The first time I really saw a musical freestyle as a form of competition, was at High Prairie Equestrian Center in Parker Colorado. I was grooming for my trainer. The horse was a First level Clydesdale performing to a highly up beat classical rendition of Turkey in the Straw.
It was more than just entertaining, something about it caught my and everyone’s attention. That was it. I was hooked. From that moment on, my goal in training has been to not just ride my horse but to exude that same powerful passionate partnership that stopped me dead in my tracks as I walked by their performance.
Musical Freestyles are not just a fun demonstration, but a serious component of the dressage competition at the Olympics and World Equestrian Games. They are mandatory for any Intermediate or Grand Prix rider’s chance for championship competitions and for any FEI Junior or Young Rider to earn a spot on the Regional Team.
As described by the USDF and USEF “Dressage Musical Freestyle combines the elegance and beauty as well as the power and strength of the horse with the stirring impact of music.”
Although many local schooling shows sponsor “fun” Musical Freestyle competitions in lower level dressage including walk/trot, at USDF/USEF recognized competitions, there are Musical Freestyle tests in First level through Fourth. In FEI competitions, you will find them in Para Equestrian Dressage, Junior Young Riders, Young Riders, Intermediate I and Grand Prix.
The USEF requires that the horse and rider combination receives a minimum score of 60% in the highest test of the declared level or above. An example to clarify; to compete in First level Freestyle a rider/horse combo must have received 60% or above in First level test 3 or any Second Level test. It is recommended by the USDF, that the horse and rider combination compete in freestyle one level below their current competition level, in order to maintain the highest possible technical quality in their presentation.
Certain compulsory movements must be incorporated into the freestyle program. These are listed on the score sheet under technical execution. The rider is free to design the order, and add other movements should they choose to do so. The only carved in stone rule is that riders are not allowed to add movements in a level higher than the one for which the test is written. The penalty for riding a movement above the chosen level is a deduction of four points from the final score. For an example, a Grand Prix rider may not do a pirouette that exceeds 720 degrees. If a rider does so, he or she receives a zero for the element, and in addition, the score for Choreography and Degree of Difficulty will not receive a score higher than a 5.
FEI Tests, such as Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I & II, and Grand Prix, are available on-line for download at www.fei.org.
Other valuable information on the score sheets, is the maximum time allotment for each test. Timing begins with the move off from the halt/ salute, and there is also a section of “Clearly Forbidden” and “Clearly Allowed” movements and transition.
It is important to understand that the required elements for freestyle are not always the same as the standard tests for the level. A couple key differences are halt/salute does not have to be at X but anywhere on the centerline also changes from one element to another do no need to be on the letters. Also, that transitions and figures don’t count as movements. Even though there is no canter to halt transition in a First Level test, if a rider is capable of doing it would be permitted, since it is a transition, not a movement.
When I asked one of our beginner riders what they thought of Musical Freestyle I was told “it’s when the horse taps his feet to the music, while you ride.” This is the most complicated part of the discipline finding the music that matches the rider and horse’s style and that brings out the passion and turns the technical execution of elements into a breathtaking piece of art.
Of course, music is mandatory. The horse’s gait tempo’s should be measured as well as the horse’s movement, body build, and level need to be observed in order to select appropriate music. Any genre of music can be used, Classical, jazz, rock, more. It is important to find music that is entraining and showcases the rider and horse combo. It is strongly recommended that the entire program be comprised of the same genre, style or theme. Mixing musical genres is not appealing to the judges as a cohesive program.
The choreography must incorporate all the technical requirements for the level and interpret the music. The program should flow from one movement to another while the horse and rider appear to be dancing easily through the technical elements of the level.
Judging Dressage Musical Freestyles can be subjective, although there is a set of rules for dressage judges to follow, the technical execution is one part of the total score. Artistic Impression is always subject to personal interpretation.
For the spectator, it is always helpful to know the required elements for freestyle level you are watching and score sheets for every level are available on the web. There will always be that “know it all” that sits next to you, the one that can clearly see every mistake, error, hoof beat off rhythm and more. Musical Freestyles should be a work of art that sweeps you away for the sole purpose of enjoyment, allow yourself to embrace that.
“Freestyle, for me, is the place where the horse is encouraged to express itself…not just the rider. Freestyle is where you can feel the passion in dressage. In the special freestyles, the horse and rider have joy in dancing together.” ~Betsy Vandyke / trainer and competitor.
Totilas and Edward Gal WEG 2010 Grand Prix Freestyle
Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz and FUEGO XII – 2010 World Equestrian Games