In her new and already bestselling book DRESSAGE FOR THE NOT-SO-PERFECT HORSE, international dressage judge and popular clinician Janet Foy explains the required test movements through the levels, and the kinds of imperfections she generally sees both in her own teaching scenarios and in the show ring.
Janet tells us about the movement she has dubbed the “stretchy, chewy circle”: the USEF test movement for Training and First Levels that asks the horse to be allowed to “stretch forward and downward into a light contact, maintaining balance and quality of trot; bend; shape and size of circle; smooth, balanced transitions.” According to Janet, the “stretchy, chewy circle” is one of the most confusing movements for judges and for riders, and many people struggle to get it right.
1 Problem: My horse curls up.
Solution: When the horse curls up (showing no forward inclination), usually the rider has lost the bend. Remember the horse will not curl when you have one side of his entire body bending with the outside of the body lengthening and stretching toward the outside rein.
A horse can learn to curl in an attempt to avoid contact due to a severe bit, too strong rein contact, or incorrect use of draw reins. Sometimes, due to poor conformation of the neck or incorrect muscling, a horse will curl up on his own. When you have a horse curling for any of these reasons, you may first have to actually make the neck shorter in order to establish the correct connection. Once you have a connection from the leg to the hand, you can work on lengthening the neck a bit at a time.
Do not expect it to happen overnight. You can ride with long reins in the hope that the horse will at some point stretch to the bit, but I can tell you it won’t happen!
2 Problem: My horse speeds up.
Solution: This horse is a bit out of balance. Try not going so far down for a while and keep riding half-halts with your seat or using your voice to slow the tempo down. Work a bit more with a little stretch for maybe half a circle and then bring him up for the other half. Remember, the horse is used to bringing the head and neck up to balance himself, not depending on the rider to help. You must encourage the horse to trust that you will help him and allow him to understand that he can maintain his balance and still lower his head and neck.
3 Problem: My horse stretches his neck out without lowering it.
Solution: I call this the “swallow-the-telephone-pole stretch.” The horse is lengthening his topline but in a stiff way, while his back is not staying supple and round. Again, check to make sure you have lateral bend. This will encourage longitudinal suppleness. The other possibility is that your horse is not supple over the topline to begin with. Go back to your warm-up session and check to make sure your horse will allow you access to his topline, as well as willingly bending.
4 Problem: My horse reacts by stretching with no contact on the reins.
Solution: This is known as a “gravity stretch.” The rider just “throws” the reins at the horse, and the horse’s head only goes down because it weighs a lot. This is really a rider issue and the rider must be taught the correct aids for this movement.
5 Problem: My horse’s head goes up when I ask for the stretch.
Solution: This horse has not achieved the suppleness necessary to perform his work. The rider needs to go back to the warm-up and work on loosening the horse’s topline muscles correctly. This type of horse might benefit from correct longeing.
With regard to the stretchy, chewy circle is: Should the horse be allowed to come behind the vertical or not? This issue is always under discussion among judges. The consensus is that coming behind the vertical while stretching is not a problem as long as you can visualize the neck being raised into a working frame and the nose in front of the vertical.
You can find Janet Foy’s solutions to all kinds imperfections in her new book DRESSAGE FOR THE NOT-SO-PERFECT HORSE, which is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is always FREE.