The Amateur’s Guide to Creating Your Own Freestyle
by Judi DeVore
About the author: Judi DeVore designs her own freestyles and was the RMDS Region 5 1st Level Freestyle Champion in 2019 and 7th at the USDF Nationals the same year with a freestyle she designed herself.
Know the Rules and Movements Required
All dressage freestyles are judged with two separate scores—one for technical quality and the other for artistic impression.
First you must focus on your technical score. Review the scoresheet of the test you are planning to perform. To put
together a successful freestyle you must know the movements required of your level and what movements are considered illegal as well. Although you get extra points for difficulty, doing a movement that is on the illegal list, found below the list of required movements on the test sheet, will end up deducting points from your score instead of adding them.
If you are a USDF member (as a GVDS member through RMDS qualifies you as a USDF group member) there is a world on information on the USDF member’s-only Education Section in the Education Library. All you have to do is search for articles or videos with freestyle listed in the search box and you will get tons of information pertaining to freestyles.
Because of the skill required to ride and stay with the music, a higher degree of proficiency is required in musical freestyles than for the highest test of the level you are riding. Performing a freestyle can show you and your horse’s skills at the same time being more inspirational to the audience. It is also a creative and fun way to enjoy our sport.
Here are some key points you must know to get good technical scores:
Perform the movements required well. Timely transitions in and out of each movement will be important to staying with your music.
You must obtain the required scores at the level you are competing. USEF rules state the horse/rider combination must have achieved a score of 63% or higher at the top test of the level being performed or any test from a higher level at a USDF/USEF licensed competition.
Read all the USDF rules pertaining to freestyles.
Selecting Your Music
Determining your horse’s rhythm - Finding the horse’s rhythm and tempo is key to finding appropriate music. Put a white wrap on one of their front legs and count how many times in a minute that leg hits the ground. That will give you the number of beats per minute for that gait. Repeat this step until you have the beats per minute for all gaits. This exercise will help you shorten the search to find good examples of music that might work for your horse.
Find music that matches you and your horse’s personality - One of the most important aspects of a good freestyle is finding music you love. You will listen to the song you create for your freestyle over and over while you practice, so it is important that the music speaks to you and the feeling you have when you are riding. For example, a mustang might be well suited to a western theme or Baroque horse to Spanish style music. Lyrics tend to be discouraged unless they lend a special quality to the performance (for example for emphasis on a certain movement). Lyrics also tend to make editing music seamlessly more difficult. However, many popular songs have instrumental remakes available on-line if you find the music compelling with your horse.
Here are some places to start your search to find the genre and beats per minute that might work for your horse:
Know How Artistic Components Are Judged
There are 5 components which compromise the artistic score and each are broken down here along with the coefficient that is applied to the score for that element.
Harmony Between Horse and Rider (3) - This element cannot be overstated for importance. To have a flowing routine there must be clear communication between the horse and the rider so that the appearance is the pair are dance partners. Highlighting your horses best qualities can certainly help to add harmony in your composition and make a favorable impression on the judge.
Design cohesiveness-Too many erratic movements can make a freestyle look less cohesive. The freestyle should flow seamlessly with the music.
Use of arena, balance-Show the movements in somewhat of a mirror image whenever possible and do try to use the whole arena not just one end.
Creativity-Avoid making the freestyle “test-like”, but be clear about the movements you are doing. Use uncommon lines not generally seen in a test or do unusual combinations not generally seen. However, the judge should not have to guess at what movement you are trying to perform. Also be sure while being creative, you still maintain the required distance of the movement as spelled out on the score sheet.
Degree of Difficulty (2) - Gain points by making movements more difficult than those in the highest level test for the level you are performing. However, note that this component has the lowest coefficient, meaning that it is more important that you have a smoothly flowing freestyle with music suitable to your horse, than one that is more challenging than you can perform well. Ideas to increase difficulty include:
Doing required movements off of the rail whenever possible—for example a 10 meter circle on the quarter-line will gather more points than one that touches the rail.
Performing lateral movements such as shoulder in and haunches in, or doing flying lead changes down the center line
Perform lateral movements at steeper angles than generally performed at the level being ridden.
Do combinations of movements that are more challenging than generally done at that level. Ideas depending on your level might be demanding transitions like extended trot to halt, leg yield right to circle right, or counter-canter, change of lead to counter-lead.
Suitability-Should enhance the horse’s way of going and is the most important aspect of the music. Heavy dramatic music may be appropriate for a large Fresian but not for a fine-boned, light-moving horse or small pony.
Seamlessness-Choppy edits of the music or abrupt transitions in the music will receive lower score than music that smoothly flows from one element to the next.
Cohesiveness-The music selections in the freestyle should feel unified connected by genre, theme or instrumentation.
Music expresses horses gaits-Although music doesn’t have to exactly match the horse’s footfalls the music should at least suggest a gait in terms of rhythm and tempo. Walk and canter tempos can sometimes overlap but trot tempos do not overlap with the other gaits.
Use of phrasing and dynamics-Dynamics which are loudness and softness of the music are considered when timing movements of the freestyle. For example music increases in loudness (dynamic) as the horse begins their lengthening adding drama to the movement. Changes in music phrasing are good places for transitions or beginning new movements. The more often music matches these components will determine your score for this element.
Editing Your Music
Time how long it takes to do the various elements you need for your level - To put together a pattern, you need to know how long it takes to get from point to point or to do a 10 or 20 meter circle for example. Video one of your rides and time how long it takes your horse to do various elements and distances. Then you can map out approximately how long you need your music to be to cover all these points. A good place to start is with a freestyle grid so you can lay out the pattern you want to ride. Here is a sample worksheet and grid you can download and use.
Ride your pattern to see if it matches the time allotted for your pattern and assure that the pattern contains all the required elements. Sometime you have to return to square one and re-edit your pattern to make the pieced fall together.
The next issue if you aren’t planning on purchasing a pre-made selection, such as is offered by the websites above, is editing your music to match your pattern. (Sometimes you may have to do this even with purchased music programs.).
I generally have an idea of how long I need the trot music to be and try to edit the music to fit the length required. Generally you will need around 1 minute of walk, 2 minutes of trot and 2 minutes of canter depending on your pattern and level you are riding. Be sure your music does not exceed 5 minutes from the point you salute the judge at the beginning and the point you salute at the end.
There are several programs available for editing but unless you are very technically inclined some are difficult to operate. I have found that WavePad is very intuitive and you can easily import music from your music library and cut and paste selections together. There are also controls to amplify the music or fade it out which helps make transitions between songs more seamless.
Other programs that are reported as easy to use are Audacity, Adobe Audition, and Garage Band. Free versions of these programs can get you started but some require you purchase the Pro versions which allows you to save and export them to print to a CD, which is a requirement for most shows.
Watch the author's 2019 RMDS Region 5 1st Level Freestyle Championship ride.
So now you have your freestyle program and music. How do you check if the judge will like it from an Artistic point of view? A few years ago I attended a USDF judges seminar as an auditor. This program was specifically focused on teaching judges how they should evaluate and score the Artistic portion of a freestyle ride. I’ve included a copy of the guidance given to judges, which I’ve found useful in planning my program below.
So have fun with this. If nothing else you will find riding around to music will add an element of relaxation to your rides you won’t get without it. It will also help break up the monotony of schooling tests. Good luck and enjoy the DANCE!