The Judge's Perspective
by Libby Anderson

It is always interesting to view the musical freestyle from the judge's perspective. I would like to discuss this aspect of the freestyle so riders, trainers and choreographers become more aware of how the judge is trained to evaluate their performance. We need to have a direct line of communication between all participants in this fabulous new sport. The judge is “always on your side” and will, whenever possible, award marks and give helpful comments for both the technical and artistic sections of the musical freestyle. Together we will try to improve the standard of the musical freestyle to achieve the ultimate goal of dancing with your horse.

Basic Concepts

Let's begin with a broad watercolor of the basic concepts of the musical freestyle. This beautiful and expressive format allows the rider a basic freedom, to charm the judges and spectators alike, as together they dance a musical story. The rider is doing a good job when, as the story unfolds, you are drawn into the web of movement, sounds and musical phasing such that you are momentarily caught in a time warp right up to the moment of the finale and conclusion. This is the perfect picture that the horse /rider combination wishes to attain in any given freestyle performance. It is also a given that this is the goal of every international combination in the musical kur.

Such is the case of Anky Van Grunsven and Olympic Bonfire at the Sydney Olympics with the Song Sung Blue theme. The effect was dynamic as horse and rider danced their way into people's hearts and recorded a fantastic score from five happy judges. This near prefect performance was not an ad hoc event but the combined efforts of a skilled freestyle team, consisting of Alie Schoenberg (talented designer for the super stars of freestyle), Anky herself, and Sjeff Jensen (trainer and partner). The magical choreography of this particular kur was due to the input from all these individuals who were so intimately involved with its development. In addition, all of the players were finely attuned to the personality and abilities of the equine star, Olympic Bonfire. This music is very rhythmic and, if the fiery Bonfire became tense and anxious, the risk was great that the kur would simply "not work". The spectators would gasp and the judges sigh as a potentially wonderful kur is disturbed by tension and disobedience. That is RISK! The payoff for success is magic in motion, harmony and goose bumps…

The Musical Freestyle is for Everyone

Very few of we horse lovers and dressage enthusiasts can aspire to achieve gold-medal standard. Not many of us are as skilled as Anky, own a Bonfire, have a Sjeff as a trainer and we have scant access to a guru of choreography and music. DO NOT DISPAIR! In the US, the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and the USA Equestrian (USA. Eq) have developed and encouraged the musical freestyle over the past ten years. Now in 2002 we have a flourishing "Dancing Horse Fund", under the wing of the USDF, which is actively supportive of "grass roots" musical freestyle enthusiasts. These organizations support freestyle development at all the levels. From the USDF levels to young rider and FEI freestyles (pony freestyles are now being established to accommodate the growing number of competing dressage ponies), the musical freestyle is FOR EVERYONE, at all dressage levels and riding skills. Do not be daunted: start to participate in this amazingly rewarding sport, you will never regret it. Over the years I have seen young riders and lower level dressage riders developing their skills, competing at the USDF levels of freestyle. Some of these riders have done well and moved on through the levels ultimately to compete successfully at the FEI levels. On the other hand, some of these riders do not manage to improve significantly over time, for various reasons, and they fall out of the competitive scene. I have been privileged to have known several of these riders who, far from finding the USDF freestyles a disappointment, have told me that they found the development of both the music and choreography a "growing experience" and to this day they enjoy riding to music. The addition of music to our regular riding endeavors helps induce relaxation and enjoyment for both horse and rider. Listening and riding to music can help to improve the beginner, amateur and professional alike.

Whatever category you are presently in, all riders wishing to execute a successful kur need to be comfortable riding the basic movements of that particular level. Seek all the help you can find from friends, assistants, trainers, family, (Mum is often a great help) musicians and freestyle specialists. Use videos, mirrors and ground people (parent, spouse, friend) to help you explore every nook and cranny of the arena space involved in your freestyle. Practice your kur mentally (visualization) a thousand times. Play the music a thousand times, practice the basic movements for the level a thousand times, but never over-practice the actual kur itself. The horse learns, very quickly, to anticipate the movements in your kur. Try to practice the entire kur several times but do not overdo it! The rider must be familiar with every part of the arena and every phase of the music, so that finally the secrets of your kur are lodged in the brain's sub-conscious. Then and only then are you ready to ride the KUR OF YOUR LIFE.

Some History

It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the exciting developments of the musical freestyle within the FEI. Suffice it to say that as of 2002 the musical freestyle is firmly established in the international scene and is now a legitimate inclusion in the Olympic Games, the World Championships and the World Cup. The US has followed the FEI direction, often pre-empting the decisions, by encouraging and establishing USDF and USA Equestrian freestyle programs through forums and seminars. In addition, they have given support by providing competition and demonstration freestyles. Figure skating on ice has become, in a few short years, one of the most popular Olympic events. The thrill of the fast moving and daring figures together with the instant electronic feedback of judge's scores helps to maintain spectator participation and excitement throughout the competition. The FEI grand prix kur has followed a similar path. The results, packed grandstands, wonderful sponsors and amazing freestyle competition to delight the equestrian world.

Rules and Regulations

From the judge's perspective, let's begin with the USDF level freestyles from first to fourth level. All riders should become familiar with the rules and regulations for these levels. These requirements are available from the UDSF and the USA Equestrian. Rules changes are on-going as the development of the musical freestyle continues to evolve. It is up to the rider to keep abreast of these changes. The FEI has established rules for the musical kur at Intermediare 1 and Grand Prix levels, as well as the Prix. St. Georges for young riders. These rules are also available through the USDF and USA Equestrian. If possible try to attend the UDSF Conventions, which will include updates and discussions on the musical freestyles, as well as several freestyle seminars that are held all over the USA. Once the rider is updated on all this information, there is only one thing left to do: GO FOR IT!


From the rider and trainer point of view, it is important to keep the judge happy. Why? From the beginning of the freestyle at the salute, to the final salute at the conclusion, the rider is attempting to relate a musical story to judges and spectators. The interpretation of this musical story is up to the rider/horse combination. Magic can be woven into the theme so that both judges and spectators are drawn into the spell. However, the judge must also be pleased with the technical section of the kur. The job of the dressage judge is to objectively assess the musical freestyle in both the technical and artistic sections. If the technical is good or above average, then this segment will record good marks. If the artistic section is also exciting, suitable and imaginative then we have the potential for good marks. If some sections are weak or deficient, it up to the judge to point out these faults and make comments to help the competitor to improve the overall musical freestyle performance.

The judge usually likes to see the rider use all the arena space in a non-test like manner. This means that one should not repeat circles, loops, serpentines and tear drops ad nausium, particularly when the freestyle at that level does not require it. These types of additions tend to make the choreography look boring and tedious. The judge will easily detect if the rider is not completely familiar with the choreography and musical score. Do not attempt a "rush job" in designing and executing the musical freestyle. Racing to catch up with the music or riding embarrassingly ahead of your musical score can make the artistic segment a disaster area. If you are familiar with your musical score then it is easy to cut a corner or make a circle a little larger or smaller synchronize with your musical score. The judge will only admire your skills and showmanship when you make these adjustments. I had an interesting situation once in an Intermediare 1 kur. By mistake, the rider executed two pirouettes to the left in canter. Suddenly she realized that something was wrong. There was only 30 seconds left! Hastily she performed another pirouette to the right just before the final salute. Her look of relief was obvious at the final salute! I know that this rider will not make the same mistake again and will become more familiar with both the kur and the music before competing again.

Technical Section

When a musical freestyle performance gives you "goose bumps", it means that that the technical and artistic score are in harmony and that, for a few minutes, the judge is drawn into the private world of the particular horse and rider combination. The musical story they weave before you, the flawless precision of pattern execution, the correct technical work will all meld to a moment in time. Several excellent competitors have achieved this moment of fame. To name but a few who have achieved such exciting and spellbinding freestyles, one thinks immediately of Isabel Werth, Anky van Grunsven, Lars Petersen, Ulla Stalzeber and Sue Blinks.

The dressage judge has to use several of the senses to fully evaluate the freestyle performance. A former FEI dressage committee chairman, Mr. Wolfgang Nigilli once said: "A judge needs to see with the ears and hear with the eyes." Judges spend a lot of time studying freestyle tapes from the US and overseas competition, and attending clinics and forums. Freestyle workshops are a fantastic tool for both competitor and judge. Linda Zang, FEI "O" judge, has given freely of her time and expertise to assist the development of the musical freestyle in the US. The technical side of the musical freestyle is judged just as a regular dressage test so if the technical section is weak, it is difficult to gain good marks in the artistic section. A poor half pass with no bend will not look good, even if put to the best of music. Some frequently asked questions related to judging the technical segment include:

  • Does the judge give marks for the technical section just as they would for a normal dressage test? The answer is YES: there is no difference.
  • Does good musical phasing shown in the movements of the technical influence the marks given? The answer is NO. However, good musical phasing for extensions or lateral work will enhance the beauty and meaning of the kur, and thus will be amply rewarded in the artistic segment.
  • If a horse shows some irregularly in the basic gaits during the musical freestyle, does the music help mask or hide the problem? If the horse is irregular in any gait, no music can mask the fact. Remember to see with the ears and hear with the eyes. You can see and hear the irregularly. The technical marks will suffer and also the first two artistic segment marks will reflect this recurring problem.

To perform a good freestyle the rider has to pay particular attention to all the details required for the level. We cannot escape the fact that the horse has to have solid dressage basics. There are no short cuts or easy answers for the technical segment. An insufficient shoulder-in, which lacks engagement and shows resistance, will look even worse when, set to music. If the music has a terrific beat for the horse's trot and the horse slows down to a crawl in lateral work and speeds up in extension, the music sends a direct signal to the judge that rhythm is not being maintained and highlights a major training flaw. No matter how beautiful and expressive the musical score, it cannot make up for poorly executed basics in dressage. On the other hand, good technical movements cannot counter an unsuitable or amateurish musical score when assessing the artistic section.

Artistic Section

The artistic section of the musical freestyle consists of five individual marks all allocated different coefficients. The coefficients may vary depending on the level of the freestyle. In the Grand Prix freestyle the coefficients are, respectively, 3, 3, 4, 4, and 6 for:

  1. Rhythm, energy and elasticity.
  2. Harmony between horse and rider.
  3. Choreography. Use of arena. Inventiveness.
  4. Degree of difficulty. Well-calculated risks.
  5. Choice of music and interpretation of music.

The first two sections are related to the technical section. It is impossible to have rhythm and energy with a sleepy or lazy performance. Resistance and lack of basic communication between horse and rider shows a clear lack of harmony between horse and rider. Correct technical work will be rewarded in these sections.

The last three sections can prove the most frustrating for the rider, as these represent the magic and skill of the kur. If the score works, the rider is amply rewarded in these sections. The rider and choreographer need to develop skills relating to the music, phasing, rhythm, use of arena, and, last but not least, blending the movements to the music and to the horse's personality.

Anky did not produce her breathtaking Sydney Olympic freestyle overnight. Anky trained various segments of her kur many times. She explored every inch of the arena space both relative to the movements performed and the judge's positions. She became familiar with every musical phrase and highlight, soft moments, rhythmic moments, transitional moments, crescendo and peaceful interludes. Why was the Song Sung Blue theme more successful than some of her other great kurs? It is hard to say, and there are many opinions. I personally feel that the musical interpretation came off to perfection because Anky took us all on a musical journey and shared her story with us on the way, producing a musical event which we will all remember for many a year to come.

The choreography, use of arena space and inventiveness all relate to how successful the rider and choreographer are in developing the story of a kur. As this section has a coefficient of four, it becomes very important in determining the overall result. Try not to be repetitive in the movements. This is not as easy as it appears, especially at the lower levels. It requires skill, good use of arena and an understanding of the musical nuances interwoven in your particular kur. As you proceed up the levels it still is not a simple process to be original and inventive. However, there are more degrees of freedom to integrate choreography, degree of difficulty and well-calculated risks with the interpretation of the music.

The degree of difficultly and well-calculated risks can be incorporated at all levels of freestyle. At first level, transitions on the quarter line and across the diagonal all add to the normal degree of difficulty for the level. Leg yields in zigzag and lengthening down the centerline or across short diagonals can add to the expression of the freestyle.

At third level, there are more options for the degree of difficultly with flying changes, half pass, medium and extended gaits all awaiting expression and execution. At the FEI levels, the degree of difficulty takes on new meaning. Such interesting and inventive movements sometimes show really spectacular risk taking incorporated within the theme of the freestyle. Examples abound over the few short years of the World Cup. Some of the exciting risks include, canter zig zags with reins in one hand, extended canter to double pirouette down the center line and then repeat, pirouettes in both directions with reins in one hand, tempi changes on a curved line and passage half pass, to trot half pass, and back to passage half pass. Wow! These stunning risks really create the goose bumps! But back to reality. It never pays to try to execute a movement that is particularly difficult for your horse. The horse must be confident and comfortable with all the movements required in the freestyle. You risk loosing everything if your horse becomes flustered, uncomfortable and even disobedient. Be certain to ride the musical freestyle at the level at which you know that both you and your horse will feel comfortable. This may require that you design your kur below the level you are competing at in straight dressage. For example, a third-level horse will feel comfortable performing all second-level movements and will be able to take risks at the second-level kur. This should make for good marks at the second-level freestyle. If the same horse is going third-level freestyle, it may be better to avoid too many difficult movements, which could cause problems in the performance.

The combination of choice and interpretation of the music is probably the most significant mark in the artistic section, as it has a coefficient of six at the FEI level. This mark will often determine the winner of the musical freestyle, so it is extremely important. Choose music that suits the personality and the rhythm of your horse. Music that displays and highlights your horse's personality, ability and flair. Loud heavy music does not lighten up a heavy, large horse. You must select music to complement the horse and to create an illusion of lightness. Once in New York I saw a huge horse perform a great musical freestyle to modern American music, including New York, New York and Alley Cat. You should avoid going to the other extreme and choosing a dainty piece such as the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies for a big horse. This is guaranteed to look silly. The one-tempi changes done well are beautiful to behold. The one-tempi changes set to great music are not only beautiful and inspirational to behold but create a breath taking experience for the particular senses of sight, feeling and hearing. This is the primary reason why the freestyle has attracted dedicated spectator fans, wonderful sponsors and FEI acceptance.

The musical choice should also suit your personality. You need to choose a complete piece and work with it to define changes within and between the gaits. We can now reflect back to Anky and Bonfire and the Song Sung Blue theme. This music was a perfect match for Anky and Bonfire. This is where risk and choice of music interact; although the catchy beat of Song Sung Blue is appealing, it also introduces difficultly. If the rhythm of the piaffe and passage is off for only a second, the overall picture will not look good. Anky took that risk with the result of lifting the freestyle from good to brilliant. That is what Olympic champions are made of!


To complete this article, I should mention some factors to consider before embarking on a freestyle performance. By now you should feel fairly secure on the basic concepts. First, know all the current rules and regulations related to the musical freestyle at the level you are competing. It is so sad to have to ring off a lovely horse and rider because they begin their freestyle with a prohibited movement. I had to bell off an Intermediare 1 competitor because he performed a double canter pirouette right after the salute. Also (and this was only 9 years ago), the judges had to penalize a Grand Prix competitor for riding well over the time allowed. KNOW THE RULES. Make sure that the musical score is well edited. This can be done professionally but it is usually possible for you to do this with a little effort. Gaps in the musical sequencing tend to leave judges and spectators "up in the air". Often the magic is broken for an otherwise entertaining and correct freestyle, resulting in lower marks in the artistic score. Before you enter a freestyle competition try to make sure that the show management has anticipated the event by addition of a good sound system. A boom box at B or E will not give sufficient volume or clarity of sound to enable the judge, rider or spectators to assess the musical freestyle. It is difficult to judge a freestyle when the sound system is insufficient and one cannot hear the music. This puts all of us at a disadvantage: judge, rider and spectator. I suggest that you should not enter a freestyle event unless you know before-hand that the show organizers have a reasonable sound system. Some competitors have used vocals to good effect in their freestyles. These include international freestyle competitors such as Jenny Lorristen Clark and Anna Greta Jensen. However, it is a case of buyer beware! If the vocal does not "come off" and ends up grating on the judge's nerves and the spectator's patience, then the artistic segment will surely suffer. Use vocals only if you feel it really adds to or highlights your musical freestyle.

To conclude, let us reflect on the future of the musical freestyle. As we have noted, the musical freestyle is clearly well established in the Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cup. Within the US the future also seems promising. With encouragement from the USDF and the USA Equestrian, the freestyle is destined to develop and flourish at all the levels in the US. A key remaining challenge is to make freestyles more inclusive of young and junior riders and ponies. LONG LIVE THE MUSICAL FREESTYLE.