Dances with Horses

Leslie Morris on Dwight practicing a freestyle

Dances with Horses

By Nicole Landreneau

In April, SEDA hosted a freestyle clinic with Cynthia Collins of Luna Tunes Freestyles at Equi-Best Equestrian Center in Covington, LA. There were a decent number of participants (always room for more!) and several auditors who took advantage of the opportunity to learn how to do a musical freestyle. I didn’t participate, but I did audit and sat in on the education session, too. It was an enlightening experience!

Cynthia is an award winning competitor with a fun personality who really knows her topic when it comes to dressage freestyles. She also has experience with Western Dressage, and her commentary about that was entertaining as well. But, I digress.

I don’t know about you, but, while I’m fascinated by musical freestyles, I find them a bit intimidating. My excuses for avoiding them go something like this: I really wouldn’t know where to start; I doubt that I could pull it off; I’m sure my horse and I aren’t good enough; and I have no sense of rhythm or musicality. But, those are just excuses. Cynthia stressed that freestyles are for everyone, and really are a fun part of riding dressage. Quite often, it helps you find the rhythm of your horse, too.

The first part of the clinic consists of Cynthia watching you ride your horse. You’re welcome to bring your own music or offer your own suggestions. But it seems that more often than not, what you think will work for your horse winds up not being the case! Cynthia comes with an extensive music library and a good understanding of what each genre sounds like so she can match it to the individual horse’s gaits. She watched the pairs ride, took their suggestions, and then started playing some different music options. It was really interesting watching her come up with music that would work, especially for trot and canter. Sometimes, there were two or three songs that were potential candidates, but based on rider preference or the horse’s personality, they were sorted through until the most suitable option was settled on.

I have to admit, it was exhausting watching the pairs ride to the music selections trying to find just the right one. The selection can take a bit of time! But, it was pretty obvious to everyone watching when ‘it’ was right. What’s particularly entertaining is that the horses really seem to like riding to the music, especially when it’s a good fit for their gaits. You can almost see them smile and say ‘that was fun’!

I watched several of the pairs pull their music together and come up with some rough choreography that would go with the song (the more detailed choreography happened the second day of the clinic). It was quite exciting to watch these develop. One pair, Leslie Morris riding Dwight – a draft cross – chose the theme music from Batman and it fit them just perfectly. Another pair, Elaine Harmon and Roslynn, danced beautifully to Celtic music. The last pair I watched had a very joyful ride with some French music that reminded me of a carnival. It was a treat to watch that small horse trot in step with the can-can. What a riot!

Of course, it’s more than just picking music and throwing in some movements. The music has to be adjusted to the timing of crossing the arena, the horse’s stride, and the length of the ride itself. Cynthia is a master at pulling all the elements together and suggesting how to make it flow in the best possible way.

The second part of the day was a lecture on the requirements and fundamentals of a dressage freestyle. The guidelines are pretty clear on what is required for each level, and they are posted on the USDF/USEF websites. But there is a lot of flexibility for creativity within those guidelines – that’s what makes it a freestyle! Of all the information she covered, there were certain things Cynthia mentioned which really stuck out in my mind.

First, I learned that there is a five minute maximum ride time for freestyles. It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but I know how dressage tests can sometimes seem endless. Having the music seems to make the time flow together and not be so stressful. Plus, the music helps the rider remember where to do what!

Second, while you have required movements, where you perform those is very flexible. The judge has no idea what your ride looks like or where you’re ‘supposed to’ do something, so if you miss it in one spot, you can stick it in somewhere else. Obviously, you don’t want to let that happen if you can help it, but it’s comforting to know that if you have to, you can do some improvisation!

Third, it’s best to time the more important movements to places where the judges have the best view of them. Otherwise, they may not be sure if they saw the movement or not. For instance, you wouldn’t want to do a shoulder-in on the short end of the arena opposite the judge – he’d never be able to tell that’s what you are doing!

Fourth, technical execution is very important. Do your movements cleanly and where the judge can see them. Since they cannot judge on accuracy, the technical and artistic points are what you need to focus on.

I asked one of the clinic participants, Corrine Morrison, what she thought of the experience. This was a first-time freestyle clinic for her, and it was overwhelmingly positive: “What a fantastic experience it is to dance to music with your equine partner!! We were both a little tense in the beginning (and focusing on that demon orange tractor just visible from the arena). But as soon as our music started, we both totally relaxed and really believed that we were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I would recommend this clinic to anyone who wants to get in sync with your partner and just have fun together.”

My take-away from the clinic was that freestyles are something everyone can do, and should try to do at least once! It’s an opportunity to have some fun and not be so serious. I’ve decided that when I get my horse to First Level, I’m going to try a freestyle…I think that’s a reasonable goal and it would be a great reward to do something a little more ‘fun’ at that point. I also spoke with Leslie Morris about her impression of the clinic.

“I want to encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zone and try riding a freestyle to music.  When I began organizing this clinic, I knew people would say ‘Oh, my horse and I aren’t ready for that.’  After participating in the clinic, I can say without a doubt that whatever level the horse and rider are, the music enhances the ride and puts horse and rider at ease.  If you ever have trouble keeping your horse’s rhythm, riding to the right music makes it easier! Cynthia Collins proved to be a master at matching the right music to the horse.  It was amazing to watch her at work.  She has an extensive library of music and has it divided into walk, trot and canter music.  When it came to the choreography, she showed her experience from her many award winning freestyles. She took into consideration the horse’s and rider’s strength and weaknesses and produced wonderful freestyle tests for everyone. She educated us in the rules and requirements for freestyles at each level…the wine and cheese at the lecture was fun too! I can’t wait to show off my freestyle! I better get practicing!”, Leslie said.

As a follow-up to the clinic, I was fortunate enough to see the ‘finished product’ of several of the freestyles at SEDA’s Le Bon Temps recognized show in May. What fun! Three of the participants performed their routines for the first time: Leslie Morris, Corrine Morrison, and Elaine Harmon. I think all three were a bit nervous because you never know how the music is going to sound at a show, and they really hadn’t had a lot of time to practice. In the end, they all looked fabulous and the crowd enjoyed every minute. Plus, it was great to have several freestyles at a show!

I spoke with Leslie following the Le Bon Temps show. “The great thing about a freestyle is that you can emphasize your horse’s strengths. Like in 1st or 2nd level, only one lengthening or medium trot is required, but if your horse is really good at it, you can do more. At the show, even though it was my first time doing the freestyle, I wasn’t that nervous.  I think because it was so fun to ride to the music…it was a blast!  I know everyone had fun watching our freestyles.  We had so many people come up and compliment us!”

SEDA will be happy to host another freestyle clinic in the future if there is enough interest. Please contact one of the Board members if you’d like to participate. Learning to dance with your horse is rewarding … and fun!

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