, elastic, engaged, and thus through.  

And we must remember that horses get good at what they do; so if they practise working incorrectly, they get good at going incorrectly. Instead of masking the problem, we should seek to void the block to hopefully prevent reoccurrence. 

It will take a few more steps and it will be hard, but it is always better to push the horse more through from the hind leg into the hand, because all the movements will be better for it. 

Sometimes if we can’t push the horse more through in their show frame, we may have to invite them to lower their poll, to get them up in the wither and more through, but we shouldn’t stay there. If we stay there in the lower frame, we cannot complain about the judges’ marks. At the end of the day, we have to get the horse more through in the show frame.  

Achieving it is possibly the hardest hurdle to feel and attain, but it is its own reward.

A horse that is through is an athlete that is equally supple on both sides and willingly reacts to each and all the rider’s aids. This requires complete understanding of the task, the strength to co-operate, a degree of relaxation, and a correct connection. 

Throughness to the dressage rider is like the Force to a Jedi Knight! Achieving it is possibly the hardest hurdle to feel and attain, but it is a struggle worth working towards, and moments of throughness are their own reward.  

May the throughness be with you – always. 

All images by Christy Baker Photography.