I often hear riders (both dressage and other) wistfully say: I’d love to ride a musical freestyle! Riding to music is one thing – and has many benefits, such as blocking out other noise, getting your horse used to sound, helping maintain a consistent tempo in a gait, even tapping into your creative side – but riding an actual musical freestyle is quite another thing. To develop a dressage freestyle for competition at a recognized show takes a lot of commitment: time, even if you hire someone else to do it; money, less if you do it yourself; an ear for musical phrasing; an eye for choreography; and a lot of patience!

Step 1:
Read the rules so that you know if this is truly something you want to get into before you invest heavily. For example, to even be eligible to compete in freestyle, you must have earned a 60% or better score at a recognized show at the highest test of that level (or any test of a higher level). No “just” riding freestyles! This is to ensure that freestyle does not become a circus but demonstrates artistry with correct technique.

Step 2:
Videotape you riding your horse at the walk, trot, and canter in a full size arena for at least two minutes in each direction, right and left. Then use this video to determine your horse’s beats per minute or BPM for each gait. If you plan on performing lateral work like leg yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in, or half pass then include several of these too, so that you know if your horse’s gait changes. It can also be helpful to ride patterns and figures such as 20m, 15m, and 10m circles and half circles, long and short diagonals, simple and flying changes, etc so you know how long it takes to complete each.

Step 3:
Start listening to lots of music to identify which songs are close to your horse’s tempos at the three different gaits. I created a spreadsheet of albums and songs because this quickly became overwhelming. After a while, you’ll find yourself counting beats to music in the car, a plane, a restaurant – even an elevator!—but you do begin to develop an “ear” for the BPM that matches your horse’s gaits.


Next, play songs with the correct tempo while watching the video of you riding to figure out which genres make your horse appear to “dance.” Set to one category of music, say classical, a horse can appear to drag his toes, be heavy-footed, and earth-bound. But watching this same video clip to a different category of music, for example show tunes, can make this horse appear to bounce off the ground with enthusiasm!

Step 4:
Here is where freestyle developers can go separate ways. I prefer to design choreography next, fulfilling the compulsory elements for the level I want to compete at and taking into account my horse’s strengths and weaknesses. THEN I set the music to it, adjusting the flow of movement to accommodate for musical phrasing. Others however, start by putting together the music THEN designing choreography that fits the music. Whichever way you do it, just double-check that you’re clearly demonstrating compulsory elements (on both hands, if required) for at least as much distance as the test says.



Another place “freestylists” differ is in how many times they ride their freestyle to music before competition. There have been times where the very first time I’ve put it all together – intro, halt and salute, the choreography, and the final halt and salute – is at the show! And from reading show results, it appears even some upper level riders do this too. There must be something about keeping the freestyle “fresh” and not having the horse anticipate movements.

Of course, there are many other tips and tricks that you’ll just have to figure out for yourself, like what sound editor to use (I purchased the “Dressage Divas” DVD years ago), how to balance the choreography over the whole arena left and right and top and bottom, what gait to enter with and where to halt, and so on.


My 2016 goal: Earn two scores of 65% or better in our 3rd Level Freestyle to complete the requirements of a USDF Bronze Bar (two freestyle scores at 1st Level, two freestyle scores at 2nd Level, and two freestyle scores at 3rd Level)

My next goal: design a DRIVEN musical freestyle!