Ask the Judge – Musical Freestyles

Dear Amy,

I have been a spectator at some of Aiken’s dressage shows this winter. I have especially enjoyed watching all the musical freestyles. I was surprised when some of my favorite rides, with the best music, did not place very high – I thought they would win! Can you explain how these rides are judged?


Dear Spectating,

I am so glad you have been able to come out to these shows. It is especially nice you were there to support and watch the musical freestyle rides. They certainly are fun to watch, and they are fun to ride. These tests can highlight a horse’s best qualities and movements, and a lot of time and work goes into performing a competitive ride. As you have probably guessed, these tests have a different system of scoring in comparison to straight dressage tests.

Let’s take a look at how judges evaluate musical freestyles. This type of ride includes two separate scoring categories per test. One is known as the technical side, which is similar to a standard dressage test. The other is called the artistic side, which you do not see in a standard dressage test.

All the USDF levels (Training through Fourth Level) offer freestyle tests. There are also FEI freestyle tests at these levels: Intermediate 1, Intermediate A/B, Grand Prix, Juniors, and Young Riders. For any level of test, there are certain required movements that must be performed. You are allowed to perform any additional movement or transition as long as it’s not above the level you have entered. For example, if you ride a First Level freestyle, you are not allowed to perform flying changes, because they are not introduced until the Third Level.

On the technical side of a freestyle, you can earn your scores in full points or in half points, just like in standard tests (For example 6.0 or 6.5.) Each time a movement is performed you will earn a score. At the end of your ride, if you have multiple marks for a movement they will all be taken into account to arrive at a final score on that movement. Let’s say you are doing a First Level freestyle. Although only one leg yield is required in each direction, if you chose to do more than one, you would earn a mark each time a leg yield is performed. You might earn a 6.5, 7.0, and a 7.5 for doing three leg yields to the left. In this case, your final mark for “leg yield left” would likely be a 7.0. 

The score you earn for each movement is evaluated the same way as on your regular tests, but in a freestyle, there are no final collective marks. Instead, there is a single scoring box on the technical side for “Rhythm, Energy, Elasticity.” Overall, the more confirmed and reliable your horse is performing at the level you are competing in, the higher your technical score is likely to be.

When judging the artistic side of a freestyle test there are five scoring boxes for your judge to consider. The scores for the artistic side can be considered more like the collective marks in a standard test. These scores may be given in tenths, for example, 6.2, 7.7, etc. The artistic boxes for USDF freestyles are as follows: 

 1. Harmony between Horse and Rider, which has a coefficient of four. For example, if you earn a 7.0 here, your final mark for this category would be worth 28 points. This score is based on the technical execution of your ride. It also takes into account the trust, confidence, calmness, and attentiveness of the horse, and the ease of execution of the moves. Any tension or disobedience would be part of this score, similar to the criteria you would have for the submission score on a standard test.

2. Choreography also has a coefficient of four points. This score is mostly independent of the technical execution. Your judge is looking at the design of the test, including the use of the arena, balance, and creativity. The judge would like to see you use the entire arena while keeping it easy to recognize the individual moves and follow along. In the best tests, the horse and rider execute moves equally in both directions, and in interesting patterns, not similar to a standard test. 

3. Degree of Difficulty has a coefficient of one. This score is based mostly on technical execution. The test should be advanced for the level: it should be harder than the highest test of the level you are performing. For example, if you are showing First Level, your freestyle should be more difficult than First Level, test three. However, you must be careful not to include any movements that are above First Level, as these are forbidden. The more difficult the ride, the higher the mark – as long as it is successful!

4. Music has a coefficient of three. This score is mostly independent of the technical score. You want your music to be memorable. It should enhance the way your horse moves at each gait, and it should be distinctive: music for the walk should not be the same as music for the trot. In this scoring box, the editing, seamlessness, and cohesiveness of the music are a factor. When mixing music for a freestyle, it is also suggested to use a common genre, theme, or instrumentation.

5. Interpretation has a coefficient of three. This category is mostly scored independently of technical execution. The judge will be looking for music that shows off the horse’s gaits and matches his footfall. The ride should have clear phrasing, with a suggested minimum of six variations of music per test.

The scoring for FEI tests is different. In an FEI freestyle at a national show, there are also five artistic scores, but all of them have a coefficient of four points. Let’s look at these scoring boxes.

1. Rhythm, Energy, and Elasticity, which is based on the technical aspect of the ride. This score takes into consideration gaits and impulsion. 

2. Harmony, which takes into consideration overall submission and the relationship between the horse and rider. Judges are looking for reliability and ease. This is scored similarly to the “harmony” box of the USDF tests.

3. Choreography is scored similarly to the USDF tests. Creative use of the arena is important and interesting lines, different from standard tests, are key. For example broken lines when doing flying changes, using quarter lines and centerlines for movements.

4. Degree of difficulty is scored similarly to the USDF tests. Here judges would like to see more calculated risks as long as you can successfully perform everything. 

5. Music and interpretation are scored similarly to the USDF test. Judges are really looking for music that matches and expresses the horse’s gaits and movements. Once again, much phrasing can really highlight the horse and the test.

There are many more factors and scoring details that come into arriving at a final score. When the ride is complete, the technical side and artistic side are tallied together to derive a final percentage. 

So in other words, freestyle is not all about the music, since you can’t get a high score without good technical marks. Music is definitely a big factor and can and should enhance the ride. You want the judge to be humming the music – some of the best freestyles I have judged, I truly wished would not end, and the music stayed with me long afterward. This is a winning freestyle. 

I hope this helps you. Please support all these riders. A lot of time and work goes into making a magical freestyle test, and many riders appreciate an enthusiastic audience.

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