The Evolution of the Musical Freestyle

Axel Steiner and Anne Gribbons discuss the past, present and future of musical freestyle.
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Credit: Terri Miller Musical freestyle has increased the popularity of our sport. If we can keep the spectators entertained, we can keep dressage in the spotlight for generations to come. America’s Debbie McDonald and Brentina performed in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the 2005 World Cup Dressage Finals in Las Vegas.

Credit: Terri Miller Musical freestyle has increased the popularity of our sport. If we can keep the spectators entertained, we can keep dressage in the spotlight for generations to come. America’s Debbie McDonald and Brentina performed in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the 2005 World Cup Dressage Finals in Las Vegas.

Editor’s note: Dressage Today continues our freestyle series with two of the sport’s most well-known figures: FEI judges Axel Steiner and Anne Gribbons. As we gear up for the FEI World Cup™ Dressage Finals, these dressage icons share their thoughts on the freestyle and the changes they’ve seen through the years. 

Musical freestyle has increased the popularity of our sport, drawing spectators, advertisers and even television broadcasts. In fact, freestyle is one of the reasons dressage is still in the Olympic Games. To keep the entertainment value high, it is important to allow for creativity among the competitors and keep the freestyle creatively free. At the same time, we must stay true to the technical qualities of dressage.

Judging Musical Freestyle

As a judge, I am also a spectator, and as a spectator, I want to be entertained. I want to see something new, something different, something fun. I want to start tapping my toes and snapping my fingers. I should think: What an interesting new movement. What an interesting new combination. I should have a smile on my face. If it’s just the same old test ridden to music without a whole lot of thought or planning, then the score is going to be low and it’s going to be boring. 

Judges want to see a harmonious performance that demonstrates beautiful gaits, correct training and solid riding. We like a floor plan. The horse and rider must stay within their capability—not try to perform movements that are too difficult—because those mistakes affect the harmony and therefore the artistic scores as well as the technical scores.

The beauty of the freestyle is when a horse and rider have the technical ability not only to ride to music but dance with it, and they should be rewarded in the Interpretation of the Music. A rider must not only pick music that he or she likes but that is appropriate for the horse. Twinkle-toes violin music does not fit the 18-hand warmblood nor does Wagner fit a small Arabian. Music should stay in the same genre. For example, classical, rock n’ roll and country-western in the same freestyle will likely not enhance the ride. There is a lot of great music out there and some great freestyle designers. However, new technology now allows riders to select and edit their own music, which opens musical possibilities that were not available before.

I prefer the way the USDF handles the music scores in the Artistic Impressions because they are separated into two scores: Music and Interpretation, compared to the FEI, which has them together in one score. The Music score reflects the cohesiveness and seamlessness of the musical piece, whereas the Interpretation score reflects the rider’s use of the phrasing and dynamics. When evaluating the Interpretation of the Music, it is said that a judge should be able to close his or her eyes and, by listening to the music, know what the horse and rider are doing. If the music is linear background music, which sounds the same all the way through, then it will not support the horse. 

In my opinion, the quality of judging freestyle is quite high. If you look at the results in major championships, sometimes the freestyle scores are much closer than those of the technical tests. Overall, I also think freestyle judging has gotten much less biased. As judges, we have become broader-minded as we have learned more about music and which music fits and which doesn’t. In the early years of freestyle, judges were more opinionated than we are today about the type of music. Maybe a judge liked only classical music or maybe he liked only particular classical music, but those ideas have changed as freestyle evolved over the years.

Evolution of Freestyle

In the ’80s, when musical freestyle was introduced, the dressage community was conservative. The worry was that adding music to dressage would make the technical requirements less important, resulting in a circus-like environment. Even as musical freestyle grew more popular, the purists resisted change.

The original idea for freestyle, before all this musical-editing technology came in, was to ride to one piece of music. I judged the 1990 World Cup Final in s’-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, and witnessed one of the first steps toward musical editing. Sven Rothenberger, that year’s winner, mechanically slowed down a well-known piece of music for the pirouettes, and there was uproar from the conservative dressage community. How could this young man bastardize this wonderful music and make it fit his own ride? They were all terribly upset over it. Now musical editing has made the freestyle more entertaining and has increased the standard of musical interpretation.

Purists were dead set against vocals, explaining that vocals were already an interpretation of the music, so freestyle would be an interpretation of the interpretation. That thinking went by the wayside, and now vocals are used to underscore the mood of the ride. Anky van Grunsven rode a freestyle that was one of the first examples of appropriate vocals. Her music had many layers and on one of the layers Anky sang. One of the funniest uses of vocals was in Robert Dover’s freestyle, after he came down centerline to his final halt and salute, the music said, “That’s all!” Everyone laughed because no one expected it and all of the judges were in a great mood, which helps because in the next 10 seconds they were going to mark the Artistic Impressions and maybe the scores were a little higher.

Changes Ahead

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Sven Rothenberger, winner of the 1990 World Cup Dressage Final, was one of the first international riders to have his music edited for the freestyle. Here he is riding Ideaal at the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Sweden.

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl Sven Rothenberger, winner of the 1990 World Cup Dressage Final, was one of the first international riders to have his music edited for the freestyle. Here he is riding Ideaal at the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Sweden.

There is a possible movement at the FEI championships to take some of the inherent subjectivity out of the judging of the artistic side of the freestyle. Judges are well trained in the technical aspects, but the artistic elements of freestyle judging are a little more subjective. 

Some think that Degree of Difficulty could be more uniformly judged if riders were to submit their freestyle floor plan in advance to a panel that would score the Degree of Difficulty to the planned ride. The process is similar to diving, in which each dive has a designated Degree of Difficulty. However, having the rider submit the planned ride takes a little bit of the “free” out of the freestyle. 

Another fairly complicated idea is to allow a computer program to evaluate the horse’s adherence to the music. The computer would evaluate and score the phrasing and whether the horse is in step with the music. In my opinion, this also makes the freestyle less free.

The FEI is hard at work on these ideas and feels it needs to maximize objectivity in deciding the medals at the Olympic Games and other major championships. Since those decisions are so important, I have no objection to the Degree of Difficulty panel and the computerized music evaluation. However, for national and small international competitions, I don’t think we should adopt these programs at the risk of limiting the creativity of musical freestyle. The programs are complicated and expensive, and I want to make sure they don’t end up at everyday shows and take all the fun out of lower-level freestyle. In fact, I want to encourage more fun in the lower-level freestyle.


Entertainment Value at the Lower Levels

Spectators want to be entertained and their attention span is short. My suggestions for increased entertainment value at the lower levels are a little out of the box and may be somewhat controversial to the people who make the rules. Here's what I suggest:

• Reduce some of the required movements. By the time the rider takes care of all of these requirements, there isn’t much time left to be original. Instead of handcuffing riders, we can give them more opportunity to be creative and differentiate themselves from the competition so we don’t see the same patterns over and over. This may require a higher qualification score to prove the rider has the skills for the level before he or she is allowed to compete in freestyle.

• I also wouldn’t object to reducing the ring size and making the dance floor a bit smaller so everything happens more briskly. Right now the test is so long that you forget what happened at the beginning. A spectator would rather not see that lone 20-by-60-meter arena and endless 20-meter circles. At the FEI levels there is enough to do that you can use the big arena and keep it interesting. 

Dressage deserves to have high exposure to spectators, advertisers and even television because it is a wonderful sport, and to promote it, we have to keep it entertaining. Let’s keep the freestyle free to cultivate creativity. Current and future officials, show managers, riders and trainers will have to make sure freestyle stays true to the horse and the sport by keeping the technical standards high while increasing the entertainment value to keep dressage on the map. If we can keep the spectators entertained, we can keep dressage in the spotlight for generations to come.

 “I still remember one of the first interesting freestyles that I saw was ridden by Georg Theodorescu. He rode to the music of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and it was breathtaking. He had a good ear for music and he was a wonderful rider with a wonderful horse with which he could make the quick adjustments to the various phrasings of the music.” —Axel Steiner

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Axel Steiner has been an FEI 5* judge since 1988. He has judged many World Cups among other international championships around the globe. Having recently passed the FEI age limit for judging, he remains an active USEF “S” judge, a trainer and examiner for the USEF judges’ program, a USDF “L” Program faculty member and a popular clinician. He lives with his wife, Terri Miller, in Lake San Marcos, California.

What do World Cup Judges See?

By Anne Gribbons with Annie Morris

An FEI 5* judge tells Dressage Today about the importance of the World Cup and how judging musical freestyle is for multitaskers.

Dressage Today: Why does the FEI World Cup exist?

(Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl) Judging freestyle isn’t easy. There is a lot of intense work at the end of each ride. Here, Adelinde Cornelissen (NED) rides Parzival past the judges at the 2012 World Cup Dressage Finals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

(Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - Arnd.nl) Judging freestyle isn’t easy. There is a lot of intense work at the end of each ride. Here, Adelinde Cornelissen (NED) rides Parzival past the judges at the 2012 World Cup Dressage Finals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Anne Gribbons: The World Cup has promoted musical freestyle from the beginning to show off dressage at its best. Horses from all over the world are invited to compete individually—not as part of a team—in the intimate atmosphere of an indoor show for this annual competition. 

Many years ago, when there were no freestyles in competition to speak of, Wolfgang Niggli from Sweden was the chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee. He always said that when riders ride to music they relax and, therefore, ride better. He introduced freestyle in competition, but it was not yet a big feature in the international events. 

I happened to be at a dinner sometime in the ’80s with the next FEI chairman, Eric Lette, from Sweden, and a couple of the leading FEI officials, when he proposed the introduction of musical freestyle in the Olympics. Lette encouraged the addition of freestyle as a great step up for dressage to keep the competition interesting and the audience entertained. I remember those at the table thought the idea was radical, but I loved musical freestyle so, of course, I sided with the chairman. 

Joep Bartles, another influential force from the Netherlands, got the freestyle into international competition with the formation of the World Cup in 1985, and the momentum allowed Lette and the dressage committee to add freestyle to the Olympic Games soon after. The rest is history because musical freestyle today is the most exciting part of international dressage competitions. 

DT: What has the World Cup done for the sport?

AG: Musical freestyle is the crown jewel of dressage because it is entertaining and draws the biggest audience. The World Cup was the first step to introduce freestyle as the highlight of international dressage and create momentum to get it into the Olympics so the popularity could grow. As a player in the game of dressage before freestyle began, I am thrilled by its prominence today. 

DT:What special training do the judges need to judge freestyles?

AG: The FEI and the USEF are concentrating their training programs on the freestyle as it becomes more popular. The judging of the freestyle has very strict rules and freestyle judges need to be as proficient as possible. The Technical Execution of the freestyle is very important, and judges’ seminars are held regularly to review the technical requirements. 

Judges learn to listen for the beat of the music, how it works with a particular horse, whether the music enhances the horse’s performance and if it is suitable for the horse. Does it overwhelm the horse? Does it support his performance? Does it actually get in the way and not enhance the horse at all? 

Judges with a musical ear can appreciate the music and better understand how it works with the horse. If judges love to listen to music or are educated in music, they may find it easier to judge freestyle. However, they may also be more opinionated about different types of music, which could make them more subjective. All dressage judging can’t help but be subjective to some degree, but judging the freestyle should not be about personal taste in music. 

DT: What is going through your mind when you are in the judge’s box?

AG: I pay close attention to the technical requirements, which are still the most important part of the performance. If the horse performed a technical movement multiple times, I have to record each score and either choose one or average the scores to find the final score. I must multitask as I consider the Artistic Impressions throughout the test while I tick off each one of the technical marks. 

In the World Cup and other international competitions, the judge has to have scores in mind for the Artistic Impressions at the end of the ride because all the scores have to be submitted before that horse leaves the ring. This can cause a little stress in the box among the scribe, the judge and the computer operator because it is not easy to instantly sum up each mark. A lot of intense work happens at the end of each test.

Degree of Difficulty and Choreography are related to each other. The choreography must be smooth and logical or it’s difficult to judge. If the horse just flies around the ring like a fly in a paper bag, the freestyle becomes disturbing to the judge, who doesn’t know where the horse is going. The technical requirements have to fit in and look smooth and balanced in the use of the arena. 

If a rider skillfully does more than required within the limits of what is allowed, then he or she gets a high mark for Degree of Difficulty. If there are problems with the choreography and it’s too difficult for the horse, not only do the technical scores for the movements suffer, but the Choreography and Degree of Difficulty scores will go down as well.

Although musical freestyle is difficult to judge, as a group we are getting better at it. Personally, I like to judge freestyle because I love music and have ridden many freestyles myself. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

DT: What changes can we expect in freestyle judging in the future?

AG: Scores for Degree of Difficulty have always been a nebulous area. Right now, the score is marked at the end with the rest of the Artistic Impressions. Katrina Wuest, an FEI five-star judge from Germany, has set up a program to assess that score more accurately. The program will require riders to hand in a floor plan of their ride beforehand and, based on the choreography shown, the Degree of Difficulty will receive a mark. Judges then know what the riders plan to do, and if they are successful, the score will be even higher, whereas if they are unsuccessful, they receive fewer points. 

The spectators will have access to the floor plan and can follow the whole freestyle as in gymnastics and ice skating. I think this idea can help keep freestyle exciting and interesting because it better defines the Degree of Difficulty score, so if riders feel it is worthwhile to take risks, they will. The FEI wants to keep the standard high by improving our system of judging, and judges are testing the program now. It is expected to be in place in the next year or two.

“As far as freestyle riders, there are many skilled performers. But Anky van Grunsven from Holland has always been my idol because she can perform on any horse to all kinds of music, producing one beautiful freestyle after another. Her interpretation is impeccable, and she never misses a transition. I’ve judged her many times, and she always impresses me because she has beautiful music and she interprets every single phrase. When Anky van Grunsven comes in to perform her freestyle, you had better pay attention!” —Anne Gribbons

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Anne Gribbons is an FEI 5* and USEF “S” judge who has officiated at numerous CDIs worldwide, including two FEI World Cup Finals and the European Championships. She has trained and shown a number of horses to Grand Prix. She was the USEF technical advisor/coach for dressage from 2010 to 2012 and was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010 to 2013. In 2013, she was inducted into the USDF Hall of Fame. Gribbons and her husband, David, run Knoll Dressage, a training facility near Orlando, Florida.

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