Freestyle Sophistication

USDF Freestyle Continuing Education in Dressage Judging program demonstration rider and co-organizer Darcy Miller creates a freestyle under the direction of judge Lois Yukins (right of horse) and freestyle designer and program creator Terry Ciotti Gallo (holding microphone). The March program was hosted by the eastern Pennsylvania-based Delaware Valley Combined Training Association.

USDF’s continuing-education program is a must-do for both judges and riders

Story and photographs by Jennifer O. Bryant

“If you are remotely considering competing in freestyle,” my dressage instructor, Ange, wrote in an e-mail to her clients, “you really need this info.”

She was referring to the USDF Freestyle Continuing Education in Dressage Judging program, a two-day workshop designed for competitors and instructor/trainers as well as for licensed dressage judges and USDF L program graduates. One of my local USDF group-member organizations (GMOs), the Delaware Valley Combined Training Association (DVCTA), was hosting the program March 25-26, 2023, and Ange (who was a co-organizer) encouraged all area dressage enthusiasts to attend.

She had me at “considering competing in freestyle.” Although I’ve ridden and competed in dressage for years, and although I adore watching freestyles and have even tentatively picked out music, actually riding a freestyle has not yet come to fruition. But it’s high up on my bucket list, so I eagerly registered to audit the program.

Are you, too, “remotely considering competing in freestyle”? Then read on for some tips and insights that you can use in creating or refining your own dressage freestyle (and maybe even entice you to attend or help host the program in your area).

Behind the Music: All About Scoring Artistic Impression

Dressage freestyle—its creation, execution, and judging—is considerably more complex than the standard dressage tests because there’s a second set of criteria besides the usual technical assessment: the marks for artistic impression. As presenter Terry Ciotti Gallo explained, on the USDF freestyle score sheets, the artistic-impression category comprises the following six categories:

  • Music
  • Interpretation
  • Degree of difficulty
  • Choreography
  • Rhythm, Energy, and Elasticity
  • Harmony Between Horse and Rider.

Music “is not likes and dislikes,” said Gallo, a renowned freestyle designer and the main creator of the USDF Freestyle Continuing Education program. Instead, the program teaches judges to evaluate music based on:

  • Suitability: Whether the music enhances the horse’s movement, suits its character, and is appropriate for the level. Gallo showed a short video clip of Olympian Steffen Peters riding an FEI-level horse in trot and trot half-pass, set to various music selections that all were the correct tempo and rhythm for the horse’s gait. Even though all of the music matched the footfalls, the differences were evident in the way the horse looked as accompanied by the different pieces.
  • Cohesiveness: This “primary modifier” refers to whether the musical selections feel unified by theme, genre, or instrumentation. Whatever the relation, it should be very apparent to the judge, said Gallo’s co-presenter, Lois Yukins, an FEI 4* dressage judge who chairs the USDF L Education Program Committee and who is a longtime L faculty member.
The DVCTA freestyle program presenters, Terry Ciotti Gallo (standing) and Lois Yukins
  • Seamlessness: A lesser modifier of the music score, seamlessness refers to the way that the music selections are edited and combined. Abrupt cuts disrupt the flow of the freestyle; short fades are less jarring, said Gallo—but “Don’t fade the music at the end, because the judge can’t assess the final halt and salute.”

Consider: Are there aspects of the music, such as vocals, that could be distracting to the judge? Judicious use of vocals can be effective, but vocals draw attention to themselves and therefore could potentially upstage the performance, Yukins said.

Interpretation is the relationship between the music and the horse’s movement. Do the musical phrasing and dynamics express the gaits and movements? “If you can guess the gait from the music alone,” said Gallo, “then the music expressed the gait.” And the best way to do so, she said, is to match the beat of the music to the horse’s footfalls.

Typical gait tempos can be surprising. According to Gallo, a horse’s walk and canter tempos may be quite similar, as may walk and passage tempos. Trot tempos tend to be higher beats per minute (BPM), and a horse’s trot BPM may decrease as it develops cadence and moves up the levels, she said.

Choreography that complements the musical dynamics can elevate the interpretation score, said Gallo. Bold movements, such as extensions and tempi changes, call for stronger passages of music; walk, pirouettes, and transitions tend to need something less intense—but “don’t put us to sleep,” she cautioned. “Walk music can be more relaxed, but it needs some energy.”

All of this won’t be successful if the rider doesn’t stay with the music. If you get ahead of your music, the score for phrasing and dynamics will suffer, Gallo said.

Degree of difficulty “relates to the top test of the level,” explained Gallo. “The expectation is that the rider can earn a score of 63 percent at the top test of the level.” So the judge is left to decide: In the freestyle, did the rider fail to meet, meet, or exceed the expectations of the level?

The freestyle score sheet for each level spells out which movements are forbidden and which are “additionally allowed.” Nothing above the level is permitted (e.g., no flying changes in a Second Level freestyle; in fact, intentionally performing a movement that’s above the level will get you a penalty). Usually, a rider can raise the DoD score by executing challenging combinations of movements, for instance, or by making permitted movements more difficult, such as by riding a half-pass at a steeper angle than the level requires.

Caveat: Difficulty is rewarded only when it’s done well. If you and your horse can’t do a tricky combination well, better to leave it out than to execute it poorly and lower your score.

Caveat #2: “Be careful about doing too much of something the horse does well,” said Yukins. “If you mess one up, it brings the whole thing down. It can be risky.”

Choreography includes the following elements:

  • Design cohesiveness (the primary criterion), meaning that the movements and patterns are clear and easily understood by the judge.
  • Use of arena and balance refers to the pattern’s utilizing the entire arena in a balanced way, along with equal amounts of work on each rein.
  • Creativity means that the choreography shows originality and does not merely co-opt current test patterns. Transitions, for instance, do not need to occur at the letters.

Gallo noted that there’s no requirement that riders take up the entire maximum time allowed of five minutes for a freestyle test, pointing out that there is no minimum time. “Don’t plan long lines without a movement,” she advised. “Either plan combinations or shorten the lines so you don’t have long strings of just going along,” which can lose both the audience’s and the judge’s attention.

Rhythm, Energy, and Elasticity and Harmony Between Horse and Rider are reminiscent of the collective marks in the dressage tests. In the former, rhythm is emphasized over impulsion. In the latter, harmony encompasses both a sense of ease and confidence in the freestyle test, and the ability to stay on the beat of the music and to express the musical phrasing and dynamics while executing unique and at times challenging choreography.

During the live-freestyle portion of the program, judge participants (seated behind C) and auditors watch as presenters Lois Yukins and Terry Ciotti Gallo judge and offer commentary

Putting It All Together

On day 2 of DVCTA’s USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging Program, the eight judge participants and 63 auditors got the opportunity to watch and listen as Yukins judged and Gallo commented on the freestyles of 10 talented demonstration pairs. In the beautiful indoor arena at Windurra USA, Cochranville, Pennsylvania, home base of US eventing Olympian Boyd Martin and his wife, the FEI-level dressage competitor Silva Martin, we bundled up on a chilly and windy Sunday for the only one of the two freestyle continuing-ed programs scheduled for 2023 to feature live freestyle rides.

The day began with Gallo demonstrating elements of her freestyle-creation process with rider and program co-organizer Darcy Miller, who test-rode some choreographic snippets at Gallo’s direction while the veteran freestyle designer test-played some potential music selections. It was fascinating to see a lower-level freestyle program start to take shape, and the audience got a real-time look at how clever music and choreographic choices can enhance a horse’s way of going. In Miller’s case, her horse was willing but a bit tight from the cold and the environment, and it showed in the medium trots, but not nearly as much so when Miller began the medium off a curved line, which gave the horse more elasticity and suppleness going in—an example of what Gallo called giving the horse the opportunity to succeed.

As Yukins explained, judging freestyles presents special challenges. The judge must keep track of technical and artistic elements simultaneously; the order of the gaits and movements is not known in advance (at the USDF levels); the judge must recognize any movements performed that are forbidden at the level; and the judge must also analyze the distances of lines of movements, to check whether, for instance, the required amount of walk is shown.

To do so, the judge must “divide your brain,” as Gallo put it. Most judges also utilize a self-created sheet on which they make notes about degree of difficulty, phrasing and dynamics, and music cuts, among others. And, of course, they should come to the judge’s booth armed with the current USEF rules and the USDF freestyle rules, guidelines, and definitions.

Even with such a detailed methodology in place, there is a place in freestyle judging for judges to trust their reactions.

“If something makes you smile, go up [in the score], Yukins said. “If you are angry at the rider [for how the horse is being ridden], go down. Go with your gut on this. If you don’t, it changes what this sport should be about.”

And: “When you get [to judge] a really good horse that makes it look easy, don’t take it for granted.” In other words, recognize and reward the quality and correctness that produces an effortless-looking performance.

The judging of freestyles has evolved and improved over the years. Spearheaded largely by Gallo, the USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging Program aims to educate judges, prospective judges, trainers, and competitors alike, and to provide a methodology so as to standardize the judging of freestyles in the US. All in attendance at the DVCTA-hosted program agreed that it is—as my instructor had promised—a must-do for all with an interest in dressage freestyle.

Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.

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