Dancing in the Dressage Spotlight

Part 3: Three FEI World Cup competitors explain how they create an international-quality musical freestyle and why competing in the World Cup has its own special feel.

Editor’s note: Dressage Today wraps up its freestyle series this month with three competitors who have first-hand experience in World Cup competition. Guenter Seidel, Adelinde Cornelissen and Jacqueline Brooks share their advice for creating a world-class freestyle and help get us excited for the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada, next month.

Credit: Terri Miller

Credit: Terri Miller

Spectators are gearing up for the glitz and glamour of Vegas and the excitement of seeing their favorite horse-and-rider pairs compete at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup, April 15–19. At the same time, competitors from around the world are doing their own preparations. Here, three competitors from the United States, the Netherlands and Canada give you a look at what it takes to design, practice and compete with a world-class freestyle ride.

Guenter Seidel, USA

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Guenter Seidel says that riding the freestyle is great fun, especially when there is an enthusiastic crowd.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Guenter Seidel says that riding the freestyle is great fun, especially when there is an enthusiastic crowd.

The FEI World Cup competition is special because of the atmosphere and the fact that the freestyle is the most important part of the competition. I have competed in the FEI World Cup four times, and each time there has been an enthusiastic, dressage-educated audience. 

Because the event takes place indoors, the environment is much more electric than at the Olympics or the World Equestrian Games, both of which have much more open space. In the FEI World Cup, the corners are often tight against the wall of the ring and the spectators are unusually close. The competition is among the best in the world, which is what I have always strived for, so even though it is a different ball game, I enjoy it.

My favorite FEI World Cup experience was when I placed third with Nikolaus in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2003. Being in the top three, of course, made it memorable. 

I have to say my first World Cup experience in 1999 was fun, too. I was so green and I made so many mistakes, such as changing my music right before the final and doing a totally different freestyle than the one I qualified with! But even so, it was still fun. 

When I make a freestyle, designing the choreography requires me to be completely involved. First, I look at the horse and determine his strengths and weaknesses, which movements I want to highlight and which imperfections I do not want to show. I use these insights to design the pattern for the horse. For example, if my horse is great at piaffe and passage, then I choreograph more of that. Or if he is great at pirouettes and changes, I put more focus on those. I plan the pattern so I can show the movements in which we excel. 

The risks I take to increase the Degree of Difficulty depend on the horse’s experience. It is a mistake to overface the horse and do a movement that can’t be done well at home. If I am only successful one out of five times practicing a difficult movement in my own ring, then I won’t put it in my program.

Like many riders, I include one extra line of canter in the test in case there is a mistake in the first attempt at flying changes. The music for that line will be similar to the music for changes, so we can repeat either an extension or the tempis. That’s the only place in the test that is unplanned; all the rest is planned out precisely. (Refer to “Shall We Dance?” in the January issue for information on the tests.) 

Credit: Terri Miller American Olympian Guenter Seidel and Aragon at the 2005 World Cup Finals in Las Vegas

Credit: Terri Miller American Olympian Guenter Seidel and Aragon at the 2005 World Cup Finals in Las Vegas

After the choreography is created, I am ready to choose the music. I work with Terry Ciotti Gallo from Klassik Kur. Generally, I have an idea about what kind of music I want—music that is powerful or light, depending on the horse. Terry and I go through a lot of music and find pieces that not only match each gait but that fit together in a common theme. She then edits the music by putting the musical phrases together so they match the choreography. Once the freestyle is made, I have to practice the whole test with the music many times. I find this practice is difficult because I have to concentrate on the music and not only get the pattern, but also the timing right. It is hard on the horse to practice a new freestyle because it is so repetitive. However, once we get the freestyle down, it is more like riding any other test and it becomes great fun, especially during competition.

The horses I have competed seem to enjoy musical freestyle. They always get keyed up with the exciting atmosphere of a freestyle competition. They start to enjoy the freestyle once they know they can relax in the show ring, and when they hear their familiar music play, they rise to the occasion. 

U.S. Olympian Guenter Seidel helped bring home a team bronze medal at the 1996 Olympic Games with his partner Graf George. He also won bronze medals in team dressage at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In 2006, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team, he helped win a bronze medal for the U.S. at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany. He currently resides in California.

Adelinde Cornelissen, The Netherlands

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen on Jerich Parzival celebrates her win at the 2012 FEI World Cup at s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen on Jerich Parzival celebrates her win at the 2012 FEI World Cup at s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

I find riding the freestyle is magical when the music and the choreography fit together and you and the horse are telling a story. Jerich Parzival enjoys riding our freestyles, and I can tell he recognizes his own music and gets excited when it comes on.

My favorite FEI World Cup experience took place at s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands because it was on home turf. Riding in front of my home crowd always makes me feel special, but no matter where the FEI World Cup is held, I have found it to always be an amazing competition with great ambiance.

To make a perfect freestyle is difficult and time-consuming. I like to design my own choreography because I know the qualities of the horse that I want to show off. When I design choreography I must think about the risks I want to take to improve my Degree of Difficulty score. Jerich Parzival can do virtually any exercises or combination of exercises I ask, so I can take risks and be creative. However, you have to know your horse. Once the choreography is designed, the rider tests it by riding the pattern and timing it to make sure it is within the time limit.

The music for the freestyle has to fit the horse’s movement and character as well as my own taste of music. There is nothing worse than riding to music you do not like.

After designing the choreography, I make a videotape and take it to a music specialist. Nowadays it is almost impossible to select and edit the music yourself while remaining competitive unless you are extremely handy with computers and music. The specialist and I usually choose the music together, but it is tough for me to decide on a specific type of music because I love all kinds. For my last freestyle, Viktor Kerkhof composed a totally new piece of music, “Tribute to My Red Knight.” After he understood what type of music I like, he gave me some suggestions then composed the piece to fit our freestyle perfectly. 

When the choreography and the music are finished, we are not done. I practice riding the freestyle and I often find that I want to make some small changes. I may make the music a bit shorter for one movement or quicken the tempo in another. We also have to test the freestyle during competition because some horses, like Jerich Parzival, are a bit more energetic in the show ring than they are at home. After a few competitions, we may have to fine-tune the freestyle again.

As a child, Adelinde Cornelissen began riding ponies bred by her parents in the Netherlands. She and Jerich Parzival entered the international spotlight in 2007 and were FEI World Cup champions in 2011 and 2012. The pair also earned bronze (team) and silver (individual) medals at the 2012 Olympics and bronze (team) at the 2014 World Equestrian Games.

Jacqueline Brooks, Canada

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Canadian Jacqueline Brooks, shown here on D’Niro at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, has done live freestyle demonstrations in Toronto, during which musician Tamara Williamson sings.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Canadian Jacqueline Brooks, shown here on D’Niro at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, has done live freestyle demonstrations in Toronto, during which musician Tamara Williamson sings.

My road to freestyle started 20 years ago when I worked with my brother, a great musician. He edited the music for me, matched the beats to the horse’s movements and was particular about how the musical pieces fit together to make one flowing song. 

Later I worked with Tamara Williamson, a Toronto musician, when she came to me for lessons and asked how she could begin designing freestyles. I explained all the tips my brother and I had learned about music editing. She was a quick study because she is musically gifted and a dressage rider herself. She and I worked together with music from the movie “Alexander” to make the first freestyle I took to the FEI World Cup in 2007 with the horse Gran Gesto. That was probably one of the best-edited freestyles we ever came up with. Often during the performance of the “Alexander” freestyle, the arena got dead quiet and I could sense the crowd was with me. There was quite a crescendo at the end, and people were on their feet as it finished. 

The sport of dressage evolved and improved as riders in Europe began making unbelievable freestyles with music composed specifically for their horses. Because Tamara is an artist with a band, we decided that we would try our hand at composition. I took the first freestyle we made from scratch to the FEI World Cup in 2013 with the horse D’Niro. I designed the choreography and then her drummer, Morgan Doctor, laid down the drum track. Tamara added all the music: strings, guitar and vocals. She even sang on the track. In fact, we have done some live demonstrations in Toronto in which I ride and Tamara sings. 

Even spectators who have never seen dressage tell me that they were moved to tears to see a horse dance so perfectly to music. When you experience a horse doing dressage in the middle of a stadium that holds 8,000 to 10,000 people and there is live singing, it is quite special. 

When it comes to putting together a freestyle's choreography and music, I always select the type of music I want to use. Sometimes I select a few songs and Tamara adds to them or she may suggest a selection of songs and I choose the ones I would love riding to. The musical process is collaborative, with the two of us working it out. 

I choreograph the freestyle and I consider what risks to take based on the horse’s experience. I often train my horses up the levels, bring them out in their first Grand Prix and develop them at that level, so there are a number of freestyles we go through. My horse’s first freestyle has easy lines and figures that are pleasant for him. Then as his skills improve, I add more difficult movements to keep him busy in the ring. For example, as D’Niro got stronger, we could increase the Degree of Difficulty and quicken the tempo of his piaffe and passage.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Because the FEI World Cup takes place indoors, the environment is much more electric than at the Olympics or the World Equestrian Games. The corners are often tight against the wall of the ring and the spectators are unusually close.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Because the FEI World Cup takes place indoors, the environment is much more electric than at the Olympics or the World Equestrian Games. The corners are often tight against the wall of the ring and the spectators are unusually close.

The FEI World Cup is an indoor event, and the indoor show circuit differs from the outdoor show circuit because of how the horse responds to the indoor environment. The disadvantage we have in North America is that we don’t have an indoor circuit, while the Europeans who qualify for the World Cup have been competing inside week after week throughout the winter. The rare indoor venue on this continent is just a typical afternoon’s work for the Europeans. When it comes to being competitive at the World Cup, in my opinion, North Americans need to go to Europe and compete on the indoor circuit.

D’Niro enjoys musical freestyle and he definitely knows his music. If I go into a bustling venue, such as the stadium that holds the World Cup, he is excited coming in. But as soon as he hears the first beat of music, he understands what he is about to do. His ears shoot up as if he’s saying, “We’ve got to go now! It’s our music.” I tell him, “Alright, we’ve got to go!” I feel grateful for the chances I’ve had to compete Gran Gesto and D’Niro in the World Cup. For me, competing among the best in the world was a personal achievement even though we were not there to beat the celebrities. 

Two-time Olympian Jacqueline Brooks has been a dressage competitor, trainer and coach for more than 20 years. During that time, she has qualified for six Canadian teams, including two World Cups. She is currently head trainer at Brookhaven Dressage, located just outside of Newmarket, Ontario, which she owns and operates in partnership with her parents and biggest fans, Eric and Mary.

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