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  • Writer's pictureAnna Beattie

'Judging the Dance: Marking a Dressage To Music Test' by Pegasus Brand Ambassador Fiona Skipper

With so many of our Pegasus clients beginning to take their Freestyle music arrangements out and about, we touched base with our Brand Ambassador and instructor Fiona Skipper to find out what the judge is looking for in a good dressage to music test and to help you makes sense of those mark sheets.

"Judging a freestyle can be quite a challenge for judges: not only do they have to mark the standard technical movements (as they would in a normal dressage test), but they also have to evaluate the artistic nature of the test. So there is a lot going on in terms of what they're having to look for. This is why affiliated bodies will offer additional training to their listed judges to guide them through the process. You will find there are listed judges who actually specialise in dressage to music and their feedback can be invaluable to a rider.

So, firstly, your technical marks. These are marks you are given for your compulsory movements that are set out on the scoresheets, as in a standard dressage test. The judge will have to actually look out for these compulsory movements appearing in your test because obviously they are not necessarily going to appear in chronological order as you have choreographed your own floor plan. So, a useful piece of advice is: choreograph your floor plan in such a way that it makes it easy for the judge to spot these movements. Whilst marks are given for originality in a floor plan, they are also given for symmetry and limited changes of pace. When you make your test symmetrical with the three gaits in recognisable blocks, then the judge can easily assess, for example, your 15 metre trot circles on both the left and right reins in a Novice test. The judge will have a number of other things they are evaluating within the space of your performance, so helping them recognise your compulsory movements is going to make their job easier (and your job as a rider easier too!).

On to the artistic marks. These are divided into four main sections: music, choreography, gymnastic ability and harmony (as well as degree of difficulty for the higher levels).

The marks for 'rhythm, energy and elasticity' (gymnastic ability) relate closely to the 'paces' and 'impulsion' collective marks in a standard test so are therefore incredibly dependent on your technical marks. So what is the judge looking for here? Consistency, freedom and rhythm of all three paces (also really important when you are riding to the beat of your music!) and impulsion (so they want to see your horse's hind legs really engaged with a swinging back and desire to move forward). Personally, I find riding to music really improves a rider's ability to score well in these aspects: you ride with more purpose to your music, you and your horse are thinking forward, and, of course, your naturally want to ride to the tempo of your music, which is regular and synchronised in a professional edit.

Next we have marks for 'harmony between rider and horse'. Again, this mark corresponds closely to the submission and 'rider's position and seat' collective marks from a standard test. So, as with a standard test, this mark is all about the training you invest into both you and your horse. The judge will be looking for a rider that is balanced in the saddle, using aids that are effective but subtle. When we ride well, this allows us to make the transitions fluent and the movements look effortless. Your horse should be relaxed, attentive and seeking a quality contact that allows him to do his job properly. Harmony is a real buzz word in freestyle dressage and rather than being an elusive concept, it is something that comes from putting the hours of work in training at home.

Now we move onto one of the genuine artistic marks: choreography. This is one of the aspects that a professional can help you with as getting this foundation right makes everything easier from the word go - easier for you as a rider, easier for your horse (highlighting their strong points, lessening focus on the challenging parts), easier for the music editors (allows their composition to flow if there are limited changes of pace and music reflects symmetry) and, as I previously discussed, easier for the judge assessing you as they can quickly recognise the compulsory movements. So a good floor plan is a vital for your first step. Your choreography mark is less dependent on your technical performance but, of course, mistakes will cost marks so try to avoid them by setting yourself up for success. For example, your Novice level horse becomes onward bound in medium canter and you find it difficult to collect him afterwards, and it has a negative knock on effect on your next movement as you try to regain your horse's attention. A clever floor plan will set up your medium canter, for example, on a 20 metre circle, making it easier to ask for a return to working canter as his hindquarters are underneath him; he is properly engaged and not falling onto the forehand. Marks are also given for successful choreography where the pattern flows and movements are focused to the short side at C. Always think of your judge as the audience and give them every opportunity to appreciate your horse's performance.

Last of the artistic marks is for your music and interpretation of the music. This is where a professional edit can come into its own. In terms of the music, you are gaining good marks when your music suits your horse. Does your music choice enhance your horse's performance? The judge does not want to see a lightweight horse with floaty paces come down the centreline to overpowering music like Pirates of the Caribbean! Music choice can also help your horse: for example, a cob that is heavy on its feet can be lifted by some jazz beats. A professional edit should also synchronise the tempo of the music to your horse's paces, have an overriding theme (with changing moods for the three paces), reflect the choreography of your floor plan in terms of symmetry, highlight your 'party pieces' (like your medium paces), and blend smooth transitions between paces. So these are all aspects where a professional edit can help you gain marks that are independent of your performance.

However, when it comes to scoring well in your 'interpretation of the music', then those marks are down to you and the practice you have put in behind the scenes! Are you riding in time with your music's tempo? The judge is also expecting to see you make your transitions in time with the music and coinciding your movements within the pace in time with accentuations in your composition. And of course, are you finishing when your music finishes? Practice makes perfect here! Learn your musical cues and know where you need to be at certain points of your test. It doesn't have to be on your horse either: watching the video edit of your piece will teach you where these musical cues are and where you need to be. It is also invaluable to have a few tricks up your sleeve - for instance, if you find yourself behind or in front of your music, where can you gain or lose time? Can you ride deeper into the corners or take a shorter line? Even collecting your horse (whilst maintaining the same rhythm) can buy a valuable second or two.

So judging (and riding!) a Freestyle takes a great deal of concentration. One of the lovely things about dressage to music though is how all of the different aspects that are being scored are intertwined - the choreography, music, harmony, impulsion and paces. Therefore, when you and your horse get it right, there is no better feeling! As Cees Slings, one of the great music composers, famously said: “Freestyle is the pinnacle of Dressage and when it works, the result is magic.”

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