The stretchy circle
Before "stretchy circles" were added to the low level dressage tests, we used to do this in training. It was called "showing the way to the ground" (probably a translation from German) and later, "long and low."
The stretchy circle does not consist of letting the horse pull the reins out of your hands or allowing him to run on the forehand. It is instead a systematic lowering of the horse's head and neck while keeping the horse on the aids.
A rider should be able to place the horse's head and neck at whatever height and length he or she wants it to be, depending on the level of training the horse has achieved. Being able to do so demonstrates how "connected" and "through" the horse has become.
We want the horse to "look for" the rider's hand. It is one of the results of successful half-halts. What?!? In the half-halt article I said that the horse should demonstrate a moment of self-carriage after a successful half-halt. This is true, but after that moment, the ride can either regain contact with both reins and ride on in the same frame OR, in this case, ask the horse to lower its head and neck further, just as we do when the horse is above the aids at the withers.
Toward that end, we ride the horse at a steady working trot rising, as asked for in the tests (although this can and should be done at the walk and canter as well). The rider begins, as always, with applying the upper inside leg. This time, however, the rider uses a slightly elevated outside rein, then gives that rein, and "follows" the horse's head down with the inside rein. It might take a moment, or it might not happen at all at first. The rider can follow this up by half-halting on the inside rein (slightly upward) as well, releasing, and following down with the outside rein. This works on the corners of the horse's mouth, not the bars. Soon the horse begins to understand and seeks the contact and elastic feel on the reins with which it has become accustomed and comfortable.
In this way, the rider can keep "stepping" the horse's neck down to whatever level is desired. The horse's head should remain perpendicular to the ground--neither behind nor in front of the vertical (although slightly in front of the vertical is widely accepted). We want the horse to remain giving in the poll: that is, opening and closing the throat latch depending on the degree of elevation.
The horse should, obviously, lengthen in the frame and stretch over its back, but it should not get quicker or shorter in stride or fall on the forehand. Balance should be maintained as evidenced by the hind legs coming under the body and lightness being maintained in the rider's hands. This lightness should ensure the horse's cooperation in coming back together in a shorter, more elevated, frame at the end of the circle.
When "stretchy circles" are performed correctly, they provide remarkable insight (a "light bulb moment") into how to achieve what is to come next as a horse and rider move up the levels.
-- by Suzanne May