Disclaimer: I’m not a qualified dressage judge but the Dressage Judges Gala was open to both judges and Dressage enthusiasts.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Dressage Judges Gala at Spruce Lodge Training Facility In county Wicklow. The galas focus was around judging freestyle to music. I must say it was a fascinating experience to gain insight from a rather unique perspective.
Dressage Ireland were hosting the gala and at the podium to share her valuable experience was Jo Graham, BD List 1 and an FEI 4* dressage judge.
The day itself was split into two halves – The morning and the afternoon.
In the morning a large crowd gathered for a presentation alongside some examples of freestyle tests to music. We got to look at the technical and creative sides of the freestyle tests.
The examples were to express to us how much music can affect the pace being ridden. When you choose the correct music, it adds so much more to the overall expression of the test whereas with the wrong music you may find it hinders the performance of the horse.
To delve further into this for now, we were shown several clips of various levels. In these clips, horses varied from expressive movement with lots of cadence to more flat movement with little in the way of expressiveness. What we were shown was that when using the correct music, even the flat mover can appear to be more expressive. Likewise with the wrong music, the flashy mover may suffer in the overall picture.
The right music in freestyle tests is vital!
In the afternoon section, we were treated to 3 volunteers who I believe were from Spruce Lodge – Sean, Joanne, and Belinda.
Sean and his horse (Fig) were demonstrating a freestyle test at Novice level with some spectacular Phil Collins music. Joanne rode her horse (Cashmirs Hadina) to a more serious tone at Elementary with some impressive music that demanded all eyes in the building. Her choice in music put me in mind of something you’d see Totillas ride to. Finally Belinda stepped up to ride an Advanced Medium test on her horse (Galaxy Moone) to some very jazzy and fun music.
As each rider rode their tests, we got to look at their required movements and judge their creativity. The rider was given the chance to take feedback on board and receive a valuable perspective from Jo herself as she explored our thoughts and voiced her own – alongside justification for all points of course! When judging dressage, it’s vital to be able to justify why you give the marks you do.
The day was interesting. I was thankful for the opportunity to have attended it. Dressage judging is something I’ve been curious about but I haven’t actually taken any steps on a journey towards qualifications. It allowed me some great insight into how judges work and what they look for – Especially in a freestyle where both creative and technical marks are applied.
So, now that my experience is done with, let’s get onto the tips! I’ve taken loads from the day and some of my favourite bits are as follows!
In the following section, I’ll share with you some tips I learned from the day and I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did!
Use Your Arena
When designing the choreography for your test, consider symmetry. Are you leg yielding on the left rein across the whole arena and only doing it across half of the arena on the right rein? Change it. Are you doing 3 canters on the left rein and only 1 on the right? Change it. Your test needs to be balanced and symmetrical. It’s a common mistake that many people tend to not reflect both reins but judges notice symmetry.
Use the whole arena. Don’t fall into the trap of only using bits of it. It’s a huge space so use it all! Balance curving lines such as loops and semi-circles with the straight lines such as long diagonals.
In your choreography, remember to make it interesting. Transitions between and within paces go a long way to keep the attention of the judge.
Finally, make every line you ride mean something. It’s a freestyle, use it to show off your strengths! Don’t aimlessly display a working canter from A, up the long side to C. Transition within the canter to a medium canter up the long side and transition back to working before the corner. Use the lines to show off!
Find One Pace Easy? Don’t Overuse It!
If your horse has an effortless uphill canter, don’t feature it in the majority of your test. When it comes to choreography, it’s important to be able to show off the parts you’re good at but keeping them as features. Those parts should be a highlight and not used so much that the judge is left bored watching the test.
Link Your Movements Creatively and ride them clearly
Riding movements clearly means that if you’re riding an extended trot, try to make it an obvious case of extended trot. You need some extended steps! It’s the same no matter what movement you ride, try to make it clear what it is.
When you link movements creatively, this links back to your choreography. Keep it interesting. Don’t go for an extension into collection if your horse struggles with it but don’t shy away from stringing together moves that show off what you’re capable of. Creativity looks at what you ride, where you ride it, how you ride it and the degree of difficulty. Sometimes taking a chance can pay off.
Consider the degree of difficulty
Calculated risk. This particular tip involves you to assess your horses ability alongside your own to pull off weaker moves. If you’re riding a horse who struggles with extension for example, you might not want to put much extension in your test as poor extension could bring your mark down.
However, if you’re riding a freestyle test and can ride a harder move more than adequately, you may be able to bring up marks through repetition of the harder move. Reputation of harder moves, different lines and combining different moves (for example an extended trot to a halt) can bring up a score impressively if you’re able to pull them off. If you struggle to do so, avoid showcasing your combinations weaknesses.
Fun fact! Everyone knows you get higher marks for riding difficult movements with one hand; But did you know you can only do this a maximum of 4 times in one test?
Music that enhances the image
This years Dressage Judges Gala was focused particularly on freestyle to music. I’ve seen people attempt to compile a freestyle test and use one song or piece of music for the entirety of the test. No matter what their pace may have been, that song and it’s beat played throughout the walk, trot and canter phases. Think about the pace and even the pace within the pace. If you’re doing free walk on a long rein, make that music reflect that. Medium walk music should reflect the change in pace too.
Also consider the overall picture. The choice of music should suit the horse and rider combination. What supports the picture and story you’re telling throughout your test? For example, the Steptoe and Son theme song music suits a cob more than it does Totilas.
Remember, music can help the overall image of what you present in a test. The right music can enhance the weak movements and wrong music can hinder the strong movements. Consider this when choosing music.
More notes on music
Music in your freestyle test should enhance the movements being ridden but not distract from them. Your music should enhance the movement being ridden. Changes in pace should be reflected in the music with a smooth, unjarring transition from one piece of music to another.
Vocals may be used but if you have a choice between a vocal piece or an instrumental piece, consider whether or not one enhances your test over the other.
It’s important to note as well, that your technical mark in a freestyle test may be adjusted if your transitions aren’t ridden in line with the music. If you’re still cantering when your trot music hits, you will see this reflected in the end scores.
In a freestyle you have some flexibility in what you’re riding. If you’ve ridden slightly quicker or slower than the music and don’t want to be caught off guard for your transition; You may add a slight audio cue to remind you of where a transition is coming up.
This could be bells, a chime of some sort or whatever you think fits. I’d recommend making it fit in with the style and tone of your music. If you struggle to remember transitional spots or have timed the pace to the music poorly, this may be a life saver.
Interesting points to note
Question: What happens if the music fails to start?
Answer: The judge has to use their own discretion in these events. If a rider signals for the music to begin and there appears to be a technical error, the judge has the right to use their discretion to determine whether a restart is acceptable or not. A delay of 5 or even 10 seconds may still not trigger a restart. The judge will consider the rider in the situation and also the horse. The judge should know that expecting a horse to stand waiting isn’t fair to the horse nor the rider.
On the day of the gala, Jo Graham said riders should have a backup plan so that they aren’t standing there with their horse halted for too long. Ultimately there is no answer on this one really. It’s entirely up to the judges discretion. We as riders just have to be prepared and look after the horse we are on.
Question: What happens if the music stops playing during my test?
Answer: The judge will likely stop the test. All movements marked up to the point of the technical failure will be kept. After the judge stops the test and the failure is resolved, you will then be asked to ride the test from the beginning. This is mainly because it may be hard to find the exact place the music left off. It’s also allowing you and your horse a chance to get back into the swing of things.
Once you reach the stage where your music stopped, the judging commences. By the end you will have ridden a complete test and have been scored fairly as though no interruption took place.
I’m sure you can probably tell that I feel I learned a lot at the Dressage Judges Gala. I did. It gave me valuable insight into how dressage tests are judged and what the judges really look for. In freestyle, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting exciting music that we feel fits our story. One of the most important lessons I learned at the gala was to look at the bigger picture and to consider the image others see.
Dressage isn’t like most equestrian sports. Dressage is an art. There is interpretation of our work. There’s technicality and creativity. There is freedom from the rider to be able to express themselves through the test – but it’s when you bring it altogether as one masterpiece that the magic happens. That magic is on show for others to interpret; to relate to and especially with freestyle, to form an emotional bond to.
The Dressage Judges Gala was a great experience to view the sport of Dressage in a new light. I’ll definitely consider attending again next year.
The Dressage Judges Gala was written by Scott Barnes of Barnes Equestrian.