One of the most valuable early lessons in dressage is teaching your horse to stretch down while maintaining contact. Not only does it confirm and improve his contact on the bit, it also provides you with a valuable tool for rewarding and relaxing him. First introduced as a movement at Training Level, it's something you'll use every day in your training no matter what level you're riding. So, it's all the more important that you don't take any shortcuts teaching your horse to do it.
Step 1: Start at the rising trot on a 20-meter circle.
Step 2: Keeping your upper body balanced, squeeze your legs in rhythm with hour horse's stride, thinking of pushing him forward into the bridle. As you use your legs, squeeze both hands on the reins, then immediately relax your hands, but don't drop contact.
Step 3: Your horse should respond by stretching his nose down and forward, taking an inch or two of reins through your hands. Don't actually let go of the contact. Your hands need to soften, but you always should have a light feel of your horse's mouth. Otherwise, you defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is for the horse to reach into the contact.
Step 4: Now, rather than asking your horse to stretch any more and risk losing the connection, maintain the contact and the lower frame for a few strides aby closing your hands on the reins again. Don't ask him to stretch down anymore, but, if you can, try ont to let his head come back up to where it was in the beginning.
Step 5: If your horse is still soft and steady in the contact, repeat the first two steps: Ask him to stretch down and forward a few more inches, while maintaining the contact.
Step 6: Continue this exercise until you feel that you've reached his limit: Either he won't stretch anymore, or he won't maintain a steady contact on the bit. If you achieve only a few inches of stretch at first, that's OK. The connection is key; if you lose the connection with his mouth, stop asking him to stretch and go back to riding him forward on the bit.
Jerry Schwartz has ridden at the upper levels since the early 1980s and has trained in Europe with Walter Christensen, Udo Lange and George Theodorescu. With the Westphalian gelding Piconne, he was an alternate for the 1987 Pan-American Games and was long-listed for the 1988 Olympics. He is based at Ever Green Farm in Beecher, Ill.
This article originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Dressage Today magazine.