How to maximise your marks in freestyle dressage *H&H Plus*

  • From FEI to riding clubs, more riders are feeling the lure of dressage to music. Helen Triggs gives you the lowdown to help you show off your best moves

    Dressage to music was born in 1980, when British Olympic rider Jennie Loriston-Clarke staged a demonstration with Gaynor Colbourn riding Dutch Courage and Dutch Gold. From there, music freestyle was debuted at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 — which was won by Isabell Werth and Gigolo — and has been a compulsory part of Olympic competition since.

    In 2012, Charlotte Dujardin’s gold medal-winning Olympic performance on Valegro introduced a whole new audience to “dancing horses” and inspired riders at all levels to give it a go. Today, the freestyle bug has spread far beyond the international grand prix circuit, with classes at affiliated, unaffiliated and riding club competitions; this year, around 650 combinations contested the British Dressage (BD) music regionals from novice to advanced medium.

     Technology has made the process of designing and creating freestyle programmes easier, and there is a wide variety of professional help available.

    In freestyle tests, riders can choose the order of the movements to display the horse to his best advantage — and avoid areas where perhaps he doesn’t shine.

    They are also a good introduction to dressage for young horses, as the lines can be a bit easier and the music keeps the horse’s attention from what’s happening outside the arena.

    Grand prix rider and judge Nereide Goodman has helped to boost the sport in Britain with freestyle gala evenings run at Wellington Riding, Hampshire, for over 30 years, helping inspire amateurs to have a go. She acknowledges the vast improvement in standard since the early days: “The whole picture has changed and modern technology has brought it within anyone’s ability to make a professional music programme.”

    So how do you start?

    If you can, watch freestyle classes at BD championships. There are also hundreds of freestyle examples on YouTube — these will give you ideas of how to create an interesting floorplan and what kind of music suits different types of horses.

    Ride to music when you’re schooling at home, either via earphones or by putting speakers in the arena. Choose music you like and think will fit the horse’s paces, then just enjoy it.

    Check out the BD rules which give guidance on timings and movements allowed. There are two sets of marks: technical (judged in the same way as a straight test) and artistic (which includes harmony, degree of difficulty, music and interpretation of the music, and are each marked with a coefficient of four).

    You can include any movements that are featured in the straight test at the same level. However, only the compulsory movements will be marked. Therefore, don’t include any movements from a level above the one at which you’re competing or you will have two marks deducted.

    Some riders like to create their floorplan first, while others will select their music and fit the movements to it. Usually it’s a bit of both — the music might need editing and the floorplan may need to change to get a particular movement to fit the phrasing of the soundtrack.

    Julie Geraghty of freestyle producer Equivisions says: “At the lower levels it’s easier to do the floorplan first, as there are not so many changes of pace.”

    Sara-Jane Lanning is a seasoned freestyle competitor and also a judge.

    “The trick is to make your test different from a straight dressage test, but not so complicated that it’s difficult for the judge to follow,” she advises.

    The best soundtrack enhances the horse

    The musical element is critical — the best soundtrack enhances the horse and tells a story. Choose music that fits the horse, is memorable and leaves the judge humming the tune. Where possible, the horse’s footfalls should match the beat.

    “You can’t necessarily ride to music you like,” says Sara Green, who has created winning scores for Andrew Gould and Alice Oppenheimer. “I start by counting the beats per minute of each of the horse’s paces then find music to match.”

    It’s a good idea to use music by the same artist or genre for each pace, or that has a theme, as it makes the programme more cohesive. The use of vocals is a contentious issue and best used sparingly, although choral pieces where the voice is more of an instrument can work well. Vocals can be used for your entry if the lyrics make a particular point — this worked successfully for Nicky Barrett who used a song of Janis Joplin’s starting with the line, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,” to win the Mercedes-Benz-sponsored national championship freestyle in 2002.

    There are a number of ways you can create your music programme: choose the music yourself and use a software programme such as Audacity or GarageBand for your compilation, or buy a ready-prepared package off the internet from a company such as Sapphire Sounds. This is a cheap way to start, but the programme won’t be bespoke to your horse.

    Alternatively, you can send your CDs to a music editor, identifying which tracks you want and for how long, and they will edit the programme on to a CD, with prices from around £50. A more bespoke option is to send a video of your floorplan to a professional editor and ask them to select music. Costs vary from around £80 for a novice test to around £200 for small tour.

    Or you could attend a clinic such as those run by Equivisions’ Julie Geraghty, who produces the soundtrack while the riders work with grand prix rider Steph Croxford or List One judge Kim Ratcliffe on creating and filming the floorplan. Julie overlays the music so the rider can see if it works for them, and with more than 31,000 pieces of music on her database, there is a lot to choose from.

    A programme created at a clinic will cost £180 to £200 for a novice floorplan and music. As you progress up the levels, the task becomes more complex and more expensive. Top international riders have been known to spend thousands and commission original material or specially recorded versions.

    All music programmes need to be licensed and a sub-licence obtained from BD. Full details of how to do this are in the BD handbook. A licence agreement must be signed and the music record form filled in. These can be submitted online or by post; allow at least two weeks for processing. And make sure you take a spare CD as a back-up to the competition — not all venues can take digital files.

    Above all, don’t be shy about having a go. Horses love to dance and music adds an extra dimension to your riding.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 February 2020


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