USDF Symposium: Nov. 2002
By Heidi Berry

What a weekend! Beautiful horses, experienced riders, great music and no responsibility. What could be better?

Recently, I had the privilege of representing VADA-NOVA at the 2002 USDF Musical Freestyle Symposium, held November 1-3 in Raleigh, NC. I was awarded a $250 scholarship for continuing education to be used at the symposium and I traveled down with Stephanie Alvord. We picked up fellow VADA member Liz Olszyk at the airport and hung out together for the weekend.

Here is my attempt to relay three full days of information. I hope this helps to motivate everyone to improve their current freestyles or try one for the first time.

FRIDAY - Music Selection with Barbara Gardner

Ms. Gardner has designed freestyles for Dennis Callan, Leslie Webb, Kathleen Francis and many others. She has been creating freestyles for competition and exhibition for over 20 years and some have been used in World Cup and Olympic competitions.

The session was held at NC State University. Here are some hints:

  • The music has to make you love the horse.
  • The horse should look better with the music than without it and the music should make the horse’s gaits look lighte.
  • The music should make you glad to be alive.
  • The music should match the horse and make it look like it is dancing.
  • Riders should strive to make the judge smile, tap her feet, be interested and feel pleased. (As a judge, I like this one!)
  • The music should make you ‘feel’ the half pass or extension.
  • There should be no down time or filler. “TURN” is her favorite word for choreography.
  • Vocals take the judge away from what she is doing, i.e. it is distracting.
  • If a horse has interesting gaits, use less edits. If the gaits are more plain, use more selections of music to keep things interesting.

When picking music, look at many different selections until “you see it and you feel it” when looking at the video. The music should be horsey. Strauss is very good and she often keeps coming back to his works.

She played different music for us while we watched a video and she would look at the audience and say “Pretty, but it doesn’t make you want to ride the horse, does it?” Then she would hit the right piece and everyone would agree it worked well for that particular horse, making the horse come more alive.

“Music must fill a big space,” is a huge auditorium. Some people’s music sounds like they picked it while curled up cozy next to a fireplace.

FRIDAY – Choreography with Marlene Whitaker

Ms. Whitaker has designed freestyles for the Olympics, World Cup and Pan Am Games as well as winning with herself as a rider. She gave a lot in great information in a short amount of time. Here is what I gleaned. She gave us an “academic look” at freestyles while reminding us that, “It is about the horse” and encouraging us to keep the technical purity of the horse and maintain classical dressage.

The scoring on the artistic side of the freestyle sheet consists of:

  • rhythm, energy and elasticity - coefficient of 2
  • harmony between horse and rider—coefficient of 2
  • choreography, use of arena, inventiveness, design, cohesiveness, balance, ingenuity and creativity.—coefficient of 3
  • degree of difficulty—coefficient of 1
  • choice of music and interpretation of music—coefficient of 4

The artistic side must reflect the technical side. A technically moderate test should not receive high artistic marks. Great music with a mediocre horse should not win over mediocre music and a great horse. Correctness counts. Music won’t cover it up.

Since the degree of difficulty for national level FS has a coefficient of only 1, don’t waste too much time on it. Don’t take a risk if you can’t do it well. Ride a smooth and accurate test. But, she did give us hints on ways to receive higher scores for degree of difficulty. She gave criteria for what makes a score of 6, verses 7, or even 8.

For instance, at 4th level, doing three 3’s will give you a six; doing five of them could earn a 7; and doing the 3-tempis on a circle could earn an 8. Or, pirouettes performed on a diagonal can get a 6, pirouettes on the center line a 7 and performing an extension to a pirouette could earn an 8. Also, at third level tempi changes are not allowed. However, you could perform changes every fifth stride and get extra points.

Some new rules: In FEI tests, you can no longer half pass in and out of pirouettes. You must show some straight lines. It is no longer considered and extension if done on a curved line. It would be considered a medium pace, and could add to difficulty or enhance the artistic aspects but would not meet the requirement for an extension. Performing movements above the level yields a four-point deduction at USA Eq level and elimination for FEI.

At first and second levels, it is possible to pick the music and then add the choreography, but from third up you need more sophisticated music for more sophisticated movements. You need music that allows enough dynamics to be able to show half pass and lateral work, pirouettes, tempi changes and tempo changes. It is better to create the choreography and then add the music. Make your designs on paper first.

She suggested having a professional edit the music but says there are several programs to buy. It should be able to change the key and accommodate the music to the horse by being able to change tempo. You can usually speed up or slow down the tempo of a song by 10% to accommodate the horse’s rhythm and some programs allow for more.

Here are average tempos of the horse:

Trot -- 135-162 beats/min.

Walk – 95—116 beats/min.

Canter – 90—100 beats/min. as horse’s leading leg hits the ground

Piaffe and passage – 106—120

FRIDAY – Judges Training with Jennie Loriston-Clark

Ms. Loriston-Clark is one of Britain’s premier dressage riders with six World Cup qualifier wins, four Olympics and a WEG individual bronze to her credit. She is an FEI-I judge, a trainer and coach.

Participants had the privilege of watching a First, Second, Third, Fourth, Int-1 and GP freestyle with scoring and comments from Ms. Clark. She is well aware of the sacrifice in time, energy and money that it takes to get to a symposium and be a demo rider and hence was very positive in her comments. She was encouraging and truly wanted to help each horse and rider throughout the weekend. Often she would work on the quality of a horse’s gaits after the ride.

Some hints:

  • pick music that ‘lifts the horse.’
  • Music should “put some pep in your pants”
  • Do the half pass towards the judge, not away
  • Always think the judge is blind and clearly show them the movements. Don’t make the judge guess what you are trying to do. (I like this one too).

She gave scores for the technical side as well as the artistic. The session ended at 5:30 and we got to shop and attend the Trade Fair Kick-Off Party and talk with people about what we had learned.

After a few days of digesting the information Liz summed up the seminar this way:

“ Everyone here asked me how it was and I realized the thing that stood out for me is how difficult and how much effort goes into doing a freestyle well. Even a mediocre horse can look great, but done badly even a great horse can look mediocre. “

Panel Discussions

Saturday and Sunday sessions were held at The North Carolina State Fair Horse Complex with Terry Ciotti Gallo, Jennie Loriston-Clarke and Debbie McDonald.

Ms. Gallo has designed Olympic, World Cup and Pan-American Games freestyles for Guenter Seidel, Steffan Peters, Charlotte Brehal-Baker, Debbie McDonald and more. She has a background in dance and sports medicine. Her company is names Klassic Kur.

Ms. Loriston-Clarke in one of Britain’s premier dressage riders and an FEI-I judge.

Ms.McDonald is the 2002 World Equestrian Games Team Silver Medalist and one of the most successful American dressage riders today, with her horse Brentina

Ms. Gallo began by telling us that our freestyles should have interesting choreography, use the entire arena, and have a balanced program so you don’t over use one side or one end of the arena. We should have symmetry but not be too predictable. However, we don’t want the judge guessing what a movement was supposed to be either.

First, we watched a 1st level ride and she did not feel the horse and rider interpreted the musical phrase changes. The next horse halted off center-line on a diagonal and all three panelists were in agreement that this was not a good idea.

She went on to say that since 2nd level offers more possibilities in the choreography; get creative. However, she later said that some of her favorite FS she has designed have been 1st level rides. All felt it was important to show at least 20 m. of an exercise so the judge can really see it and make an assessment. One rider did a beautifully supple and well presented travers right, travers left, travers right, travers left, travers right, travers left sequence down the quarter line, and though it may have added to the degree of difficulty and artistic expression, it came too fast for the judges to access each one.

Often the panelists would work with a rider after they rode their test. Some riders could ride “to the music” and be “with the beat” while working with a panelist but couldn’t pull it off during the test. This was probably due to nerves, or thinking too much about the technical aspects of the ride and not the music.

She went on to say that it is OK to lower the volume for a softer effect and to raise it for something dramatic like a lengthening, BUT NOT in the middle of a phrasing just to make a new movement happen. All agreed that is it better to show shoulder in coming towards the judge.

Some (but not all) rules for Freestyles:

  • From the start of the music, you have 20 seconds to enter the arena and 20 seconds to halt and salute. Exceeding time results in elimination.
  • Maximum time: USDF levels 1-4: 5 minutes. NO MINIMUM
  • Maximum time: PSG, I-1: 5 minutes, Minimum: 4:30.
  • Maximum Time: GP: 6 minutes, minimum 5:30.
  • Movements performed after the time limit are not scored.
  • 2 point deduction for exceeding time limit
  • At USDF level, 4 point deduction for each movement shown above the level, but not for each recurrence
  • At FEI, elimination for movement shown above the level.
  • Movements not required on score sheet and not found in higher level test may be rewarded or penalized under choreography AND/OR degree of difficulty.

Choreography tips:

  • Riders usually want their choreography too hard. Be sure you can pull off the difficulty you want to show off.
  • Music amplifies training strengths and weaknesses. Choreograph to minimize tempo/training discrepancies.
  • A lazy horse needs to start with a forward movement.
  • A tense horse needs to start with a suppling movement.
  • Movements are prettier and better viewed off the rail.
  • Tempis on quarter line and away from the judge are hard to see.
  • Extensions and tempis on the long side are considered less difficult.
  • Extensions ridden on a curved line are considered mediums.
  • Lateral movements are prettiest and best when done toward the judge.
  • Shoulder in poorly done on center line can be mistaken for a leg yield if not well performed and shoulder in done away from the judge on the rail needs a greater angle to be seen.
  • Ride smart: perform all movements and have contingency plans that do not include circles.
  • Ride transitions to the music not at the letter, although it shows polish if transitions happen with the music at the letter.
  • Horses don’t understand the stop and start work of designing on horseback. Don’t use them until you have a definitive plan to ride.
  • Expect the technical performance to fall slightly until the horse and rider have learned the choreography.

Finally, when Ms. Gallo was asked specific questions about what makes smooth edits. Her answer was “software programs.” She wouldn’t commit to recommending a program but said a person should know what his needs are and what he expects from a program. It should have the ability to change the tempo of the music.

Dancing With Horses

Saturday night we were treated to a Musical Freestyle Gala event featuring what else but horses and riders and MUSIC. First we watched the Cherokee Heritage Dancers perform native dances. Then Peta Wyllie dressed in a pink poodle skirt and platinum blonde wig “danced” on horseback with a tough looking motorcycle “Fonzie” character in a leather jacket and Elvis wig played by Carter Bass. They rode and flirted with each other to Happy Days music.

Next, a western reining team rode some spins and rollbacks dressed in a white wedding dress and white tux. While certainly obedient, it was hard for me as a judge who seeks to see rhythmic pirouettes and balanced halts doing such fast and on the forehand movements.

Erin Sweeney next rode Hilton Antibes in a well-performed FS entitled Stallion Dance.

One of the highlights of the evening was the dressage instruction we received from announcer Marlene Eagleburger and Shining Moment (with Beth Jandl at the head and Jonathon Gilbert in the hindquarters). They used Nutcracker music to demonstrate lightness and grace in the passage and piaffe and although the walk was very lateral, they did perform some interesting tempis. The audience was in stitches and my compliments to this wonderfully innovative team!

Last but not least was An African Story, performed by over twenty horses. Tigger Montague directed and produced this story of The Lion King. She also choreographed many of the other rides for the evening. Donning wonderful costumes of leopards, zebras and young and old lions, they brought the story to life through pas de duex, quadrilles and single riders. My compliments to all involved as pulling off a huge production like this is not easy on horse or rider and each person sacrificed immensely to entertain us. Thank you!

Sunday -- The Grand Finale with FEI Freestyles

Ms. McDonald began by telling us that we “represent our sport as best we can. It doesn’t matter if you ride a Warmblood or an Arab, a judge can appreciate a good ride. (Here, here!) What does your horse do well? Emphasize that. Winning isn’t everything, but if you can walk out of the ring and say, ‘My horse did well,’ and if we can touch one person in the audience we have promoted our sport.”

Ms. Gallo then said she recommends having music professionally edited. “A rider would not go into the ring with unpolished boots – good editing is the polish,” she said. Professional editors can give us those four extra steps in the corner you might need to link movements together or to stay with the music.

Ms. Loriston-Clark reminisced about when FS started, “Back when a groom was in the sound box with three different tapes that they would quickly try to change. Things like that won ten years ago, but now the standard is up,” she added.

She went on to say that often judges miss “that certain little flair” that sets them apart. She was the first rider to ride with one hand in a test and she added on the last day of a competition to get an edge over her competitor. She won!

“Now we want to see lightness, elegance and self carriage. How you carry yourself on a horse makes everything dance,” she said. Her hint for GP is to put in a few extra steps of piaffe since “the judge never starts counting until one or two steps into the movement UNLESS your transitions are good and clear – which is rare.”

Prix St. Georges

Ms. Gallo later critiqued a PSG ride she had seen before. She like the Glenn Miller swing music theme and felt the music matched the footfalls in trot and canter. (She feels it does not have to match the walk as long as it fits the theme. She also said that vocals used at the beginning of a ride can set up a theme, but cautioned against too much vocals throughout the test).

She had not liked how the rider’s music faded out at the first and last halt. She let us watch it with the rider’s fade and then redone with an abrupt end to give the transition “punch”.

Intermediare 1

An I1 FS started with the vocals “Cock-a-doodle-do” and used the bluegrass/country song “Rocky Top” and “Country Roads” for a theme. Ms. Loriston-Clark commented that the entrance made a statement: “Wake up judges, I am here!”

Grand Prix

Finally, we were treated to a ride by George Williams on Rocher. Mr. Williams won the GP and GP FS at 2002 Dressage at Devon with a 70.84 and 75.375. He has a history of “dancing” with his horses since he worked for two decades with the Lipizzans at Tempel Lipizzans in Illinois. He recently traded the white stallions for a black mare, Rocher. They had a fun and lively test and promise to be a pair to be taken very seriously for the U.S.

Last But Not Least – More Hints

  • It is a freestyle, don’t use test-like patterns. Be creative and interesting.
  • Some horses need to be desensitized to the music. Some react in a negative way if it is too loud or has too much emphasis on beat.
  • New freestyle riders often jump forward as soon as the music starts and scare their horse. Allow a couple of extra seconds to start off.
  • To check what location you need to be outside the ring to start, go to x, turn around. Then play your entrance music, ride out of the ring and halt with the music.

Thank you VADA/NOVA for helping make this symposium more affordable for me to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and I hope the readers can glean some helpful hints for dancing with their horses in the coming season.