Of all the equestrian events at the 2012 London Olympics, the freestyle dressage to music class is surely the most memorable. Hundreds of both horsey and non-horsey spectators sat enthralled as the world's top horses and riders put on a truly magical display which for many was the highlight of their Games experience.
So, why not have a go yourself? Even if you never venture into the competitive arena, riding your horse to music you have chosen and choreographed for him is a wonderfully uplifting and satisfying experience you can both enjoy at home. Horses love music too!
For the competitive rider, you will be seeking to show off your horse's strengths through clever choreography, interpretation of music that suits your mount, involves the audience and captures their imagination.
So, how does it work?
Essentially, the test you perform is to be of your own design – hence 'freestyle'. Guidelines are provided by British Dressage (or the equivalent in your home country) for each level of test from Preliminary through to Advanced. There are a number of compulsory movements which must be included in your test. These movements may occur in any order but they must be shown. If you omit a compulsory requirement, you will have 2 marks deducted from your total score. You may also use movements which are included in tests of the level at which you are competing and levels below; i.e. if you are riding at Medium level, you can use anything included in tests from Preliminary to Medium in your choreography. Don't use movements above your chosen level though or you will be deducted two marks for being a smarty pants! The test will also be timed; a minimum and maximum duration are specified at each level and you lose marks if your test is too short or too long. The test is judged on the compulsory movements, the choreography, the music and its interpretation. Remember that the test should be ridden 'to' music, not with music playing randomly in the background.
Whether you elect to start by choosing your music or devising your test is entirely up to you. I always found it easier to start by choreographing the test first before working on the music, but that's just personal preference.
Before you start, always accurately measure the size of your practice arena. The competition arena will be exactly 20m x 40m or 20m x 60m, depending upon the level you are riding at. If your practice arena is too big or too small, you will find that your music is 'out' on competition day. I always design my tests to finish with the final halt at X rather than G. This gives me a few metres leeway just in case the music is slightly out. Timings can also be affected by random considerations such as the going – softer will slow your horse down slightly. Your horse's temperament might affect your timings too. If he is a little sharper and more onward bound on show day than he is at home, you may find yourself slightly ahead of your music.
What music to choose?
Always use music without vocals. From a judge's point of view, vocals are distracting and unnecessary. The tempo of your music should comfortably fit the horse's paces. If it is too fast, you will be tempted to hurry the horse out of his natural rhythm; too slow and you risk killing any impulsion and making the horse look laboured and lacking energy. You can use various computer software programs which enable you to manipulate the speed of your music if a slight tweak is all that is required to make it fit your horse perfectly. Remember that the timing of your test commences from the first halt and concludes at the final one. You can use music for your entrance if you wish as this is quite effective to set the scene and won't be taken into consideration in the timings.
Choosing the right music for your horse is an art in itself. If the horse is fine, light-boned and 'pretty', the music should reflect this. Similarly, a heavyweight, powerfully build horse will need stronger, bolder music. Using music with a theme rather than several randomly selected pieces works well. Songs from musicals and films is popular as are classical pieces, big band compilations and orchestral interpretations of well-known pop tunes. I would steer away from elevator muzak - too much like background music and adds nothing to the performance. Similarly, I wouldn't pick anything too obscure. The audience and the judge like to feel involved and this can be much better achieved if the music is upbeat and features popular, well-known songs.
Generally, you will need three different pieces of music each with a different beat to reflect each gait. Walk is a four beat gait, trot has two clear beats and canter has three. The easiest way to do this is from the comfort of an armchair with a video of your horse's paces and a selection of CDs. Once you've decided what you like and what you think suits your horse's movement best, practice riding to it to see if it feels right.
The next step is to have a willing volunteer video your choreography then you need to record a CD to fit the video. Once this is complete to your satisfaction, bribe the volunteer again and video the whole thing this time complete with music. It's helpful to have the test videoed from the judge's position at C. You then have a judge's eye view of your test which will help to highlight any shortcomings. When you're happy with the choreography and music, triple check that your timings are in accordance with those stipulated in the guidelines, and that you have included all the compulsory movements. Always make a duplicate CD just in case of technical problems on the day and make sure your horse is used to having the music played quite loudly while you ride. If you've done all your practicing using earphones, the music can come as a bit of a shock to your horse if he's not used to it!
Compiling a freestyle to music test is certainly challenging and time-consuming, but it's great fun and well worth the effort. What are you waiting for?!