Hot Tips for a Cool Dressage Musical Freestyle

Learn how to create an exciting lower-level dressage musical freestyle.
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Learn how to create an exciting lower-level dressage musical freestyle.

At the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Freestyle Symposium, November 2002, in Raleigh, N.C., World Equestrian Games dressage team silver medalist Debbie McDonald joined international dressage judge Jennie Loriston-Clarke and musical freestyle designer Terry Ciotti Gallo as they critiqued three days of freestyle rides, giving feedback for the benefit of more than 400 riders, auditors, vendors and volunteers from the North Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association.

In addition, successful freestyle designers Barbara Gardner and Marlene Whitaker were on hand to give USDF university classes and take attendees step-by-step through creating a freestyle ride. "You can create a First Level freestyle that isn't boring," states Gardner.

Barbara Gardner was a horse-crazy child. She also loved to dance. She chose the life of an artist, dancer, actress, choreographer, writer, and ran a dance school and experimental theater in New York City and toured the country with her solo and group works. She later moved to Denver, Colorado, to pursue her childhood passion for dancing horses. In Denver, she was trainer and associate choreographer the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble.

"Now I'm just doing the same thing with horses," says Gardner, who has created dressage exhibitions, such as "The Evening of Dancing Horses," at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, as well as competition freestyles for individuals at all levels, including top riders Christine Taurig, Kathleen Raine and Jan Ebeling.

"I enjoy what I'm able to give people through making a dance for their horses," she says. "It's always an adventure. Sometimes people get out of their workplace and come bedraggled to the barn. But when they swing their leg over the saddle, they sit down and smile. Riding is one way to stay in a relationship with nature. It's a natural thing--a big, mysterious, spiritual thing."

Music is a big part of all our lives, Gardner continues. "It affects us emotionally; it affects us physiologically. I agree with the philosopher who wrote that life was not worth living without music ['Without music, life would be a mistake.'--Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher]. Music started from the love songs of animals; birds, whales, wolves. Men created the beat, which is so much fun to dance to and so much fun to ride to. Since we don't transport ourselves on horseback anymore, horses have become more of an artwork and a companion for people. This is something we have to keep in our lives."

Gardner gives this advice when choosing music: "The music you choose should reflect the dignity of the horse as well as matching his footfalls. Choose music that you love because you must listen to it over and over and over again."

To turn people on to dressage, Gardner suggests that organizers of local and regional championships liven up the competition by adding a bit of theater in the form of a noncompetitive freestyle exhibition.

Marlene Whitaker was a hunter rider for many years and was inspired to become a freestyle designer after seeing dressage Olympian Carol Lavell in an exhibition riding Gifted in the early 1990s. "It was magic--the right horse with the right music," says Whitaker, who says she is a pragmatic choreographer. She has designed freestyles for upper-level riders, such as Susan Dutta and Tami Crawford.

This was the first time many of the freestyle designers had met each other, and Whitaker said that it was a great opportunity. "We didn't know each other very well, but immediately sensed that we all were on the same road, experiencing the same things. For instance, Terry [Ciotti Gallo] and I just had a discussion on how canter relates to 6/8 time. What are the pros and cons? Do people think it's on the beat, and do judges like it? It was just a good discussion, and there are very few people I can talk to like this."

Whitaker stresses that understanding the five artistic-impression scores guides your choreography and performance choices. The first two marks are given for "rhythm, energy and elasticity" and "harmony between horse and rider." "These relate to the technical ride and reflect how your schooling is coming," she says. "They should be the same as your technical score. So if your technical score averages out to be 60 percent, then these first two artistic marks probably will be a 6."

The marks for "degree of difficulty" and "choreography" also reflect your technical expertise. "The wise rider understands that degree of difficulty means executing well the plan that they present. The error most commonly made is making a freestyle ride too difficult and overfacing the horse and rider. This element really should be called 'risk management.' And the best way to manage risk is to take very little of it. That's why we encourage riders to compete at one level below where they are schooling, because they should be confirmed in that lower level. Remember you want to preserve the purity of classical dressage, making it a joy for the horse, the rider and the audience."

"Choice of music and interpretation:" Match the music to your horse's tempo. Watch a video of your horse while playing music, advises Whitaker. Listen until you hear a piece that "makes him come alive, and follow that lead in your selection."

Whitaker says that technology for making musical transitions has greatly improved since she began. Although she works in a professional studio, she says that computer programs are available to everyone and are sophisticated enough to create a polished musical piece much more easily that even a few years ago. The cost of programs is affordable, too. "Even though we talk a lot about the music," she wants to remind everyone that "It is the technical quality of a ride that will win a freestyle class over great music. It's always the horse that counts first."

For more tips on creating better musical freestyles, read "20 Hot Tips for a Cool Freestyle" in the February 2003 issue of Dressage Today magazine.