Dressage to Music

Sue Morris

Almost everyone I talk to these days has either ridden in a Freestyle to Music class or wants to! And, itís 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 Iím 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 ridersí routines.

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 doesnít 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 donít have the time or inclination to do all the work yourself, there are several companies who will take care of finding and fitting the right music to your horseís gaits, and some will even do the choreography too! However, should you wish to do it yourself...

Finding the Beats Per Minute

Despite all the new technology the old fashioned way with a second hand on a watch and counting the footfalls is the simplest and easiest way to work out your horseís BPM. As soon as the hand passes 12 start counting each time one of his hooves hits the ground. (It should really be a hind foot, as this is what the judges are told to look at.) Count for 30 seconds, then all you need to do is double the count for a minute and youíve 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 any very minor irregularities into account in the way a digital metronome canít.

However, a metronome (digital or manual) will come in handy for when youíre trying to find music to match the BPM.

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. Youíll begin to get a feel for the type that will, but donít forget to see what your horse thinks of it! Seriously, you might think youíve found the best Freestyle music in the world but when you ride your horse to it you find that he isnít quite as enamoured with it as you are. Maybe he just canít find the same beat that you saw Ė and ask friends what they think, too. It may be that the style of music doesnít quite match your horse.

If youíre thinking this all seems a lot of very hard work, youíre 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 isnít matched exactly to the horseís footfalls. This isnít very inspiring to watch and it wonít 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 Glen Miller, for example, in one competition!

I have a vast collection of CDs in my music library, many picked up at car boot sales and charity shops for a £1 or less. There is also an unlimited collection available to download online, too.

Now, unless youíre a very artistic sort of person, it is much easier to do the choreography and 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 horseís 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 horseís trot rhythm. Just make sure youíre 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.

Music with lyrics?

Although having music with lyrics is not officially banned, there are judges out there that are sniffy about their use. If you find a fantastic piece of music with lyrics donít discount it out of hand, but really listen to what the words are saying. (If itís in a foreign language try to find someone who can let you know the gist; you donít want to be inadvertently insulting anyone!) Do the words have any bearing on your freestyle test, your horseís personality, etc?

I emailed the British Dressage office and the reply I got was that there should be nothing in them that may distract the rider or the horse that would result in them being marked down.

With todayís 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 youíd like someone else to do that editing for you, Tim Linton offers a reasonably-priced service. He can also edit music to a video of your ridden floorplan!

Thereís 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 concludes...it's because some showmanship crept in there somewhere and turned that ride into a performance.

That's Showmanship.

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