MagazineNewsHorse SportsHorse CareCOTH StoreVoicesThe Chronicle UntackedMarketplaceDates & Results
 
July 3, 2012

The Freestyle Is Still Evolving

By the time Steffen Peters won individual bronze at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.), the Grand Prix freestyle was firmly fixed into competitions. Photo by Sara Lieser.

Jan. 31, 2003

Although freestyles were a normal part of the dressage world by 2003, the debate continued over how to marry the artistic and technical merits.

The musical freestyle, once a rarity, is now firmly entrenched in the world of competitive dressage. The World Cup first required freestyles in 1986, and they were added to the Olympic format in 1996. And while it is growing in popularity among riders and spectators, many people are not sure just what it should be.

Some horsemen believe the freestyle is not “free” enough. Others, especially more technically-oriented riders, said it is already too free. “For years I hated the freestyle because I preferred the technical side of dressage,” said Tom Noone. “My mom made me do one when I was 15, and I still hated it.”

But by the time he reached Grand Prix, Noone had acquired a taste for the discipline, and in 1997, aboard Fresco, he earned the national freestyle championship. “When I started doing Grand Prix freestyles I thought, ‘Hey, I do really like this,’ ” he said.

Not every rider goes through such a conversion. “A good number of the Grand Prix riders I know feel that the freestyle is arduous and not very fun,” said Patricia Norcia. “They feel the competitive freestyle is too constraining.”

Norcia, of New York, N.Y., competes in dressage but not freestyles. An actress, choreographer and dancer, she created Dances With Horses, a theatrical troupe of 15 dancers and eight pairs of riders and horses that has performed throughout the East Coast.

Promoters of the freestyle want more individual expression in competition and hope to draw more spectators to the sport. Few spectators find the standard tests entertaining, and the freestyle is definitely more popular. At Dressage At Devon (Pa.), for example, a full house can usually be found for the Saturday evening freestyles.

These spectators, however, still tend to be those who love horses. In order to attract more mass appeal, dressage needs to reach outside the horse-loving crowd and into mainstream society. The freestyle can help do this, but many riders, judges and even those whose business it is to create freestyles admit that a good freestyle is not always easy to find.

“They often lack artistry,” said FEI judge Volker Moritz.

“The [freestyle] must make the audience feel what you feel,” said Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber, who won the freestyle at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. “You must take this special relationship that you have with your horse and bring that feeling to the audience so that they also have that special feeling.”

According to Norcia, making the audience feel something is a key component of art, and this is where competitive freestyles seem to fall short. It has long been debated whether dressage is art or sport, but the freestyle clearly aims for art. Still, there is room for improvement.

A Creative Challenge

Choreography is one place where the freestyle could be improved, as many riders find it difficult to think “outside the box.”

“The choreography of many freestyles is very organized and rigid, much like the standard tests. It’s like taking the tests and mixing them up with music,” Norcia said. “The movements are done the same way that they are done in the tests, because the tests are all that riders know. They don’t see ‘prettier’ ways of putting the moves together.”

Norcia believes many riders could improve their freestyles with the help of a choreographer, perhaps even someone from outside the equestrian world. “I think that many freestyles would be less boring to spectators if riders worked with someone who is a specialist in movement,” she said.

Terry Ciotti Gallo, founder of Klassic Kur, a Florida-based company that creates freestyles, agreed that riders, accustomed to the movements of the standard tests, often don’t see other options. “In dressage tests, the moves tend to be in isolation rather than in combinations. However, for the freestyle you want to combine movements,” she said.

Gallo has helped several top international riders develop their freestyles. While many of them come up with creative choreography on their own, Gallo adds her extended experience in choreography and dance.

Bettina Drummond, who is known for her musical demonstrations of classical riding, understands why many riders have difficulty with choreography. “If you have trained for 10 years to ride in a particular space to letters and to ride certain moves to please the judge, it’s hard to break out of that. Even the judges are trained to think in terms of the rectangle and certain movements,” she said.

Noone has learned to develop creative choreography, and he admitted it wasn’t easy. “I was very focused on the technical side of dressage, and I really liked the structure of the standard test,” he said. “Now I purposely try hard to avoid the tests. I think neither the judges nor spectators want to see the same moves performed on the same line as the tests.”

Some riders and trainers who focus more on the performance side of dressage rather than the competitive believe that changing the format of the freestyle would go a long way toward increasing its mass appeal.

“The addition of more spectacular movements would make them so much more interesting, such as Spanish walk and trot, pesade, trot and canter to the rear,” said French equestrian artist Jean Louis Sauvat.

Sauvat is involved in the Versailles Academy of Equestrian Performance, which is being created in the centuries-old equestrian school at the Palace of Versailles in France. The leader in the creation of the school is Bartabas, known to most Americans for his equestrian theater troupe, Zingaro, which as occasionally performed in the United States.

Sauvat believes that many riders could improve their freestyle through artistic study at such a school. “The curriculum aims to enable creative awakening in each individual,” he said.

Drummond and Norcia also believe that artistic education could help riders be more expressive and take risks in their riding. “All art is about taking risks,” Drummond said.

Such training in the arts may help riders overcome their internal artistic limits, but the competitive freestyle itself has limits. Even while he complains that some freestyles lack artistry, Moritz also admits that scoring is heavily weighted toward the technical.

“If you analyze the two marks for the artistic, which is the quality of the gaits, and impulsion and harmony between rider and horse, you will see that they are completely inked to the technical quality of the performance,” Moritz said of the Grand Prix freestyle score sheet. “Thus, two-thirds of the total marks are influenced by the technical performance. There are only two marks that are independent of the technical performance, and that is choreography and the interpretation of the music. In addition, the marks for the degree of difficulty lean toward the technical side. If you add this up, about 65 to 70 percent of the total score is influenced by the technical performance.”

Such scoring is why some riders whose exhibitions of riding to music have gained wide appeal still avoid the competitive freestyle. For Drummond, the competitive freestyle places constraint on time, movements and space; the geometry of the competitive ring is itself a constraint.

“Riders are used to thinking that there are lines in the ring and that they must work within them. True art does not have those constraints. By limiting the range of movement you are limiting the movements,” she said.

Sauvat had a suggestion to give the more artistic freestyle the edge in competitive scoring: “I think that there should be an artistic authority added to each jury,” he said.

Moving The Audience

Knowing that the judges are looking for correct technique keeps many riders from taking risks. Moritz said he looks most at the technique, the fulfillment of the requirements. But he is also looking very much at the selection of music and its relationship to the movement of the horse.

Along with good choreography, music is the other key to a good freestyle. Judges want to see that the music not only fits the movements and the gaits, but also supports them.

Gallo sees two main problems with riders’ music: “The blending of the music is choppy. And some riders still need work on interpretation. When you here a change in the music, you should see a change in movement.”

For the most part, Gallo believes that riders have gotten better at selecting music to match the gaits of their horse. Moritz would agree, at least with regard to the international level. He said freestyles are far better today than 10 years ago, thanks in part to the increasing inclusion of professional musicians into freestyle creation.

“You very seldom see today a freestyle where the music doesn’t fit or support the gait of the horse,” he said.

However, while the choice of music may be “technically” correct, it does not always move the audience as it should. Thus, judges may score it high, but spectators may not necessarily appreciate it.

Noone credits his mother, Judith Noone, with helping him select his music. “She has a great ear for music and a great eye for fitting the music to the gaits,” he said. She gives him several choices of music for each gait, and Noone makes his decision based on what he calls “the goosebump effect. I have to get a tingle watching a gait to music.”

Salzgeber uses a similar approach. “I find music that touches me, and then I make it fit my horse,” she said. “With Rusty, at the moment I heard the music I said, ‘This is my music. This is for Rusty.’ ”

While Salzgeber believes that being artistic, or at least very musical, is helpful in choosing music and then interpreting it, Gallo believes even the musically disadvantaged can learn how to ride a good freestyle.

Sauvat, though himself very artistic, also believes that passion and hard work can offset lack of natural talent. “My 25 years of expertise teaching at the Beaux Arts has led me to the conclusion that the less gifted student, when endowed with a time consuming passion and work ethic, is often more interesting to teach,” he said.

Drummond noted that the freestyle is a good introduction for those who want to try a more artistic approach to dressage. And perhaps as more people venture into it, they will come to like it and get even better at it. Noone is proof that one can start out disliking the freestyle and end up not only loving it, but also excelling at it.

So will the freestyle ever do for dressage what figure skating has done for the sport of ice skating? As of yet, no one is sure.

This article was first published on Jan 31, 2003, in The Chronicle of the Horse. It's part of a series celebrating 75 years of Chronicle history.