Freestyle Roundtable Webinar – Trending Topics & Takeaways

Photo by Sarah Hollander

By Chelsey Burris

On January 25, the USDF Freestyle Committee hosted a Freestyle Roundtable Webinar.  Held via Zoom, USDF members were invited to learn more about musical freestyles from the perspectives of competitors and judges, and to ask questions and voice concerns.  Here are a few key takeaways from the session.

The panel for the webinar

How to Choose Your Music

Musical freestyles are a fun and exciting way for you and your horse to show off your unique personalities.  But how do you go about choosing music that is right for you?  Music should be used to enhance your horse’s natural gifts.

Pay attention to the different parts of the music and decide which ones fit best with which movements.  Neither USDF nor FEI require that the gaits match the beat exactly – the music just needs to express the gaits.  If it’s done well, closely matching them can enhance your freestyle, but it’s certainly not a requirement.

All genres of music are welcome in the dressage arena.  If it’s a song that makes you feel like dancing, it’s probably a good choice for a musical freestyle!  Vocals are permitted in freestyles, but they shouldn’t be overpowering compared to the instrumental parts of the song.  Powerful music tends to go best with higher levels.  Music that is too quick can make the horse look frantic and should be avoided.

Freestyle designer extraordinaire Terry Ciotti Gallo stressed the importance of giving yourself ample time to develop your freestyle.  The process of choosing your music, determining suitability to your horse, and ensuring that the music is coordinated together so it doesn’t look random or disorganized all take time.

Phone a Friend

So, you’re ready to start on your freestyle.  You have some music in mind.  What should you do next?  Regina Cristo, the competitor representative on the Freestyle Committee, recommends you team up with a friend or barn mate to help you with your freestyle, especially if it’s your first one.  In addition to having more fun when working with someone else, it is also extremely helpful to have a second person who can aid you in the process of developing your freestyle.

If you aren’t super music or tech savvy, ask around your barn and see if you can find someone who would be willing to help.

If possible, ask a friend on the ground to take a video of you riding.  You can use this video of you and your horse as you work on figuring out your beats per minute in each gait.  A helpful tip: your horse should be warmed up to get a better feel for the tempo, since that will be the most similar to how you’ll ride at a competition.  If you have videos from a previous horse show, that can also be a huge help.

First (and Last) Impressions Matter

As the old adage goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.”  The same can be said with freestyles.  You want to make sure that you have a strong beginning to your freestyle, as well as a memorable finale.  USEF ’S’ Judge and retired FEI Judge Natalie Lamping advised that riders should have entry music so that you will know that your track is correct before you start your freestyle (because unfortunately, once you start, there’s nothing you can do if it’s wrong.)

As your freestyle comes to its conclusion, plan for a finale that fits the music.  The build-up from the rest of your test should lead to this big finish.  Natalie shared that she often sees riders throw in extra things to try to take up the time to get to the end of their test – it would be better to edit the song down to fit your ride than to try to fill the space with additional movements.

FEI 4 *and USEF ’S’ Judge Jeanne McDonald also touched on this, saying that your first movement after your salute and how your freestyle ends will stick out in the mind of the judge.  Choose something you and your horse do well.  She said she prefers riders who show something right after the salute, and don’t turn their back to the judge to go back and start at A.

Photo by Sarah Hollander

Know Your Horse

Freestyles give you and your equine partner lots of new options that aren’t available during a non-freestyle dressage test.  You might be tempted to add movements – but tread carefully!  USEF ’S’ Judge Joan Darnell shared that combining movements can increase the degree of difficulty and your score, but you don’t want to over-face your horse.  The movements you choose should play to your horse’s strengths and current skill set.

Does your horse have a gorgeous canter, a half-pass to die for, or is a pro at lead changes?  Use the freestyle to showcase your horse’s best attributes.  Keep your choreography fun but clear, and most importantly, keep your horse happy.

If there are movements you would really like to add but your horse isn’t ready for them yet, use those as goals for the future, rather than adding them to your ride too soon and causing your horse to struggle.

How to Improve Your Score

As a competitor, how can you make your freestyle dazzle the judges?  Joan Darnell and Jeanne McDonald shared a few specific tips including:

  • All movements should be able to be recognized by the judges.  Determine where judges will be around the arena at your level, so that you can make sure that all the judges will have a good view of your movements.
  • Music suitability is important – does music suit your horse and your level?
  • Don’t overdo it – you don’t have to have movements everywhere.
  • Use the whole arena to show your horse to the best advantage.
  • For a high degree of difficulty, it’s better to show less combined or difficult movements well than difficult combinations or movements fairly well.

Preparing Before the Show

Once you have chosen your music, developed your movements, and practiced, you are almost ready to debut your musical freestyle at a show!  Utilize lessons with your trainer several times before show day to tweak things – it’s better to find out potential problems at the farm than at the competition.

Remember, musical freestyles are judged 50% on technical execution and 50% on artistic impression, so it’s important to have good fundamentals in both areas before riding your freestyle at a show.

Tips for Judges

USDF Freestyle Committee Chair and USEF ’S’ Judge Dolly Hannon shared a few of the things that she recommends to others out there who are about to take their turn in the judge’s booth.  First off, she advises that all judges review their scoresheets carefully before they start judging – there may be rules, guidelines, or definitions that have been updated since the last time you judged.

She also recommends having a process for remembering the specific freestyles you see.  For her personally, she takes notes about each test, including the musical genre, if the music was memorable, if there were any interpretation issues, and even the color of the horse.  By having this quick guide, she can easily jog her memory if anyone has any questions about a specific freestyle.

The scoresheet for musical freestyles doesn’t go in order like it does in a non-freestyle test, so Jeanne McDonald recommends that you make sure your scribe is aware of how the scoresheet will work.  You have to count on your scribe to find the correct box to fill in at the right time.

As a judge, remember that your musical preferences are not to be taken into consideration when judging a freestyle.  In the USDF Judging Freestyles Continuing Education Program, one of the first things they teach is that your personal opinion of the music does not matter.  According to the scoresheet, the ways music should be judged are on suitability, cohesiveness, and seamlessness.

The Freestyle Roundtable Webinar in progress

What Attendees Were Saying

Nearly 300 USDF members joined us for the session, with 50+ questions and comments coming in during the Q&A section.  “Thank you!!  Great session. Appreciate all of your time,” said one attendee at the end of the webinar, and “Thank you, very informative!” was posted by another.

Additional Resources

There is a plethora of great information about freestyles on the USDF website.  You can also search “freestyles” in the USDF Education Library for more resources to help you design your perfect ride.

If you want to learn more about freestyles, there are upcoming Continuing Education opportunities approved for freestyle designation.  There are two available this year – February 18 in Dallas, Texas featuring Joan Darnell, and March 25-26 in Cochranville, Pennsylvania featuring Lois Yukins and Terry Ciotti Gallo.  You can learn more here.

Do you have any questions about the session, or about musical freestyles in general?  Reach out to us at

The Final Takeaway

Don’t be afraid to try a freestyle – they might seem intimidating, but they are fun!  There are many resources available to you as you work on developing your dream freestyle to dance down centerline with your equine partner.

Photo by Sarah Hollander

Leave a Reply