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Understanding “Throughness”

An Elusive ‘Balance’ of the Aides

by Janet “Dolly” Hannon 

While traveling to different parts of the country to clinic, the most common misunderstanding that I encounter is the participants not understanding “throughness” and the effect correct bending has on this progression.

“Throughness” is a popular dressage buzzword. The German word for “throughness ”Durchlaessiskeit” does not translate well to English. But the closest single word is permeability, which means the state of being permeable or open to passage.

In high school biology (in the dark ages), I remember looking at single cell animals (amoebas) and learning how the cell membrane functioned. You can see the membrane flow, move and there is a continuous exchange of gases, which escape from the cell to the environment and back again. Applying this process to a dressage horse, we should think about an exchange of contact and flow of information from the rider through the seat and reins, and from the horse back to the rider. It’s a continuous and ultimately an invisible loop through a supple top-line: soft muscles and soft mouth.

We all know that we are supposed to ride our horses from the back (legs/seat) to front (reins). But the balance between the driving aides and the rein aides (positioning, suppling aides) can be very tricky. We must be able to time our half halts (rebalancing/ attention getting) and suppling aides without hanging on to the reins and pulling.

We must develop a “feel” but it can be hard to describe. An example I use is, what does it feel like to touch a particular key on the piano to create a musical note? This is a concept a clinician tries to describe of what the student should learn on the horse. Often, you have to go up and literally feel the reins to see what the rider is transmitting to the horse, by holding the reins near the bit, and by having the rider move the bit. I often find that the student is too strong and stiff in the arms, hands and wrists. Major Anders Lindgren often described the using of the hands as if holding a small bird, which you do not let fly away, but you also do not crush. The process of learning the “feel” of having your horse on the aides (the bit), and connected through the back can be very elusive for many riders. Once correctly felt, it becomes a lifelong habit and never forgotten. But the road to this correct contact, and “feel” can be a very frustrating experience. One of the reasons I think I am able to teach this fairly well is that I had to learn it the hard way. I have no doubt that Lindy Weatherford, my first Dressage instructor, remembers this all too well! I clearly remember not getting my horse on the bit easily, and the frustration I felt.

I had the privilege to attend the USDF trainers’ conference this year in Santa Rosa, California, where Conrad Schumacher talked about the bending aides. He quoted an unnamed source which I think is very clear, “the weakest rider can successfully ride the strongest horse if he/she understands the correct application of the bending aides. The weakest horse can outsmart the strongest rider, if that rider does not understand how to correctly bend the horse.”

The concept of bending a horse correctly and getting it on the aides willingly is simple; the application is tough and takes lots of practice and patience.

Horses give the appearance of bending through positioning of the head and neck, and by traveling with their shoulders and hips on the line of travel. They can’t really bend their spines to a large extent.

The bending aides are: inside leg a bit dominant, behind the girth, outside leg back holding the haunches from swinging out, inside rein a little shorter than outside to prevent a backwards feeling, a steady outside rein to keep the shoulder lined up, balance the bit and receive the half halts while remaining elastic. The weight aides are also used in bending but are specific to each lateral exercise. We all take the outside rein commandment too literally! It should not be a brick wall. One of the big challenges in schooling riders is the difficulty in the describing the amounts and timing of each one of the aides or ingredients to students. It is assumed that the rider also has the correct position and fitness to be balanced on the horse and independent. But that is another whole topic.

Ideally the horse should be responsive to the driving aides, almost “hot” off the leg but not tense; accepting the contact equally on both reins initially, then more on the outside rein. The horse should move off the inside leg willingly, and you should be able, in theory, to ask it to increase the bend (nose to tail) or position (head to neck) with little resistance.

Through circles (increasingly smaller ones), changes of direction, bending lines, lateral and longitudinal work, increased bending is accomplished. Horses start to be more supple and elastic and through. The lateral exercises are turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, leg yield, shoulder-in, haunches in (travers), haunches out (renvers), and half pass. The longitudinal exercises lengthening and shorting within the gaits are “ the stretchy chewy circle” or stretching down, the release of one or both reins (Uberstreichen) to check self carriage, and millions of transitions.

Through a combination of lateral and longitudinal exercises and movements we start to feel those moments of communication and “throughness” that feel like your horse “reads your mind.” It always makes me smile and reminds me of why dressage is so fascinating. You learn patience, “feel” and express your love of your horse, and our sport through correct, effective and kind riding. You know you are being successful not only in the show ring but especially when people tell you how “easy” it looks and what a nice relationship you visibly have with your horse. It’s a great feeling that we all can obtain time and patience, patience, patience and correct practice, practice, practice.