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  • Writer's pictureAnna Beattie

Dare to Dance? Getting started in Freestyle Dressage

Few of us can forget the magical moment when Charlotte Dujardin and her horse Valegro rode to record breaking victory in the Grand Prix Freestyle in the 2012 Olympic Games: the beginning of a meteoric rise which transported dressage to music (or Freestyle) into the wider public spotlight.

The fairy tale partnership, with Charlotte becoming known as ‘The Girl with the Dancing Horse’, resulted in a surge of interest in dressage to music. Coupled with lock down and with many dressage enthusiasts turning to online platforms to compete, Freestyle dressage is now accessible to all levels, from Introductory upwards, all year round.

Local centres and affiliated bodies also run competitions as highlights of the year across a range of venues and there is no class more popular with spectators.

Anna Beattie, from Pegasus Dressage Music, a local company who choreograph and edit musical arrangements for riders, explains the appeal.

“Dressage to Music is an incredibly fun way to spice up your dressage. Whilst there are required movements you must include for each test, there is also freedom on how to link those movements together and, of course, on the choice of music. Therefore, it adds a real element of theatre. Our clients love the opportunity to get creative and we design something for them that is completely personal to their riding partnership.”

So how do you get started? The first step is to design your choreography (or floor plan). Make sure your floor plan not only highlights your strengths, but also conforms to the range of compulsory and prohibited movements as outlined by the affiliated bodies. Then it’s time to ride your floor plan and time it with your horse to ensure it flows for you and that it conforms to the time requirements (which are quite strict). You will be penalised for going significantly over or under the time.

​Now comes the fun part! Choosing your music. Unlike a traditional dressage test, where marks are purely awarded for technical execution, in a Freestyle you will also receive a significant portion of your marks for artistic impression so your music choice will need to suit your horse, enhancing your performance, rather than overpowering it. Higher marks are also awarded for a musical theme running throughout the test, with a clear beginning, middle and end, with the musical edit accentuating your highlighted movements and the symmetry of your choreography.

The tempo of the music must also be perfectly synchronised with your horse. This involves calculating the BPMs (beats per minute) of your horse’s gaits and ensuring the ‘downbeat’ of the music corresponds exactly with their foot fall. So you will need to choose three tracks, one for each gait, and then edit the transitions so they are smooth and pleasing to the ear, rather than abruptly cut. The overall picture should be one of harmony, with movements and transitions matched to the accompanying emphases in the music.

Fancy having a go yourself? Anna, from Pegasus Dressage Music: “We have clients on the books from every level, and I think that is certainly part of the appeal: anyone can do it! Clients absolutely love that element of creativity involved in the process and they receive a bespoke arrangement that is completely personal to them and their horse.”

Pegasus Brand Ambassador, Fiona Skipper (Irish Inter I National Champion), also emphasises the benefits to your dressage: “You’ll find that riding to music adds a real energy to your performance: the horses love it! It puts an extra spring in their step, and they always seem to rise to the occasion. And it’s an excellent way of improving your technical abilities as a rider: accuracy and rhythm are key. If you cut a corner or rush your horse through its medium strides, then suddenly you’ll find that you are out of time with the music and the judges are looking for a performance that is harmonious and smooth.”

Anna does offer a warning though! “You will definitely become addicted! I can’t listen to a song on the radio without assessing its suitability for Freestyle dressage. Or I will be hacking my horse and suddenly realise I am humming a tune in perfect time with his walk!”

So if you feel you’d like to add a new dynamic to your riding partnership, whether it be competing online or under lights in affiliated competitions, consider adding a Freestyle arrangement to your repertoire. Local competitors have a wealth of opportunities to perform their Freestyle arrangement in the coming months, with traditional Freestyle classes hosted by Narrow Water Equestrian Centre, Bennett’s Equestrian and Dalways Bawn Livery Yard, whilst a Freestyle league is soon to be announced by online company, Dressage at Home and International. There has never been a better time to get your dancing shoes on!

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