Adventure to Amateur Freestyle

Adventure to Amateur Freestyle

By Danielle Aymond 

I recently debuted in my first USDF First Level Freestyle and have survived to tell you my tale (and hopefully inspire you to join me in the ring).  

A little backstory. I am a full blown proud and loud Adult Amateur. I’m a full time attorney, officer in the Army and have two kids and a deployed husband – my life is chaos. Riding is my zen time – and also can be its own form of stress. I have a rescue OTTB who brings his own bag of tricks to the table that isn’t always appreciated by the Dressage judges.  

A couple years ago after a jumping accident, we started working hard and diving into books, clinics and videos to really “get” dressage – it was a rough start. But, after a year of competing First level under the strong supervision of a dressage trainer, we found ourselves happily completing our movements but still far from a competitive sitting trot and canter-walks required to show the next level.  

Around that time, after a few too many beers at a competitor party, Isabella Rodwig somehow convinced me Freestyle was my answer.

Fast forward six months from that day and we just completed our first First Level Freestyle at a recognized dressage show and got a 71 (pinch me!!).  And I’m here to share my experience and recruit my fellow AAs to join me in the ring.

First – where to start. The USDF recognized rule does require you to have a qualifying score of 63 at a recognized show in the highest test of the level you want to do your freestyle. But that’s no reason you can’t start work on your choreography, music and schooling it (even at schooling shows!). My first step was hiring Isabella to help me design choreography and music designed for me and Frank. Best. Decision. Ever.  Isabella has the talent and technology and I know me and my horse. We weren’t in a rush and exchanged ideas and options for months before I finally gave myself a deadline and got serious. 

Second – practice practice practice.  So it is really hard to work on a freestyle without an arena and music. But that doesn’t mean you have to have show-level perfection to get it done. I made my own arena letters and measured out the dressage arena in my grass arena (letters and corners is really all you need). I also bought a Sony Bluetooth portable speaker and a very long extension cord (this is also important for a later point), but you can also just play it from your phone and strap it to your waist. Once you have your arena and a way to play your music start playing with different genres of music – this is the really fun part. What feels right? Start to develop a theme. Play around with the different elements of the test (see the mandatory elements for your test here). For example, Frankie’s extensions show best after collection, so we built both trot and canter extensions in right after small circles. His counter canter is his best quality – so we show it off. We also suck at keeping supple on trot for long periods of trot, so we avoided it – how much fun is that? It’s your choice to pick and choose – dressage a la carte. Once we nailed down our choreography, I filmed it and sent it over to Isabella and we started lining up the music choices with our movements. Working with someone who is experienced with music composing is key: Isabella was able to make a change to the middle of my music EVEN a day before the show.  

Finally, time to show it off. I’m a bit of a sadist and chose to show it first at a recognized show – probably not what I would recommend but either way you have to show it off one day so here are my recommendations for your first USDF performance. Picking the venue is key. I chose a small show that had a great friendly staff and my horse was comfortable at, avoiding unnecessary stress. (For us that was Deluna in Pensacola, FL). I made friends with the Show Secretary before the show to explain it was my first freestyle and found her on the grounds as soon as I got there to discuss technology – every show will be different. The rules “require” you to bring the music on a CD labeled but you should also have it downloaded on your phone and able to e-mail if necessary (DropBox is helpful for this). This is where my portable Sony system and long extension cord also came in handy – backup system if the show’s technology fails. I was flexible, and the show was appreciative. We played with several sound systems and did sound check multiple times. On our first ride, the music was having major feedback and low volume, but we pushed through – the Judge gave me some advice after the test: if your music isn’t working right it’s okay to approach the Judge and ask to have it fixed. She said “it’s the one time in a dressage test that you can be demanding” with a smile.

The experience was incredible. Frank and I had an absolute blast showing off our dance. The music made us really relax and enjoy our ring experience. The judges were so appreciative of our performance and actually thanked us after our ride. I can’t believe we did it – I thought it was the MOST terrifying idea a year ago and even more terrifying five minutes before I went in the ring – but we pushed through together and I am so happy we did.

I really recommend you give freestyle a chance. It’s not just for the professionals and can really help you and your horse have fun in the arena – which is really the whole point of this for us AAs. 

I expect to see you soon.  Let’s dance.

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