What does the judge want to see in a good western dressage musical freestyle and tips for success.

by Dolly Hannon

The musical freestyle has become a very popular part of any horse show that offers them and has become a required class at the highest levels of open competitions up to and including the Olympic Games. It is a required component of the competition and medal awarding for both international Dressage and reining.

Audiences love the musical freestyles and they are on the bucket list of many riders in terms of their riding goals and dreams. There are differences between a successful reining freestyle and a western Dressage musical freestyle, or open dressage freestyle. 

  • In the reining freestyle songs with vocals are most often used and there are fewer required movements that are evaluated and scored by the judge.
  • The reining freestyle usually has theme and often utilizes costumes to support the theme and may include a section of bridle less riding, and or no hands on the reins.
  • There is a lot of speed involved and they are very exciting to watch.
  • There is a definite emotional component and audience audience participation is encouraged and expected.
  • The music sets the theme and tone and spins, sliding stops, loping at high speed with flying changes, roll backs and rein backs are the featured movements.
  • By comparison the open dressage shows might seem very quiet and sedate and our Western Dressage shows are probably somewhere in between.
  • Vocals are permitted and can be used to an advantage especially in setting the theme of the MFS.
  • The dressage horses and some western Dressage horses might not be used to loud clapping audience noise but now should get used to it if they enter large shows that feature the freestyle.
  • Sometimes  there is an evening of musical freestyle performances which can be a big draw especially if there are some exhibitions included.
  • Exhibitions may include costume classes , pas de deux ( pairs) and quadrilles with multiple horses ; four, six or eight.

For both the western dressage and in open dressage the freestyles are judged both technically and artistically.

  • Scores are given for required movements and elements and there are technical collective marks that are given the same way as in an open ride. 
  • At the end of the freestyle there are  artistic scores given for harmony , choreography , degree of difficulty , music , and interpretation.

The United States Dressage Federation or USDF has an excellent continuing education program on the artistic judging of the freestyle which can be audited by anyone. Contact USDF.org for more information and to find a program in your area.

  • In the open dressage freestyles and western Dressage freestyles at the lower levels generally there are at least three or more musical selections chosen and it is expected that the music will suggest the gait and enhance the horse’s movement, type, and personality.
  • Suitability of the music for the horse is the most important component of the music score in the artistic marks.
  •  In WD there is not a lot of speed involved so a good freestyle is more about the suitability of the music and the technical performance of the required movements. 
  • Vocals are permitted but should not overpower the horse or become distorted when played at  a high-volume .
  • We often see horses who are not used to loud music become upset when they first hear the music played at a very loud or high level at a horse show.
  • Use of strict tempo (matching the foot falls of the gait exactly) is not a requirement and many high scoring freestyles will have a tendency towards this. 
  • When it is done well it appears that the horse is dancing to the music.
  • If you close your eyes when a piece of music is played you should hear the gait ,or at least be able to picture it in your mind what the horse might be doing. 

Since many of our western Dressage shows are judged by open dressage judges I would say that it is important to become familiar with the guidelines to a degree of the open dressage musical freestyle to show the judges something they are already trained to evaluate.

You must also know the rules for the freestyle for western dressage  which are in the USEF (USEF.org) rulebook and on the WDAA score sheets.

Familiarize yourself with the freestyle score sheets prior to designing your freestyle as they contain a lot of important information and requirements that you must include. There is a list of what is forbidden or considered over the level on the test score sheets . There is a penalty for including these movements . 

USDF.org has information about MFS rules guidelines and definitions which are very helpful .There  is also more information on how the artistic scores are determined . 

Generally speaking you should plan on showing your freestyle at a level below where you are currently competing and training to be able to show your correct training, well executed movements, with a good harmony with your horse.

Western dressage has a strong emphasis on Harmony so it is important that you and your horse are quite proficient at the level that you will show and that you appear to be a team , working well together . 

In open dressage shows there is a minimum qualifying score of 60% that you must have received from the highest test of the level to be able to compete in a freestyle class. There is no score score requirement for western Dressage at this time.

A good freestyle looks easy and fun and allows the rider to show their Horse to the best advantage and make a creative statement with the choice of music and choreography. 

When you have determined an appropriate level to show you can either work on your own music and choreography or hire a freestyle designer to help you. 

There are many options and price ranges so it all depends on how musical you are, how computer savvy you are, and your budget. 

You can search for a musical freestyle designer online or ask your friends who compete.

A good musical freestyle includes :

  1. Music : Suitable music for the type and personality of the horse. If the music appears to be background music your scores will be lowered for both music and interpretation. Choose music that fits the gaits and paces (changes of stride length and energy) fairly well especially at the lope( canter ) , and and the jog (trot) . The walk and the lope are closer in tempo (beats per minute) so sometimes a softer part of lope ( canter) music can be used for the walk. The tempo of the music should be close to the gait or at least suggest the gait or pace. The music is not assessed according to the likes and dislikes of the judge but be careful in your choice that it is a type of music appreciated by most people not just you. The rider must be able to stay “with ” the music and not get ahead or behind it . This goes into interpretation . The music  must sound like a cohesive composition and not a mix of genres, styles , and or orchestration. Be sure your musical cuts are smooth and well executed. The pieces of music should be well blended from one piece of music to the next. Short fades can be used but overly long ones do not work. Try to hit your ending halt and the changes of gait or pace when the music changes . If you are ahead or behind the music at the end it effects the impact on the judge. The music should build to the end not just stop or fade away.
  2. A clear well planned and thought out and executed floor plan ;the choreography. The judge should never have to wonder what a movement is or what you were trying to show them. Your choreography should be balanced and fill most of the arena both from front to back and side to side. Try to show some unusual lines (like for example the quarter lines ) and some different combinations of movements. There should be some use of creativity in your plan , and you must include all of the required movements and not repeat movements over and over or only feature one gait or pace. You can highlight your horses strengths and to some degree hide a weakness if there is one or at least not make it obvious to the judge. Clarity and logic are the keys.
  3. The Degree of difficulty of the highest test of the level that you are competing at. You must show correct proficiency of the level. Degree of difficulty is another artistic score which means ” taking well calculated risks”. You can do this by adding more angle to a leg yield for example , and your choice of combinations of movements . Do not over face your horse. Try to show what your horse can do well. You can always adjust your plan if the horse is confident and you can ask more of him or her. 
  4. Entry music for your entrance . This provides a sound check and sets the tone or theme for your FS. Exit music is not allowed. Know what to do if there is a musical failure. Have a second C/D on hand and attend the sound check that the show offers before the class. 
  5. You must show at least 20 meters of continuous walk , either free walk or working walk . It cannot be broken up into pieces. Try not to show a lot more than the required amount of walk and/ or too many walk pivots or turn on the haunches or forehand. 
  6. Your halt and salute must be facing the judge at C. It does not have to be at X or on the Center line.
  7. There is a maximum time with a penalty if you go over time .There is no minimum time . For the lower levels keep it short and to the point . We often see overly long FS with repetition of several required movements . The judge has to score each required movement so don’t make their job too hard .
  8. You want to look like you and your horse are enjoying your performance and show the judge your special relationship that you have with your horse. If the music as personal meaning that may help you to appreciate it more and you will have to listen to it many times so you need to enjoy your selection.The harmony score reflects this relationship and also addresses the special riding requirements of staying with the music .
  9. You want to have practiced your freestyle enough that you know the music and pattern well and can adapt if needed during the actual performance. You can always cut a corner or right deeper into a corner or add an extra circle if needed. 

Riding  and developing a musical freestyle is a lot of fun and although it can be challenging; it is well worth the time and effort. We judges will appreciate and reward this effort when we see a harmonious and technically correct performance with suitable and well-chosen music. This is just a small introduction to the information out there about the freestyle. Do your homework before you start and enjoy riding your horse to your own musical creation.

I believe that the freestyle will become an even more exciting and popular part of the western dressage shows which will help to promote the sport and help it to grow and appeal to an even larger audience. The new theme for USEF which is now US equestrian is “finding the joy ” and what better way to do that than to ride and perform on a beautiful horse dancing to music.

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