by Elizabeth Cary Mungall

To get everyone motivated to pay dues early and to start the new dressage year with enthusiasm, Sandra Adair of Willow Fork Ranch gave the Houston Dressage Society a very special membership drive event. Sandra teamed up with Vicky Esquivel, who provided the arena and stalls at her Katy boarding facility, Rancho Los Ecuestres. They threw the doors open for HDS members to audit, at no charge, four days of freestyle clinic January 9 through 12. As a succession of horse and rider combinations of all different levels succeeded each other in the big covered arena, Karen Robinson of Applause Dressage showed how she creates musical freestyle rides for dressage competition, and why she is fast becoming one of the premier freestyle designers in the country. Her lecture Saturday morning, sponsored by HDS, took everyone through the methodology with a chance to ask questions. She brought great videos to make the concepts easier to understand, and showed us inspiring examples of what was possible!

As a rider who has enjoyed dressage competition but never gotten closer to a freestyle than the bleachers, I was fascinated by the whole process. Karen can provide many different musical services for a rider with a reasonable range of fees, so there is something for everyone who wants the benefits of professional help. Whether ordering a CD of riding music or having Karen design an entire freestyle start to finish, the process begins with watching the horse being ridden, establishing their beats per minute, and then choosing the right trot and canter music. Walk music compatible with the other selections gets selected later.

My first surprise about selecting music was that waltzes are out. Even though they are a 1-2-3 rhythm, waltzes are too regular to accommodate the suspension phase that syncopates a horse’s canter. My next surprise was that Karen uses the horse’s natural rhythm as the first criterion for selecting music. When she edits the music, she can speed it up or slow it down to fine-tune it to the horse’s gaits. And Karen can count strides per minute from a video and send a selection of music doing everything long distance. You can also count your horse’s strides and go to the music store with a metronome and search for a 154 trot, or whatever your magic number turns out to be. But one of the advantages of going to someone like Karen is her huge music collection and her uncanny knack for zooming in very quickly on pieces with not only the right rhythm but also the right style to enhance the horse’s particular way of going. Then there is the rider’s feedback. They need to be able to ride the beat easily and really “get into” their music as they will be listening and riding to it A LOT! Karen also demonstrated for us that not all recordings are created equal. One artist’s interpretation of a score may be much different from another. But most importantly, the music should bring out the brilliance of the horse, and the harmony of the horse and rider as a team.

Interaction of judging rules and pattern formation were interesting, too. I learned that, although judges are looking for certain movements in freestyles at particular levels, judges do not have a copy of the pattern being ridden. A good designer creates a pattern that builds on the horse and rider’s strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. So a freestyle can be designed to give the rider a second chance for a difficult movement or, if it has worked the first time, an extra chance to show off what the horse does well. For example, if there are a couple of good diagonals for tempe changes, then a rider who misses the right number of strides between the first two changes can just re-configure the rest of that line to match and try harder to get the right interval the next time. Clever! The judge does not know whether the rider planned to do threes or fours. If the first try goes well, then the rider can do something entirely different on the next line, like show off a brilliant extension! With considerations like second chances built in, no wonder Karen gets repeat business. In fact, a completed competition ride is a second chance in itself. I saw riders at the clinic coming back to have a ride at one level modified to satisfy the requirements of the subsequent level. A returning client does not necessarily have to start from scratch.

I came away impressed with the way the whole atmosphere of the clinic said that freestyles should be fun. I had never considered doing one before, but perhaps I I will reconsider. Watching the freestyle rides at the last Region 9 Championships last fall was certainly fun. And I liked the way Karen used a rider’s faces as an index of whether the music she was playing would work. Where is that smile? With all the music out there, Karen sees no reason why each rider should not have not only the right beat, the right sense of flair, but also selections that the rider will enjoy.

Karen takes her work very much to heart, and it shows. No wonder Willy Arts, a major dressage trainer in California, recently phoned Karen to order FEI freestyles for March – FIVE of them! Over the course of the January clinic, there were more than one hundred people attending. If you were one of those who missed the Saturday lecture, then you can make up the class without having to go to Karen’s home base in Vancouver, Canada, or to one of her clinics in Florida. HDS has arranged to add a recording of her lecture to the library available to members. So get out there with your horse and explore the benefits and pleasure of riding to music. And maybe you’ll even join me in a freestyle class this year!


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