High Notes From Judges’ New Musical Freestyle Program at The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms

Doris Carlson and Wilhemena participated as both an 'L' judge attending lectures, and a rider working on on music selection and choreography for their first freestyle at Third Level.Photo: © Mary Phelps
Doris Carlson and Wilhemena participated as both an 'L' judge attending lectures, and a rider working on on music selection and choreography for their first freestyle at Third Level.Photo: © Mary Phelps

In this feature are some pointers and quick tips from the weekend but attending Terry Ciotto Gallo's full course is highly recommended for judges, riders, or anyone interested in freestyles. “I appreciate USDF and USEF recognizing how important additional education is for judging and riding musical freestyles,” said Bryn Walsh, an ‘L’ judge graduate about the USDF Continuing Education Program’s Musical Freestyle course held at Pineland Farms in southern Maine. “Until now, there hasn't been much focus on teaching judges how to evaluate the artistic aspect of a freestyle.” The course authored and led by Terry Ciotti Gallo of Klassic Kur along with FEI 4* Judge Lois Yukins, packed the first day chock full of beneficial information for judges and riders alike.Terry’s organized, analytical approach helped break down freestyle basics for judges and riders to understand what does and does not make a freestyle successful, while Lois offered her view from the judge’s box.
 
USEF licensed dressage judges who attended are eligible to earn the new "Musical Freestyle Designation" via an online exam to be added to their judging credentials. As an 'L' judge, Doris Carlson appreciated the practical steps in the lectures. “I feel better equipped to judge the freestyles at schooling shows, where we are seeing more of them as they become more popular.”
 
The NEDA Education Outreach event, attracted six riders from around New England who took the opportunity to either start or work on different components of their freestyles, providing live examples of the intricacies of developing a freestyle for the eager auditors.

“As a rider, I had a blast!” said Doris who also rode Wilhelmena, a 2007 Hanoverian mare, to work on music selection and choreography for their first freestyle at Third Level.

Terri Ciotti Gallo Photo: Mary Phelps
Terri Ciotti Gallo Photo: Mary Phelps

“Terry and Lois's enthusiasm and sense of humor was contagious and it came through in everyone's rides. I received good direction on where I need to go with my freestyle and am very motivated.” She noted even Terry’s explanation about use of the metronome will benefit her own riding and teaching in general.

“It was more than apparent how riding to music properly arranged for each horse improved their way of going, was beneficial for their training, improved the posture and position of the rider, and was fun for horse, rider, and the crowd!” said Bryn Walsh who also rode Rebecca Holberton's 2007 KWPN mare Westwyn working on their Third Level freestyle.

Michelle Hischberg who attended both days and rode her 2005 Lusitano stallion, Bocage, working toward a Fourth Level Freestyle echoed the positive praise. “Terry is an incredibly knowledgeable and engaging speaker. I feel so much better prepared to design my next freestyle because I now understand more about what the judges are expecting from my music and my choreography.”

“I’ve never done a freestyle before,” said Abby Laukka-Hardy who just started thinking about developing a freestyle for the small tour with Uni’ka, a KWPN gelding by Contango owned by Jennifer Wilson-Horr. “Terry and Lois gave me amazing feedback and provided me with a wonderful jumping off point.” Watching the other rides, Abby agreed it was treat to witness Terry do her magic. “I walked away inspired and with a Freestyle rider’s mind. I’m so thankful that they came to Pineland Farms!”

The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms, an outstanding host facility in southern Maine, served delicious organic lunches from their own farm’s market and Olympian Michael Poulin, trainer-in-residence, shared his insight throughout the weekend, including riding his current Grand Prix freestyle for group discussion.

Here are some pointers and quick tips from the weekend but attending Terry’s full course is highly recommended for judges, riders, or anyone interested in freestyles.

Facing the Music
Music choice happens before the show, Terry outlined. Suitability is key! Careful selection of music can pay off as music can truly enhance the way the horse moves.
Suitable music fits all three gaits walk, trot and canter, is level appropriate and reflects the character of horse. Get it right and you are in your way to a good score.

Note, suitability is not about tempo. Terry made the point with video that a good horse can carry a lot of different music but too much musical energy can make the gaits look frenetic or even flat in contrast. Bold, complex music often works better at the higher levels where self-carriage is stronger.

Dramatic can definitely work depending on the horse but Terry and Lois leaned in favor of lighter, buoyant music that naturally lifts the horse and the judge’s mood. The wrong music choice detracts from the picture, or even worse, may present the horse poorly.

Sometimes the horse picks their own music in their reaction, good or bad. Terry related how one Lusitano promptly exited the arena every time he heard the castanets in his music.

Cohesiveness is the second most important element as it’s modifies this score up or down. Again, you have control in choosing how your freestyle hangs together.

Terry stressed making your theme or genre obvious, it should blend like one coherent soundtrack. If instrumental, a single thread of a piano, guitar, flute, can tie a piece together. Your entrance, although not judged until the halt, is the opportunity to introduce your musical theme.

Helpful hint: avoid a jarring random entry.

Beat Goes On
Music must suit the horse’s gaits but mechanically, it also needs to match the horse’s tempo. Count the steps of your horse’s trot and canter using a metronome to discover your horse’s tempo, then you find music that will match that tempo.

Conveniently, you can download metronome apps to your phone to use in the arena. Start the metronome and count how many footballs in a minute, two front legs at the trot and one stride for the canter.
Tempo rates range: trot 132-168, walk 98-112, canter 93-106. An irregular tempo can mean the horse needs to build strength or the rider may be erratic.

The metronome’s clear beat works as a training aid! Set to your target tempo as a guide to increase consistency. It was amazing to witness riders finding and feeling the “beat in their seat” and how the horse’s gaits improved.

Terry suggests making a list with beats per minute of songs you like, within ten beats of the horse’s gaits, for what may work now, or later as the horse changes and becomes more collected or for another horse, so you don’t have to start from scratch. Pandora, iTunes, even your town library, are great music resources.

Michael Poulin advised starting months in advance and break up your freestyle pieces in training. Drilling and stressing the horse will not result in a fluid performance.

The assignment is to find suitable music for the natural tempo of your horse’s gaits. Do not try to change the horse. The aim, ultimately, to the match footballs, results in higher scores because it’s very hard to do.

Don’t Confuse the Judge
Choreography needs design cohesiveness. Several references were made to Anne Gribbons’ comment about a freestyle that looks like ‘a fly in a paper bag.’

“Don’t make us guess what the movement is,” Lois said. The judge should not stagger from the booth feeling seasick. “Don’t be too loopy,” implored Lois. “Make your patterns clear and logical.”

Along with cohesiveness, there is the criteria “use of the arena”, which means that the arena must be covered in its entirety and that the elements, are distributed throughout.  Terry advocates drawing the patterns out to see the overall balance and as a final checklist for the inclusion of all compulsory elements.

Creativity, the biggest modifier of the Choreography score, is enhanced by using combinations of movements, uncommon lines, or anything not on the current tests.

“Clear and simple trumps ambitious,” Lois advised. “Under plan, so you can add things later.”

Degree of difficulty is a gamble, so make sure it is performed well. Passable execution gets no deduction but earns no credit. Botching it means deductions on the movement, the degree of difficulty and the harmony scores.

Difficulty can be raised through placement like a shoulder-in off rail, challenging combinations like an extended trot to walk on straight line, steeper angle on half-passes, reins in one hand, tempis on a broken line.

“Don't worry the judge,” Lois repeated, “but also don’t be boring.” USEF wants clean tests and stress free horses. “It’s better to perform a clean flowing ride than an overly difficult or confusing one.”

Phrasing
Money in the bank is the planned phrasing and dynamics of the music. Judges look for a minimum of six distinct places where they see music shifts and a simultaneous change of movement, starting with the entry halt. Other obvious places are gait changes,extensions and the final halt and salute.

Interpretation is also judged on the relationship of music to the gaits. Of course, show nerves (horse or rider’s), environment, footing can affect tempo but staying with the beat of the music, hitting phrasing within a stride or two, and cadence is rewarded
Footfalls matching the music is not required and is rare to see but smart riders do it and it helps the judge give a high score.

Author of Brentina’s rousing Respect routine and Tina Konyot’s popular Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree with Calecto V, Terry advises vocals and lyrics be “sprinkled carefully” or they lose impact.

Oohs, ahhs  are fine, and USDF puts no limits on words but FEI does.

Seamlessness, also scored, reflects the edits of your music. Audible cut sounds in the music can sojnd harsh but a short fade can cure that. Gait transitions should sound smooth but fade too long and the movement is not supported.

No fade on centerline final halts. “Have an ending,” stressed Terry with your final halt or salute and allow yourself room on centerline to hit your ending. “Everyone doesn’t need to ride into the judges lap.”

Holy Grail of Harmony

Director of Dressage at the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms admits for him the Freestyle is the toughest part of Dressage competition.
Director of Dressage at the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms admits for him the Freestyle is the toughest part of Dressage competition.

“Olympians say performing freestyle is hardest,” Michael Poulin said. “You’ve got to be cool mentally as timing is different when the horse is excited." In Grand Prix tests, time can fluctuate but in the freestyle, music drives the test. “You have to practice a lot but in a way that doesn’t fry the horse drilling,” he says. Poulin said he’s dropped flour in the ring, like gymnasts mark a balance beam, for practice cues for timing with the music. It’s tough art in a delicate sport; done well, it earns big points.

In judging terms, harmony is seen differently. FEI defines harmony as submission and the rider’s aids, which is overwhelming technical. Of course, harmony is based on technical execution, but USEF lists harmony as trust and confidence in the rider, ease and fluidity of movement, communication.

It’s A Wrap
“You can get 8s,” Terry says. By choosing music that enhances your horse and designing the elements wisely, the higher artistic scores and coefficients are attainable. The cautionary tale is that the artistic is held within a technical ride. Terry simple plea,”Execute!”

While riders often value comments over marks, the judges are on double duty, assessing the technical and artistic side simultaneously.

“We often just don’t have time to comment,” Lois said. “It’s a lot of pressure to assess in five minutes, work that took a rider six months.” Offer to scribe,  she suggests, to appreciate the difficulty of the judge’s job with freestyle demands.

Riding freestyles is difficult and they are demanding on the horse. To see a harmonious freestyle is to witness the culminating dance of partnership in all it’s inspiring, goosebumps-inducing glory. The behind the scenes work, for both riders and judges, makes the task all the more appreciated.

Tips Bonus

  • Freestyles are free of letters! Movements do not have to occur at the letters.
  • USDF sets no time minimum, there’s no need to fill entire five minutes.
  • USDF recommends that shoulder-ins and travers cover 18 meters though only 12 are required. The walk is the most flexible place to catch up or slow down to the music.
  • Plan contingent places to deepen or skim a corner, hug the rail or use a quarter line to add or shave steps.
  • Know your geometry.
  • Free download music editing programs exist to do it yourself, but sending off to a pro to polish may be worth it.

Terry has many helpful articles posted on her blog on psdressage.




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