The Future of Freestyles – Changes needed?

Is the artistic component of Freestyle tests under-valued? Australian freestyle designer, Melissa Lowe, thinks so – and so does the legendary Dutch freestyle stylist, Cees Slings.

Melissa says, ‘why go to all the trouble of putting a test to music when the music only receives a minimal 10% of the marks?’

“Choreography and degree of difficulty also only receives 10% which means the artistic component receives a dismal 30% of the total marks! This is very frustrating as a designer and I am not the only equine music professional in the world who finds this system of marking grossly inadequate, as it undervalues the reason why it’s a freestyle at all.”

Melissa was approached by Cees Slings to share ideas regarding freestyle designing technology.

“Cees is a Dutchman with many strings to his bow. Not only as a director, composer, choreographer and freestyle producer, he has also produced many Olympic Gold Medals for his clients. He became a household name within the dressage community with his famous Bonfire Symphony produced, for Anky van Grunsven.”

Cees approached Melissa to share ideas regarding the technology he and his team have developed to objectively judge freestyles as well as discussing the inadequacies of the current scoring structure.

“It was a massive relief to find someone with the foresight to create a system that will not only help judges and competitors alike but will also address the issue of raising the profile of the sport.”

Cees pointed out that the FEI’s dressage fact sheet states that “The music of a Freestyle test is not just background: performing in synchronisation with the rhythm is the ultimate aim. Freestyle is the pinnacle of dressage execution and when it works, the result is magic.”

Cess confided to Melissa that… “This clearly states that the music and choreography are important, but unless the FEI is prepared to significantly increase the weighting for the artistic marks, for example 25% for the music and 25% for the choreography including degree of difficulty (leaving 50% for technical marks), then there is little point in undertaking a detailed review in the first place, let alone introducing complicated criteria, definitions and codes of points that affect only 30% of the total marks.”

photo credit – dressage news

Cess believes that artistry of suitable and supporting music along with imaginative and attractive choreography should carry more weight than degree of difficulty.

“We all know that what one horse finds easy, another will find difficult, so degree of difficulty becomes a lottery, whereas music and choreography require the horse and rider to be in harmony and display symmetry. If we order these components by degree of artistry, then music would come first, followed by choreography and then degree of difficulty.”

To address the gap the entire marking system should be redesigned to give proper weighting to the artistic components, i.e. 50% for the horse and rider technical performance and 50% for the combination of music, choreography and degree of difficulty. We already have the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special which are focused on the horse/rider/technical skills, the Freestyle should have a very different focus.

“In order to achieve a ride in perfect harmony; measuring synchronicity should be the first goal. Dressage judges are not schooled musicians or musicologists; there is a huge lack of musical knowledge. You can’t expect a dressage judge, highly trained in many aspects of the horse sport, to be a music specialist as well. However, dressage judges should be trained to acquire musical judgment skills and should be provided with more artistic input and instruction. This might be done by musicians, musicologists and specialists in the Freestyle to music who have a track record in this field.”

Melissa’s Australian experience is similar to Cess’s, in that the current scoring system is so defective competitors who make an effort to produce a quality freestyle aren’t being rewarded and the freestyles thrown together with minimal effort score well above what they should. Consequently Melissa feels the standard of freestyle is generally quite low which does nothing for the sport.

“Cess and his team have developed a system where subjective judging can be replaced by objective judging. This involves elements of the freestyle being judged prior to the actual freestyle being performed. What Cess is suggesting is that degree of difficulty can be marked before; music production can be marked before together with the artistic quality and value of the choreography design.”

With his EQM-C(horeographer) app they can see the horse, the choreography and hear and ‘see’ the music. With his EQM-M(usic) D(ata) A(nalysis) form and the rider’s form it will make it much easier for them because they only have to follow the technical performance of the horse and check if the horse/rider combination rides the test as it was delivered prior to the actual test being ridden.

Cees explained to Melissa that the EQM system doesn’t change anything in what we are used to seeing in the freestyle-the horse/rider combination perform, the spectators enjoy, the jury adjudicates.

“EQMusync doesn’t recognise horse or rider; it doesn’t see or measure the beauty and elegance of the horse, neither does it hear or measure the impact and emotion of the music. EQMusync measures without taste, without emotion. It doesn’t change horses into machines. EQM measures invisibility: making objective data analysis in real time. The interpretation of this objective data analysis is still up to the judges, and so is their final verdict.”

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Cess suggested to Melissa that judges should split music and interpretation of the music into two marks i) Suitability of the music to the horse and ii) Interpretation of the music.

“Suitability and interpretation of the music are the two categories in freestyle judging which cause the biggest problems within freestyle judging. They have lead to the biggest discrepancies amongst judges because these are two totally subjective criteria. The MDA will check, for instance, whether the tempo of the music fits with the tempo of the horse, whether transitions in gaits/movements are supported by the music (no matter what the style of music is being used).”

Simply put, does the phrasing of the music support the choreography, are there recurring themes, is the music broadcast quality or not. Cess outlines that riders and freestyle producers would be happy too, as his system will help them improve the quality of their freestyle productions, as well as getting an accurate and objective analysis of it.

EQMusync is developed by specialists in many different disciplines. It is developed for top dressage jury members, who understand that technical aids, besides being a useful education tool, will help improve the quality of dressage, improve freestyle productions and the quality of adjudication.

Currently Cess is busy working with broadcasters to implement the software during important competitions with a view to doing a pilot during the European Championships this year.

Melissa concludes, “I personally am totally excited about what is being proposed. Together with making it easier for the judges, the standard of freestyle, not just in this country, but globally will be encouraged and nurtured to develop, ensuring quality performances that honor the marvelous horses and riders and do justice to the sport. In my opinion, it can’t happen soon enough!”

Editor’s note: THM is a broad church, and not all the views expressed on this site are not necessarily the views of the editor, his cat or his dogs. I personally think that there is no crisis in dressage judging, and I remain unconvinced that we need computers to help us judge something that should be appreciated by a knowledgable spectator or a horseperson who is also a judge. Still, I hope this article stimulates debate, and I intend taking up the issue with a few of the dressage movers-and-shakers that I will meet next week in Aachen… watch this space.


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One thought on “The Future of Freestyles – Changes needed?

  1. Technology is inevitable in all our sports and this seems a great way forward in the evolution of this sport . Did removing steeplechase and roads and tracks from 3DE ruin that sport? There are countless examples of changes to equestrian events that move the direction and enable others opportunities to shine. I think this is a winner and should be a highly emotive and inspirational to a greater audience

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