Creating a

04 April 2018

How to put together a killer freestyle Dressage routine

It’s been over 15 years since musical freestyle became a part of Dressage competition at international events, combining equitation skill with audience entertainment. You may have wondered how riders at the elite level put together freestyle programmes in this most balletic of paired riding disciplines.


Just like with human dance choreography, every freestyle Dressage routine is unique in its inception. Some riders do almost all the preparation themselves, from selecting the music to planning the movements. Others hire Dressage freestyle designers to choreograph programmes for them.


As the world's top Dressage athletes prepare for next week's FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Paris we look at how to go about creating a performance to remember...

Making the horse
look wonderful
is the priority

Degree of difficulty is only one element...

“My first goal is always to try and impress upon the client that making the horse look wonderful is the priority,” insists Karen Robinson of Applause Dressage, pictured above with  Jan Ebeling and his horse Rassolini, who constructs freestyle programmes for World Cup competitors.


“Creating a freestyle is really three pieces: choreography (making a pattern that shows off the strengths, while setting the horse up as well as possible for the best execution of weaker elements), choosing the music, and… editing the chosen music to fit the choreography.”


Patrik Kittel of Sweden, the No.1 ranked rider in the FEI World Cup Western European League will be competing in Paris. He strives to make his freestyle programmes as difficult as possible without stressing his horse or increasing the probability of mistakes.


“Horses are so different, so the programmes are all very different,” he explains.


He likes to plan a symmetrical programme that flows easily. Known for finding the perfect music for each of his horses, Kittel enjoys different styles, including rock and roll.  



He says: “I ride to Guns ‘N Roses, and it’s been a huge success. Whatever you choose to do, the most important thing is that you and your horse are happy, confident, and at ease with the test. That brings the coolest freestyle.”


Degree of difficulty is only one element the judges look for when scoring a Dressage freestyle programme.


In addition to the interpretation of the music and the choreography (the order of movements and use of the arena), judges also assess the harmony between the horse and rider as well as the movement qualities of the horse (rhythm, elasticity, and energy).


“Ultimately a freestyle is still a Dressage test,” reminds Karen. “The highest technical performance will almost always win.”



A rider may start a freestyle programme with a medley of their favourite tunes, but they can’t just do whatever suits them in the ring. Each freestyle must include a certain list of required elements, such as a pirouette or half pass.


A joker line is an unchoreographed segment of the programme, usually included near the end, that the rider can use for any movement they want in case they make an error earlier in the test.


While this may seem like a safety net that every rider would want to include, a joker line does lower the degree of difficulty.


In a highly competitive atmosphere like the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final, riders are looking to gain every advantage. So, those riders who want to increase their scores will often eliminate a joker line from their choreography and take the risk that their horse will correctly perform tricky elements the first and only time they do them.


With or without a joker line, riders have to constantly think one step ahead during a Dressage freestyle.


'The rest is up to the rider...'

Says Karen: “Timing is going to fluctuate from performance to performance. One can nail the timing of the music to the pattern only if one follows his or her music and makes little adjustments to the ground plan (deeper in a corner, shallower in a half pass) to either make up time or, more often, kill time.


“If I have made sure the music really suits the horse - makes the horse look more powerful, or more expressive, or more rhythmical - and the choreography is created to best highlight strengths and make a balanced attempt at added difficulty, then I feel my job is done. The rest is up to the rider.”


Who will be up to the task in Paris at the FEI World Cup Dressage Finals? Tune in to FEI TV to follow all the events, watch the final freestyle performances, and see who takes the coveted championship title for 2018...


Text by Patricia Salem

Images by Arnd Bronkhorst / Jon Stroud