In the forward and downward stretch, the rider opens her fingers a little bit and invites her horse to chew the reins forward out of her hands. The reins are never released completely in this case. This movement is asked for in many dressage tests at Training and First Level.
Many riders confuse the concept of stretching horses forward and downward with the concept of testing for self-carriage by releasing the contact, also known by the German term Überstreichen. In the latter, the rider gives a half-halt to say "stay here" and then reaches one or both hands toward her horse's mouth until there is no contact at all. A horse in correct self-carriage shouldn't change his frame at all as a result.
The Stretchy Circle
The stretchy circle encourages your horse to lengthen his frame by reaching forward and down into the contact, As I continue gently massaging Timber's mouth with subtle finger movements and follow forward and down with my hands, I've kept a straight line from my elbow, through my hands, to his mouth. My fingers have opened slightly on the reins, and my wrists and arms are as soft and relaxed as I can make them. His happy expression--soft eyes, relaxed ears and chewing jaw (see the white foam on his lips)--indicates that he's appreciating and enjoying this soft contact.
Meanwhile, I'm keeping my own shoulders balanced over my hips and heels and looking ahead around the circle to help him maintain that crucial uphill balance. Notice that his hind foot is already solidly on the ground while his front foot is just landing. This means that he's still carrying more weight over his hindquarters.
1. In Überstreichen, you ask your horse to maintain correct self-carriage while you release the contact with one or both hands. Here, I'm preparing for the Überstreichen, asking Timber with my seat, reins and legs to "stay here."
2. When I follow forward with my inside rein, Timber maintains the same head carriage, neck length and bend that you saw in Photo 1. Compare his frame and contact with that in the stretchy circle photo above.
Courtney King's dressage honors include many U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Regional and Reserve Championships from Training Level through Grand Prix. She competed the Dutch stallion Idocus in the 2007 FEI Rolex World Cup in Las Vegas, where they finished sixth individually, and the 2007 World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. Courtney's background includes six years working as assistant trainer for Olympian Lendon Gray at Sunnyfield Farm in Bedford, N.Y., where she is still based, as well as training with other greats, such as Conrad Schumacher, Steffen Peters, Michael Poulin, Debbie McDonald and Klaus Balkenhol. She is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level.
Practical Horseman thanks Constance Sisler for providing Courtney's mount, 7-year-old Friesian gelding, Timber, for these photos.
To learn how to increase your competition scores for riding the stretchy circle, read "Stretch Your Horse" in the May 2008 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.