Thursday, 24 August 2017 23:27

Dressage as Dance

Written by  Ginny Simon

Cue the Music


PHOTO COURTESY: HOOF PRINT IMAGESDressage has been called “horse ballet”—with good reason. Horses complete pirouettes, piaffes and flying changes. And they dance their ballet to music. Oh, and it’s a competition.

For many dressage riders and their horses, the Grand Prix Musical Freestyle represents the culmination of years of work and practice. The precise dressage movements are performed in the ring with the artistry of a prima ballet dancer. And the performance is done during a high level competition, all while in synch with a specially designed musical program.

Have you enjoyed the special pleasure of watching a musical freestyle? You can at this year’s Dressage at Devon, when horses are dancing in the Dixon Oval.


Some Background

To better understand what it takes to make a powerful horse appear to move gracefully and effortlessly in a series of intricate movements—all in time to music—a little background on dressage’s musical freestyle competition should help. And add to your newfound knowledge that the origin of dressage movements dates back to classical Greek horsemanship when soldiers trained their horses to perform these stylized moves to evade or attack the enemy.

According to the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF), the “Dressage Musical Freestyle combines the elegance and beauty as well as the power and strength of the horse with the stirring impact of music. This creative expression of the horse-rider relationships is entertaining and offers great audience appeal.” The event is judged not merely on artistic impression of the performance; the technical execution—judging of the compulsory elements—counts for 50% of the score.

Innumerable hours, days, weeks and years of work have taken place for the horse and rider team—or pair, as they’re often called—to reach this pinnacle in the dressage world. But the training is just part of the story.

Many people behind the scenes, often professionals in this highly specialized field, work to develop just the right mix of music—music that showcases the horse and rider pair, meets official rules for the compulsory elements, and engages the audience.

Yes, the audience is an important consideration. That may be why these performances are so memorable.


PHOTO: ALIX COLEMANMusic and Choreography

If you haven’t seen a musical freestyle competition, you may want to head to YouTube to see what’s involved. Several suggested clips—featuring music from hip hop to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—are in the sidebar.

So, how are the musical tracks created?

Music can be selected from any genre or combination. Mixes of types of music from classical to pop to rock ‘n’ roll, show tunes and movie themes are often heard. The choice depends in part on the horse’s movement, type and personality as well as the rider’s own tastes.

Most freestyle programs choose different music for the different gaits of the horse—walk, trot, canter—measured in beats per minute, while also creating a cohesive whole. The musical phrasing and dynamics of the music—such as changes in tempo and builds toward crescendos—support and complement the range of movements, from graceful to powerful.

Choreography is another opportunity to be creative, and although it’s called the freestyle, there are rules that must be followed in the performance. The routine must incorporate certain technical elements (much like the compulsory portion in figure skating) and be a prescribed degree of difficulty. The choreography should match the horse’s ability and strengths, so the movements look fluid while still demonstrating precision.

The rider’s entrance into the ring and the start and end of the performance are all carefully timed—5.5 to 6 minutes from the initial halt to the final salute—and are important factors in the choreography. For example, the timing of the salute must match the tempo of the music and the final halt should be on the last beat of the music—much like a gymnast sticking the landing.


What the Experts Say

“We start with finding the horse’s tempo,” explains Fiona Gowers of Bally Vae Farm in Lincoln University and a USDF Silver and Bronze Medalist. “The walk, trot and canter of each horse have their own tempo, or number of beats per minute. We use a metronome and watch one leg of the horse at each gait. When the foot fall of that leg matches the tempo of the metronome, we have the tempo for that gait.”

With knowledge of the horse’s tempo, the search for music can begin. “We try to find music that tells a story or fits a theme. All big band, or all Beatles. … Now comes the fun part, we play the music while riding the horse! The horses have definite opinions on what music they do and don’t like,” says Gowers.

Lauren Annett, owner of Lauren Annett Dressage, also at Bally Vae Farm, adds, “When thinking about picking suitable music for a pair, I start with tempo. I consider the tone of the music and how it relates to the pair when watching them ride to the particular selection.” An example: Thundering dark music doesn’t work with a petite rider and small horse, but it’s exciting with a Fresian—a powerful, energetic horse with a long, thick mane.

“Most of the horses play a role in picking out their music. They show a clear preference for some pieces over others. The music should enhance the horse, not detract from the performance or distract the horse,” Annett says.


Watching Freestyle at Devon

Both the Grand Prix Special (very high level riding, minus the music) and the Grand Prix Musical Freestyle take place on Saturday night at Dressage at Devon. Although seats go quickly, there’s standing room with good views for this exciting and fun night.

“The Grand Prix Freestyle is always a favorite of competitors and spectators alike,” said Dressage at Devon President, Lori Kaminski. “Often though, our audience doesn’t realize that Saturday night isn’t the only time they can see these fantastic rides.”

Insider Tip: The same riders and the same horses must also compete on Friday in the qualifying rounds—prerequisites for riding in the Saturday night Grand Prix events. The top 15 riders from each qualifier go on to ride on Saturday night, so you can see the top riders and others on Friday night. Plus on Sunday—a.k.a. kids day—the Juniors get to try their hand (and hoof) at the Grand Prix Young Rider Freestyle and the Grand Prix Freestyle under 25.


And There’s More

That being said, each day of the six-day dressage show features some of the best horses in the world. Dressage at Devon also hosts the largest open breed show in the world—the open breed show features many different breeds, on September 26th through 28th—and showcases some of the best in breeding, from very young foals shown with their mothers, to the three- and four-year-olds who are just beginning their career.

The Performance Division—where the focus is on dressage tests, or the prescribed series of movements that “test” the horse and rider—begins Thursday afternoon and continues through Sunday. Each day features top performances from some of the finest horses in the world.

Outside the ring you’ll find fabulous shopping for equestrians and non-equestrians alike, and what’s widely known as the best food on the horse show circuit.

So, go and join the fun!



Dance to the Music

The quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” applies here. So it’s worth watching some YouTube videos capturing highlights of musical freestyle performances. Over 20 million have done that already.

Hip hop dressage with over 5 million views

An international performance with over 18 million views

2016 Dressage at Devon, Jacqueline Brooks on D-Niro to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

2014 Grand Prix Freestyle winner at Dressage at Devon, Ashley Holzer on Tiva Nana


If You Go

When: September 26–October 1
Where: Devon Horse Show Grounds, Lancaster & Dorset Aves., Devon
Tickets: Available online or at the ticket office during the event. $10/day gen. adm.; $5, for 3 to 12 years.
Information: For reserved seating, group sales and information, visit