The words “rounder” and “through” are commonly used by dressage riders, judges, and trainers.
You might see the comment, “could be rounder and more through” on your dressage score sheet, or you may hear your trainer encouraging you to increase your horse’s “roundness” and “throughness.”
Although often used, these terms are frequently misunderstood. Or, if they are understood, many riders are unsure of how to achieve correct roundness and throughness.
So, in this article, we will clarify what “round” and “through” mean in the context of dressage, why these qualities are desirable, and how you can increase the roundness and throughness of your own horse.
What is “round”?
The term round refers to your horse’s overall outline and longitudinal flexion (flexion over your horse’s topline).
The dressage judge wants to see that your horse is “round over his back” and carrying himself in a biomechanically functional posture.
A round back is lifted, supported by your horse’s core muscles, with his hind legs sufficiently engaged.
What round is NOT
The term “round” is often misinterpreted as “round in the neck,” i.e., if your horse’s head is tucked into his chest, he is round. (Which is incorrect.)
To achieve this false and incorrect roundness, many riders make the common mistake of fiddling with the rein contact in an attempt to curl up their horse’s neck.
Sadly, all this does is create an overbent neck with your horse working behind the vertical. In this position, your horse cannot step under with his hind legs, resulting in a hollow back – which is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve.
So, always remember, it’s “round over the back” and not “round in the neck.”
What is “through”?
The term through refers to your horse working from behind into the contact, with energy flowing through him unrestricted.
This way of going leads to the “permeability of your aids,” which means that your aids pass through your horse without any blockages, and your horse can respond to your aids with his whole body.
The best way to explain this is to imagine your horse as a network of streams. When all the streams are flowing as they should, you can direct the water into different areas of your horse, producing various movements. But if one of those streams becomes blocked, it may begin to overflow, preventing the entire network from flowing correctly.
Essentially, those streams are energy. So when your horse is working through, energy is flowing through your horse. You can then direct and control that energy using your aids to produce collection, extensions, and various school movements.
If there is a blockage somewhere, it prevents the energy from flowing and your aids from permeating. Blockages cause your horse to compensate somehow and may result in problems such as crookedness, irregular steps, head tilting, resistance, loss of balance, etc.
Blockages can be caused by the following:
- Tension (in either horse or rider)
- Physical issues
- Ill-fitting tack
- The rider (tight seat, gripping knees, sitting crooked, poor aiding, etc.)
Your horse can be described as “working through” when energy is flowing through him, from his hind legs into the contact. Hence, the common phrase of “working through to the contact.”
What through is NOT
Throughness has nothing to do with speed or strong rein aids.
Speeding up your hose’s tempo while keeping a restrictive contact does nothing except cram your horse between stronger leg and rein aids, leading to tension and blockages. Again, the opposite of what you want to achieve.
ROUND & THROUGH
Now that we know what round and through is (and what it isn’t), let’s look at these qualities together.
Why do you want your horse “round” and “through”?
If your horse is round over his topline and working through to your contact from behind, this way of going will lead to the following benefits:
- Your horse will be able to step further underneath himself with his hind legs, creating a more uphill balance with a lighter and more maneuverable forehand.
- It will allow you to increase the impulsion and the carrying power of your horse’s hind legs.
- You will have a more effective half-halt, enabling you to prepare and balance your horse for school movements.
- It will enable you to work your horse in a biomechanically functional posture promoting longevity and a long working life.
- It will allow you to use lighter aids, promoting harmony.
Ultimately, these qualities enable your horse to perform the more advanced work that is demanded at the higher levels.
How do you get your horse ’rounder’ and more ‘through’?
Firstly, when encouraging your horse to become rounder and more through, it’s vital that you don’t focus on your horse’s outline and head. As mentioned above, many riders make the mistake of trying to create roundness in their horse’s neck, which does nothing except cause discomfort and block the energy traveling through their horse’s back.
Roundness and throughness come from your horse’s hind legs, not his head position.
Here’s an exercise to help you achieve it.
You can ride this exercise in walk, trot, or canter, but it’s best to start in trot if this is your first time.
Start by working your horse freely forward in a good rhythm, ensuring that he is in front of your leg and giving you prompt responses to your leg aids.
Keep a light elastic contact with your horse’s mouth, making sure that your hands remain steady and even with no fiddling.
- The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm
- How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
- How to Keep Your Hands Still
Ride your horse onto a large 20-meter circle and open up his strides by pushing him forwards. You want your horse to start taking bigger steps without increasing his tempo.
At the same time, keep your contact consistent, encouraging your horse forward into your hand.
In this step, you are encouraging your horse to push more with his hind legs.
NOTE: Make sure that your horse is bending uniformly and correctly around the circle. Your horse’s body needs to remain aligned (i.e., with his hind feet following in the tracks left by his front feet) for his energy to be successfully transmitted from his hindquarters, over his back, and into your contact.
If your horse’s body is not aligned, the energy created by his hindquarters will be re-directed somewhere else, usually through his outside shoulder, causing your horse to fall out.
Next, grow a bit taller in your position and use light half-halts to gradually collect your horse’s strides while keeping the same tempo, impulsion, and activity of his hind legs.
In this step, you are encouraging your horse to carry more with his hind legs.
After a few collected strides, and when you feel your horse is carrying more weight behind, gradually push him forward, asking him to open up his strides again.
After a few steps, keep your hands where they are and let your reins slowly slip through your fingers. Your horse should continue to stretch into the contact and take the bit forward and down.
Don’t allow a lot of rein, as though you were doing a full stretch or a free walk on a long rein. Instead, only allow a small amount of rein – just enough to encourage your horse to lift through the base of his neck.
TIP: If in trot, ride this part of the exercise in rising trot (not sitting trot). If you are in canter or walk, stay sat up straight and in the saddle, but adopt a lighter seat. Don’t sit deep and heavy; this can prevent your horse from rounding his back and block the energy from flowing through.
ANOTHER TIP: Since you are on a circle, allowing your inside rein to slip through your fingers just a little bit before your outside rein can help keep your horse balanced and avoid him coming off the contact, encouraging him to keep stretching toward the bit.
Importantly, you must continue to ride your horse positively forward into the contact, don’t let him drop behind your leg. Your horse’s hind legs must keep stepping actively underneath; this is what causes your horse’s back to lift and creates the energy which is to flow over his back to your contact.
How to feel if your horse is round and through
If you have followed the above steps correctly, your horse should now be round and through, and you should feel the following:
- Your horse should look and feel as though he has got a bit wider at the base of his neck and withers as his back starts to lift.
- Your thighs should feel a little wider as your horse contracts his stomach muscles and raises his back.
- Your horse’s steps should become more elevated with increased spring and expression.
- You should feel an even and steady weight in your hands as a result of your horse working through and connecting to the end of the reins (i.e., not because you’re holding onto your horse’s head).
- With every stride, you should feel a constant flow of energy surging upwards and forwards, like a wave over your horse’s back.
Your goal is to be able to go back to your regular schooling work and ride various dressage movements while maintaining the feeling of active and engaged hindlegs, transmitting energy through a lifted and rounded back forwards into your contact.
When trainers and judges use the words “round” and “through,” they assume riders know what they mean. However, these terms are often misinterpreted, or the rider is unsure how to achieve these qualities and what they feel like.
For your horse to be round and through, he must be round over his back with energy flowing from his hindlegs through to the contact.
The easiest way to encourage your horse to work this way is to ride him on a large circle and ride transitions within the pace before allowing him to take the rein forward and down, lifting his back and sending energy from his hindlegs into your contact as he does so.
For the first couple of times you ask your horse to work this way, be aware that you are asking him to engage muscles he’s probably never used. Therefore, keep your sessions short and positive to allow your horse to build the necessary strength and prevent muscle soreness.