The Dressage Musical Freestyle

March 2008
Learn the Benefits for Both Horse and Rider
Although it is only a relatively recent addition to the competitive world of dressage, the musical
freestyle has come to be seen as the height of dressage competition, reserved for the
best horse and rider pairs. But those involved in the riding, creating and
judging of freestyles say there are many good reasons why riders of all levels
should consider the freestyle.

ImageTerry Ciotti-Gallo, who owns Klassic Kur and has designed musical freestyles for many of North America’s leading Grand Prix riders, says that aside from the fact that freestyles are fun, there are a number of other great benefits. For one, it provides horses that are limited with a new venue once they’ve gone as far up the levels as they’re capable.

“If you have a horse that is only going to be, say, a First Level horse but you want to keep riding him, the freestyle gives you another avenue. And, when you begin thinking in choreographic terms, you don’t have to do the same drill every day for your horse. You can mix it up a bit and start thinking creatively and keep the horse on your aids,” Ciotti-Gallo said. “The third reason for doing freestyles is that if you can find a piece of music that is very even in its beat, it can also help you if you have a horse with an uneven cadence. If you start working to the beat of the music, it keeps you even, providing that you’ve changed the beat of the music to match your horse.”

Grand Prix rider Jane Hannigan certainly agrees with Ciotti-Gallo. “Rhythm is the first thing on the training scale. The freestyle forces you to have a regular rhythm. So it is a super, super thing for any rider, even amateurs, to have to do because then you have to ride the rhythm and learn how to adjust it to the footing,” she said.

In other words, the key here is riding to music that matches your horse’s beat and to find that beat, Ciotti-Gallo says, begin by doing a videotape of your horse and then match music to the video.

“From the videotape, you find the target beat of your horse and there are many places where you can find out how to do that. Then you set your music to the target tempo for your horse and you play the music while you ride. This way, the music acts as a ‘trainer,’ telling you what your cadence should be,” she said.

But Hannigan warns that a horse’s beat varies depending on the footing. Hence, she does a videotape on three different types of surfaces and takes the average. She learned this lesson about the impact of footing on the horse at last year’s National Dressage Championships in Gladstone, New Jersey. “At Gladstone last year, the footing was really fast and Mak’s beats were so fast that the music ran slow and he was going fast. Eventually, we got ahead of the music and the movements and music no longer matched.”

Freestyles are clearly becoming more popular among dressage riders at all levels. In fact, a growing number of dressage competitions are requiring them of riders. As an example, this year’s Northeast Regional Adult Amateur Dressage Championships, scheduled to be held at Mystic Valley Hunt Club this fall, will require the top riders to perform a freestyle.

Canadian Grand Prix rider Jacqueline Brooks is a strong proponent of encouraging riders at all levels to try a freestyle because she said it gives them a unique experience. “It’s a whole different level of riding. It’s probably the first time that you will go in a competition ring and ride almost completely on feel. You must listen to the music and rather than saying to yourself, ‘At this letter I will do this transition,’ you say, ‘At this transition in the music, I will do this movement.’ It comes from your ear through your body and you mix feeling with technical riding.”

From a judge’s perspective, “S” judge Charlotte Bredahl-Baker, who is also a competitive rider and trainer, notes that freestyles are one of the most difficult things to judge. “They are very challenging because there are so many things that you have to consider,” she says.

Not only must judges score the execution of movements, but also such things as choreography, use of music and even such subjective things as artistic impression—and what “impresses” one judge as artistic might not impress another. Even some judges admit the artistic side of the score is where they most have room to manuever when scoring a freestyle. The benefit of a freestyle is that the right choice of music can offset some weaknesses of the horse, Ciotti-Gallo said.

Judges do give scores for suitable choice of music and she says that suitable means that adult-style music isn’t used for a child or “big horse” music used for a pony or little horse. From the perspective of a freestyle designer, the right choice is music that can mask weaknesses of the horse. For example, Ciotti-Gallo said, powerful music can be used to give the illusion of more lift behind, which means it’s great for a sluggish horse.

As difficult as they are to judge, most who do, seem to enjoy them, but Bredahl-Baker does warn that as fun as freestyles are for both riders and judges, it’s still important for riders to understand that they must not forget that they and their horses must be capable of riding the level at which they are competing in a freestyle.

“I think your technical scores should still be good before you move on to the freestyle because if you can’t do the technical part, your freestyle won’t be good,” she said.

Because freestyles are also evolving, meaning that riders are constantly adjusting them, Hannigan suggests that riders pay close attention to the scores they receive—and not just the overall score, but the scores of individual judges. What you are looking for, Hannigan said, is hints on how your freestyle looks to judges at different angles. Consistently low scores from, say, the judge at E, should tell you that something isn’t right about your freestyle from that angle.

Although at some point in the freestyle process it does pay to have a professional at least tidy things up, professional freestyle designers say there is much that riders can do on their own to get started. As Ciotti-Gallo said, step one is to videotape your horse to learn to match music to his beats.

Freestyle designer Ann Guptill, who, with her husband, Ed Larusso, owns Fox Ledge Farm and Equestrian Arts Productions in Connecticut, suggests that riders who are considering a freestyle spend some time watching other riders. “I suggest watching lots of top freestyle rides to get ideas of how to think outside the box for the choreography. It is very important to note how top scoring rides have music that suits the horse and highlights the movements,” she said.

The freestyle that Hannigan has used with her Grand Prix partner, Maksymilian, for the past two years, was basically designed by herself and her sister, Kerry Hannigan Munz. That freestyle was to the music of Bond, but Hannigan now has a new freestyle that is to piano music. For this one, she got professional help from Marlene Whitaker. While a top-notch professional can cost upwards of $4,000, Hannigan has decided it’s worth it.

“I think that for adult amateurs, it can be a huge learning experience to do one on your own. But, I will warn that it’s very time consuming and difficult,” she said. “A professional can be expensive, but if you figure the hours that my sister and I put into Mak’s freestyle and being up many nights until 3 a.m. changing it and fixing it, a professional is worth it.”

One thing Hannigan noticed switching to a professional is that Whitaker reversed the process. Hannigan and her sister had created the choreography first and then looked for music to match. “With Marlene, she wanted to feel the music and find the music first and then see what of that fit the horse and what didn’t. Mak is elegant, and we watched the video of him over and over to different music to see what enhanced him and what didn’t. Some music made him look light, some made him heavy. Some canter music made him look on the forehand and some made him look up and light.”

Tamara Williamson is a freestyle designer from Canada who owns Kurboom, a freestyle music design company, and has designed freestyles for many of Canada’s leading riders. Williamson said she starts a freestyle by designing a creative pattern. The right pattern can make the job of editing go quicker, she said. “The design should be creative and run the right length of time. The rider should try and make the trot and canter tour mirror itself, as this will make editing the music far easier,” Williamson said.

She believes the greatest challenge is finding the right music. “Often the music you want to use may not want to work for you,” Williamson said. “Start writing down ideas when you hear music that you think might work. You can find all kinds of music these days on the Internet. Freestyles are generally made with instrumental music. However, music with vocals can also be used.”

Guptill agrees that choosing the right music is vital and said that one of the key mistakes she sees in freestyles is that “the music does not suit the horse or enhance the ride.” Choreography is also often a problem. “Choreography that is not clearly ridden so that the judge can recognize the required movement, is not good.”

For Williamson, the last stage is editing and she notes that today there are many good computer programs that can help mix and edit music. However, both she and Ciotti-Gallo note that this is the point where many riders get stuck and hence, editing is often the stage best done by professionals so the transitions between musical numbers are seamless.

A final note for riders is to be fully prepared on competition day. In particular, this means checking to be sure you have your music with you and that the CD or tape works. Williamson gave one example of a failure to follow this advice.

“I was at a national show watching the grand prix freestyles a few summers ago. One of my riders came out and raised her hand. To our amazement, “The Style Council,” a rather weird band from the eighties, started playing on the sound system. We all looked at each other and then I started to run. Luckily for the rider, I had a copy of her music in my pocket, something I normally don’t do. I reached the sound booth and handed them the correct CD. The rider later told me she found her kur music in her “Style Council” CD case, sitting neatly on her car seat. So be prepared, have a spare copy of your music and always go to the sound check.”

Despite the hard work that must go into creating a good freestyle, those who create them and ride them believe it’s well worth the effort.

“Once the music is chosen that suits the horse, the freestyle comes together. And it can be a very rewarding experience for the rider. Both the process of creating the ride, and the skills learned in riding the freestyle test, expand the rider’s abilities,” Guptill said.

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