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                   Dancing With Your Horse 
New Zealand 2010

While exploring some of the technical possibilities and limitations of Freestyle2Music dressage in my series of ‘Dancing with your horse’ articles (British Dressage magazine Nov – Mar 09) I suggested that the use of set pieces might help lighten the Freestyle2Music judges' burden and, because approved music would be readily available to Freestyle competitors, more riders might be encouraged to take part. 

In an unpublished article, I posed the question: Was ambivalent musical assessment making it difficult for competitors to know how or where to improve? Without clear definition of why marks are lost or gained, do competitors become confused and find musical progression somewhat hit or miss.

Partially aware of this, in 2009 British Dressage invited me (a trained dressage judge and classical musician) to explore avenues wherein the subjective (and often arbitrary) musical assessment within its Freestyle 2 Music competitions might be enhanced.


For people new to riding to music, finding music that fits often deters riders from trying their hand at this most rewarding and entertaining discipline. 

In an effort to quell the eternal debate over what ‘IS’ considered to be suitable music for Freestyle, the possibility of implementing 'set pieces' of music was further discussed. 
So, having created a few 'suitable' orchestral arrangements and a musically intelligent method of marking, I set off to conduct trials out of earshot ... 


Having toured New Zealand in Jan 2009 as a concert musician, a lengthy stay in the horse paradise known as Cambridge (Mark Todd country) brought about impromptu invitations to judge, and also conduct ‘Dressage2Music’ clinics during my free time between concerts. 
Having been most favourably impressed by the Manukau Dressage Group's foresight in conceiving the Rosemary Spence Memorial Freestyle 2 Music competition, I had little hesitation in forsaking the worst British winter in 29 years to return to NZ and conduct trials in their sub-tropical South Pacific paradise.


The creation of bespoke ‘set pieces’ obviously requires a musician’s knowledge of musical structure and technicalities, but of equal importance is the understanding of equine physiology and the balanced equitation needs required within the realms of dressage. As a BHS trained equestrian and classically trained musician (and using data collected from the BPM of my clients at I have been able to devise a musical formula and evaluation system which lends itself to unbiased assessment. 




In order to cater for varying musical tastes (and also avoid the monotony of repeatedly hearing and judging a single set piece) a musical structure was created which could be applied to a variety of contrasting themes. 
While each soundtrack is uniquely different, the beat and time spent in each gait is identical, so there is no advantage or disadvantage in choosing one title over another. 
The arrangements themselves pay particular attention to the characteristics of equine footfalls (making it easy to identify where to walk, trot and canter) whilst musical phrasing and orchestration allow ample fodder for creative choreography. The suitability of the music has been worked out mathematically using correlated information relating to equine footfall physiology. However, the only technical requirement for the rider is to know their horse's BPM.




It is well known that many Freestyle2Music riders employ the costly services of a third party professional (myself) to cleverly put music to their existing floor plan. Of course, while this method is sometimes artistically successful, it also awards marks to a rider for a skill that is not theirs!  
Using 'set pieces' levels the playing field by bringing the creativity ball back into the rider’s court and firmly places the onus on the competitor to interpret the music. 




The mark sheets relate exactly to the sound tracks. Following a 'set the stage' short introduction, the initial halt is followed by c. 1’30” of trot work, followed by 45” worth of canter music… etc. and is mindful of the entry level horse’s workload capability.
Having familiarised themselves with all the ‘set piece’ soundtracks, 'suitable' judges undergo additional musical training which helps them recognise the tempi changes for walk, trot and canter. This additional training not only helps judges know when to expect a change of pace, and to which gait... it also facilitates an audio-visual skill when assessing unsolicited rhythmic fluctuation within each gait.
Highest marks are awarded for transitions made exactly in time with the changing beat of the music; late changes score lower, and early changes (when the music has given no indication to change … ) score lowest of all. The aim here is to reward riders for their response to the music’s nuances when and wherever they occur. Competitors with the unmusical predisposition of only riding to school letters may find that skill unrewarded.
While the quality of horse gait is noted, the judges' attention is shifted predominantly to the rider and their ability to prepare, balance, and listen (to both the music AND their horse) during transitions. 
Although the mark sheets are very structured, there is room for commentary if something wonderfully artistic happens. 

Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of having a set piece section is that unrelated skills such as paying someone to fit music to your routine, the ability to search the Internet for Mp3 files, or edit them on to a CD, play no part in your results. The judges simply assess the competitor’s ability to ride to music… and that has to be fairer’.  Viv. Matchett.

The 2010 BD TRIAL. 


Preparation started with soundtracks being sent to NZ candidates in Nov 2009 to allow ample time to prepare for competitions in Jan and Feb 2010.
The original concept was I myself would mark the trial ‘set pieces’ class prior to candidates riding 'their own' Freestyle2Music marked by another judge. The marks from both classes would then simply be added together. In the event of a tie, the winner would be the candidate with the highest ‘set piece’ score. (However, because of its simple and immediate access, several onlooking Freestyle2Music virgins asked if they might ‘have a go’, and the trial music was subsequently made downloadable from the Woodhill Sands EC website and ran as a separate fun class … ) 




All trial riders completed a questionnaire relating to their preparation time; preparation methods used; musical gait recognition, making musical transitions, musical taste and general comments on the trial itself.

Thanks to:
Cindy Dawson, Lynda Clark, Waikato Dressage Group
Viv Matchett, Kate Small, Linda Mead, Waiho Dressage Group
Kay Hogan. BHSI. St Peter’s School Equestrian Dept., Cambridge  
Joan Matheson, International Dressage Judge
Shelley Ross, Woodhill Sands EC
Jaqui Winspeare  List 2 judge (NZ)

Auckland Manukau Dressage Group

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