Almost everyone I talk to these days has either ridden in a Freestyle to Music class or wants to! And, it’s not exactly a new idea, either. The old Court Schools in Europe used to stage elaborate Carousels in which they demonstrated their skills in horsemanship. They would often end with an equestrian ballet; a telling of a story set to music.

Perhaps you are thinking of giving it go because at first glance it looks a lot more fun than riding exactly the same movements at the same markers as everyone else in the class. However, whilst there is no doubting that it certainly is fun, there is also an incredible amount of work that goes into producing a polished performance—and I’m not just talking about those you see at International GP level. The same amount of time and thought should go into an unaffiliated Riding Club level class as goes into the top riders’ routines.

Dressage to Music

The Test

The Freestyle to Music classes are marked differently to a normal dressage class. Rather like ice skating half the marks come from Technical Execution and the other half from Artistic Interpretation.

For each test there are a list of compulsory movements that must be shown and their minimum length. For example, in the Novice Freestyle test you must show a minimum of 20m in medium walk and 20m in free walk on a long rein. You also have to show a 15m circle to the left and right in working trot and a 20m circle on each rein in canter. Some medium trot strides should also be shown.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to devise a test that shows only these movements. You may use any of the movements allowed in Novice or Prelim tests. So, you may use the counter canter, the half 15m circle and return, and even a rein back. That half 10m circle can come in handy when you need to turn down the centre line to nail your final halt on the right beat! You will not be scored on the extra movements, but they can help to vary and enhance your routine and to give it more artistic merit.

Using movements of a higher level, a 15m canter circle or a direct walk to canter transition from the Elementary tests, will incur a points deduction, however.

Note also that the instruction says a minimum of 20m free and medium walk. You can do more than that and, as a rule, each movement may be repeated up to three times to improve your chance of getting the best possible mark.

The test does not have to be a mirror image on the left and right rein, but do aim for a good balance on both reins.

If you really don’t have the time or inclination to do all the work yourself, there are several companies and talented individuals who will take care of finding and fitting the right music to your horse’s gaits, and some will even do the choreography too! However, should you wish to do it yourself . . .

Finding the Beats Per Minute

Despite modern technology, the old fashioned way with a second hand on a watch (or digital readout) and counting the footfalls is the simplest and easiest way to work out your horse’s BPM. Put different coloured polo wraps on your horse’s hind legs. As soon as the second hand passes 12 start (hit the timer) and count each time one of the hind hooves hits the ground.  Count for 15 seconds, then x4  the count for a minute and you’ve got your BPM. It works effectively in all three gaits and is much less fiddly than keep trying to set a digital or manual metronome. The digital ones are so accurate that it can be quite difficult to get a decent reading for your horse as their steps are never really that metronomic and the physical counting takes into account any very minor irregularities in the way a digital metronome can’t.

A  ‘average’  BPM for horses are:

Walk                  50 - 65 BPM

Trot:                  75 -90 BPM

Canter               95 - 110 BPM

Passage/Piaffe  60 - 65 BPM 

As a rule, the canter is twice the beats of the walk and the trot lies somewhere in between.

Some like to use a metronome (digital or manual) when trying to find music to match the BPM. But you can use an online BPM counter, such as Tempo Tap where you tap in the beat of the piece of music you’re listening to with your spacebar. (It can also be configured for use with a tablet touch screen.)

If you know your horse’s BPM and you’re thinking, “I’d love to ride to ‘The Pirates of the Carribbean’ music,” firstly don’t—it’s been done to death(!)—but if your heart is set on it because it’s such a great track, you can find out it how many BPM it has by using this extremely useful tool at song bpm. Just type in the artist (in this case Klaus Badelt) and the name of the song (Pirates was enough to bring up the result) and it will tell you it has 203 BPM and the length of the piece is 1:17. Interrestingly, I entered Placido Domingo/Nessun Dorma and it returned six versions of the aria with BPM ranging from 85BPM to 175BPM!

If the idea trying to fit BPM to pieces of music gives you brain fade, another way of approaching it is to get someone to film you riding your horse in walk, trot and canter, and then as you watch the film back, play music you think might fit. You’ll begin to get a feel for the type that will, but don’t forget to see what your horse thinks of it! Seriously, you might think you’ve found the best Freestyle music in the world but when you ride your horse to it, you find that he isn’t quite as enamoured with it as you are. They wil find the beat on their own if it is close to their own tempo, but too far away and they will either ignore it or become uneven in the attempts to match it. It may also be that the style of music doesn’t quite match your horse. (Sugar Plum Fairy for a heavyweight cob?) Ask a friend for an honest appraisal.

If you’re thinking this all seems a lot of very hard work, you’re partly right. That was actually the relatively easy part. The hard part comes next—the matching of the music to the BPM. You may opt to ride Freestyle test with Music, as in finding general background music that isn’t matched exactly to the horse’s footfalls. This isn’t very inspiring to watch and it won’t be scored very highly either! I believe it is worth taking all that extra time as the end result—of Dressage to Music—is so much more pleasing.

Do spare a thought for the judge. If a piece of music is very popular, be aware that others will use it too. How many times, do you think a judge wants to hear that ‘Pirates’ theme, for example, in one competition!

With the ease of downloads there is no end of appropriate music at your fingertips, but spare a thought for the old CD. I amassed a huge catalogue from boot sales and charity shops, where an entire CD costs less than one downloaded song.

Most people find it is much easier to do the choreography then find the music to fit it than it is to find the music and then design a routine around it.

So, you have you horse’s BPMs and you can now set to work on finding the music to match his strides, style and personality. Whilst light, airy pieces will suit a TB or an Arab, they would not do for a chunky Cob.

Do you want to go for a theme; music from a stage show or Western films or would you prefer a style of music; jazz, swing, baroque? Do not be tempted to mix and match; find a theme or style and stick with it!

The general rule is for three different pieces of music for the walk, trot and canter. Be careful not to make any abrupt changes between them. Using fading in and out can help smooth the transitions up and down, unless you know you can really ride them¬ to¬ the music.

Check the minimum and maximum time allowed for your test. 4 mins min, 5 mins max for Novice, and aim to run the midway point of 4.30 to allow for slightly slower or quicker playback on other machines, and differences in going.

The actual test is timed between the move off from your first halt to the salute at the end of the test. You can - and I recommend it - have up to 20 seconds of music to make your entry to. This can be a great attention grabber as it can be humorous, playful or just a great emphasiser of your horse’s trot rhythm. Just make sure you’re in the right place get to your first halt at the correct moment when you signal the person who is going to start your music. Leave a gap of however many seconds you need to make your salute and regather your reins and then, off you go!

You must chose music that you really like because you are going to have to listen to it endlessly and know it inside out. As the test is not ridden to the markers, you have to know where all the nuances are for all the movements in your choreography - and for those times when you either fluff something and have to make an addition on the fly or you need to gain ground to get to the next movement at the right phrase in the music.

Design your routine so that it builds to a climax at the final salute. This gives a much better impression that one that looks like it fizzled out due to lack of ideas.

Can I use music with lyrics?

So by all means, if you find a fantastic piece of music with lyrics really listen to what the words are saying. (If it’s in a foreign language try to find out the gist; you don’t want to be inadvertently insulting anyone!) Do the words have any bearing on your freestyle test, your horse’s personality, etc?

I need help!

With today’s technology, it is not that difficult to edit your own music. However, it can be be a time-consuming affair, especially when you take into consideration how long it took you to find the appropriate music in the first place!

If you’d like someone else to do that editing for you, Tim Linton offers reasonably-priced services. He can also edit music to a video of your ridden floorplan!

The reply I received from the BD office about using lyrics was that: There should be nothing in them that may distract the rider or the horse that would result in them being marked down.

There’s one other attribute that is needed in the Freestyle that is frowned upon in normal dressage and that is Showmanship. The Spanish—especially Rafael Soto—have it in spades.


Showmanship brings eyes into the arena.
Showmanship keeps them there for the whole ride.
Showmanship is a sharp snap of the hand and head at the end during the salute followed by a smile and a pat on the neck when leaving the arena. Even after an especially disastrous ride. As if to say, sorry about that mess but we'll get 'em next time.
Showmanship is not handing the horse to the groom and going to join the $10,000/table denizens to drink a glass of wine; it's letting the spectators pet the horsey and answer some questions.
Showmanship is having a tear in your eye after the ride because today it was just plain the best you've ever done even though you know it isn't good enough for first.
Showmanship is not arrogance. It is not showing off. It's knowing that for every step of Piaffe that your horse does, another horse somewhere can do it better. And they might be in your class next time.
Showmanship is that personal connection to the audience that is completely lacking in dressage.
Showmanship is having a young child say to their mum..."That was cool, did you see the way that horse danced?"
Showmanship is what musical rides need. You'd be surprised how far a sincere smile and honest effort goes, even when things go wrong.
And baby, when a routine is dead on and the whole place is electric with positive energy, smiling and clapping when the ride's because some showmanship crept in there somewhere and turned that ride into a performance.

That's Showmanship.

If you are a member of British Dressage you are automatically included, but if not, to play copied music in public, you must have a music licence. You will then be sent stickers, which you need to put on your freestyle tapes/CDs to fulfil the licence agreement. This allows you to use any music from the record labels listed on the Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) repertoire list. Details Here.


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