Advice for Riding and Judging an FEI Dressage Freestyle

Janet Foy explains points that need to be considered by judge and rider.

After judging the top 15 Junior freestyles and watching the best 15 Young Rider freestyles at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC) in Lexington, Kentucky, I thought an article on this topic would be helpful. I am happy to say that over the years the quality of the technical performance, music and choreography has greatly improved at this championship. However, there are some points that need to be considered for both the judge and the rider.

Kya Endreson and Pik L’s top Junior freestyle proved the importance of focusing on your horse’s strengths. (Credit:

Usually in my series, I divide the riding and the judging, but in this article (and the next one, which will cover USEF/USDF-level freestyles), I want to keep the thoughts together since they are so closely related.

Technical Side of the Score Sheet

The judge will give you scores on the left side just as he would for a technical test. A word to riders and choreographers here however. Be sure you consider where you will be riding your freestyle. If showing only at a national show with one judge, then make sure the choreography is clear for the judge at C. If you plan to go to the USDF/USEF Regional Championships, then you need to consider how the choreography will look to the side judge as well. At a CDI with five judges, you need to think about the majority of the judges at the short end as well as make sure the movements are clear to the two judges on the long sides. 

As a judge, if I am not sure what you are doing, I will assume it might be an extended canter for example. I will tell my scribe to put a question mark in the box for the extended canter score. At the end of the ride, if there are no other scores in that box, I will give the rider a 4 with the comment “not obvious” and deduct .5 in the choreography, as this required movement was not placed in a pattern that was clear.

If your horse is a bit green at the level of the freestyle you are showing, then make the movements easier by riding longer lines and not putting too many movements together quickly. If your horse is more advanced and you can technically perform more difficult movements sequenced together, then do it. 

Location, Location

Let’s discuss where to place some of your movements. First, remember that extensions look best on a long, straight line. If you plan a medium trot or canter on a circle, do it after you have done your extension so you don’t confuse the judge. I suggest for the FEI freestyles that you don’t do this at all. Don’t waste your time and choreography on non-required movements. Also avoid rein-backs, as they create an interruption in the flow of the freestyle ride. Only use walk pirouettes and half pirouettes as a way to interpret your music or string freestyle movements together, not as separate movements. 

Extended canter always looks best coming toward the C end. For maximum impact and to let the judges see the ground cover, do the extended canter on a diagonal. If you do two, then do one on a diagonal and one on centerline. I can guarantee the front end coming toward the three judges at the short side will score higher than those same judges seeing mostly the rear end and the hind legs. Ditto for the extended trot.

Half pass is another movement that also looks better coming toward the judge(s) at the short end. I recently judged a test where all the trot and canter half passes were away from C. I don’t understand this. Mix them up and try to have one in each direction toward the short end.

Judges are usually pretty smart, and if you hide the collected walk down at the A end and do it away from all the judges, we usually know there is a problem with the rhythm. However, if you can’t see the problem, you can’t lower the score. On the flip side, if you can’t see the movement, you can’t reward it either. So if your horse has an 8 extended walk, do a long line up in the top end of the arena and make sure all the judges see it and can reward it.

The Artistic Side

The first two scores are really related to the technical side of the test. The first score would be the gaits and impulsion score and the second score would be the submission and rider score. These should relate to the scores on the left side. So judges, if you look quickly over to the left side and you have all 6s there, then a good reflection of that would be a 6.5/6 if there were some submission issues, perhaps lack of left bend, for example. If you as a judge felt there was a lack of impulsion or perhaps a lack of correct balance, then you might have those scores reversed, as a 6/6.5.

If there were half 7s and half 6s, then you would have about a 65 percent on the left side and your first two scores on the right side should reflect that (7/6.5, for example). 


A rider needs to think about her horse’s strengths here. If a horse bends better to the right and has more lateral reach to the right, then do a short half pass left to a longer, more difficult half pass right. Try not to do the same half-pass patterns at trot and canter. 

Try to be creative and use the second track or quarterlines for your shoulder-in, etc. Try not to stay on the rail all the time. Avoid using the same patterns that are found in the test. Instead, find new ways to string movements together. A caution here however: Make sure you ride each movement for a long enough time that the judge(s) can recognize it and give you a score. Also make sure all five judges in a CDI have a clear view of the movement. 

Don’t overdo a movement either. If you think the highlight of your horse’s work is his extended trot, then do two of them. Five is overdone, and the judge should lower the choreography score for this. Balance is the key.

Try to avoid circles—they are boring. Half circles, which help develop another movement, are OK. If your horse is capable, string the movements together. For example: half pass left to shoulder-in right; extended canter to pirouette.

Be sure for all FEI freestyles to read the FEI rules. Make sure you have the required number of straight canter strides before and after your canter pirouettes. For example, Junior freestyles allow only a half-pirouette in walk, not a full-pirouette. Know the difference between counter change of hand (two half passes) and a zig zag (three or more), which are not allowed at some levels. 

Judges, it is also of utmost importance for you to know the rules. I remember one time a Junior had ridden only the one required freestyle to qualify for Young Riders. The USEF “S” judge gave the rider a very high score and said it was very difficult. When that same rider came to NAJYRC with an FEI panel, this same test received many deductions, as many of the movements were not allowed under FEI rules. This is devastating to the child and also makes judges look foolish. 

When judging, I use a plus (+) and minus (-) system in this box as well as in the difficulty and music box. For interesting patterns, movements strung together for example, I would add a plus for each item I found interesting. Then, at the end of the test, my base score is 6 (which is test-like and using the rail most of the time); I would go up, perhaps .5 for each plus.

Degree of Difficulty

The plus-and-minus system works well for this, too. So, for example, if the rider did a longer angle in the half pass than was required in the test, I would add a plus in this box. If the rider tries something difficult but fails, then I would add a minus. At the end of the test, I can quickly see how much more difficult the test was than the technical test of the same level. So, if the freestyle had only the same difficulty as the technical test (no pluses), I would put 6.5 here. If there were more flying changes than required or if they were done on a curved line, for example, and they were done well, there would be a plus here in difficulty and also a plus in choreography, and the scores would go up. 

Meagan Davis’ top Young Rider freestyle music matched her mount, Bentley. (Credit:

Remember judges and riders: The difficulty box and choreography box will be related when it is time to decide scores. If the choreography is confusing or not clear, the difficulty box will also be affected. A test-like ride will give you a base score in both boxes no matter how technically well you performed the movements.


Again, I use the plus-and-minus system. I use 7 as my base score. If the music goes with the walk, trot and canter, I will stay with my base score. If there is interpretation and highlights with the movements, I will go up. If the rider gets ahead or behind the music, I will go down. If the rider hits all the marks in the music, I will go up. Bad edits will lower the score. Music that is not recorded at the same volume (i.e., very loud trot music and quiet canter music) will also lower the score.

Try to find music that will highlight your type of horse. If he is very light-footed, don’t ride to something powerful like Wagner. If your horse is a draft cross, don’t use Tinker Bell music. The judge is not supposed to score the music on whether he likes it or not. Judges need to decide if the music enhances the horse’s gaits and adds to the performance.

I have also seen many horses (remember, they have very sensitive hearing) overwhelmed and terrified with lots of clapping, drums or cymbals, as the rider wanted the music very loud. Please be considerate of your horse. Also remember that not every show has a good sound system. The system used at the show can slightly alter the tempo of your music as well. Make sure you take advantage of the sound check at the shows. 

Riding to music is fun and rewarding. For the judge to be good at freestyles he needs to judge a lot of them. Unfortunately, most shows only have only a few. Even in the international world, there is a lot of discussion about how to educate judges to score the artistic side correctly. It is an interesting discussion that I don’t think will be resolved any time soon. In the meantime, judges work on your education, and riders enjoy the chance to dance with your horse. 

Janet Foy is an FEI 4* and USEF “S” dressage judge and an “R” sporthorse breed judge. A member of the USEF international High Performance Dressage Committee, she also teaches judges’ training programs nationwide. Author of the book Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse, she is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 






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