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Many of us know about stretch reflexes from the doctor's office, when a physician taps the tendon near our kneecap to elicit a quick knee extension. This procedure is used as a diagnostic tool to determine the integrity of the spinal cord and the extension response it elicits may seem otherwise useless. In fact, the tendon tap taps into one aspect of a critical building block of mammalian motor control, the stretch reflexes. Stretch reflexes are often thought to quickly resist unexpected changes in muscle length via a very simple circuit in the spinal cord, and this is one circuit that the tendon tap engages. It turns out, however, that stretch reflexes support a myriad of functions and are highly flexible. Under naturalistic conditions, stretch reflexes are shaped by peripheral physiology and engage neural circuits spanning the spinal cord, brainstem and cerebral cortex. In this Primer, we outline what is currently known about stretch reflex function and its underlying mechanisms, with a specific focus on how the cascade of nested responses collectively known as stretch reflexes interact with and build off of one another to support real-world motor behavior.