Improve Freestyle Judging

You are probably thinking that this is going to be a “gripe” article about how Freestyles are judged. It will not be. There will be no griping here. Instead we will take a positive approach and discover how we can make improvements.

Objectively Based Criteria
There are articles about how to design Freestyles—including those I have written for this site—but there is a dearth of information about how to judge them. In response to that, the USDF Judges and Freestyle Committees joined together to revise the old “L” elective program and update it to the Continuing Education in Freestyle for Dressage Judging. It aims to put judges, competitors and designers in a frame that will allow us to speak the same language and communicate with each other better.

The program focuses on the USDF score sheet. First, this is the foundation for entry-level judges as well as the score sheet by which national level riders will be evaluated. Secondly, the USDF separates Music and Interpretation while the FEI combines them.

On the surface, that may not seem like much, but the separation allows each category to be further delineated. For instance, the USDF score sheet breaks down Music into suitability, cohesiveness, and seamlessness and Interpretation is broken down into “music expresses gaits” and phrasing & dynamics.

It is quite easy to then adapt the more precise USDF score sheet to the broader FEI one. In other words, the symposium is valuable for even the highest rated judges.

This continuing education in dressage judging is taught by USDF “L” faculty members. Its goal is to increase accurate, consistent, and more objective judging by basing the artistic scores on very specific criteria. In so doing, subjectivity is minimized.

While the program is specifically aimed at judges, it is open to all. If you plan to develop a Freestyle for yourself, help your students put one together, or just be a more aware observer, you will find a great advantage in seeing through the eyes of the judge.

Making Sense of Terminology
It would be unwise to judge or develop a Freestyle without a firm grasp of the language on the score sheet. That is the launch point of the program.

The morning session is divided into three one-hour segments starting with Music as the initial segment. Since Music has three subdivisions, each subdivision is carefully defined, starting with suitability. Once suitability is explained, it is then supported by several video examples. The same is done for cohesiveness and seamlessness. First they are defined and then they are followed with listening exercises requiring participants to determine if the music is not only cohesive and seamless, but also if it is appropriate for lower level rides.

After these drills, attendees will have a very clear idea of what the Music category actually represents so they are fully prepared to properly assess it. Assessment includes specifying the main criterion, which is suitability. That sets the “foundation” score. Cohesiveness and seamlessness are the modifiers that are used to raise and lower the foundation score to determine the final mark for Music.

Judges and competitors are invited to sharpen their listening skills
Judges and competitors are invited to sharpen their listening skills

The exact same process is used in the second hour segment Interpretation. As it was with Music, Interpretation is divided into its component parts of “music expresses gaits” and phrasing & dynamics. Each of those is clearly defined and supported with verbal, audio and video examples. Lastly attendees are taught how to assess the subcategories to come up with a mark for Interpretation.

Degree of Difficulty, Choreography, and Harmony are covered in the last segment of the morning. Here too, each category is defined, examples given, and then the basis for assessment specified.

The first part of the afternoon session concentrates on judging methodologies as they relate to Freestyle. For non-judges, this is a wonderful opportunity to experience the judge’s perspective. If anyone has or will scribe Freestyle, this is a great insight into the process and it will be helpful to you. After the one-hour methodology session, full-length Freestyles from various levels are shown. All who attends get the opportunity to try their hand at judging Artistic Impression.

Each component of every category is defined and supported with several examples
Each component of every category is defined and supported with several examples

Come One Come All
The Continuing Education in Freestyle Program was unveiled at the 2013 USDF Convention held in Lexington, Kentucky. An abbreviated version of the Music segment was delivered at the Judges Committee meeting and a shortened Interpretation section was given at the Freestyle Committee meeting. The reception from both groups was overwhelmingly positive, and the information quickly became the buzz in the halls.

Several groups immediately began making inquiries to the USDF for this presentation to be given in their areas. With so much useful information for so many, the requests were not surprising. Moreover, this is a one-day program which makes it more convenient for hosts. To date, this USDF program has been given in several states, with a few more on the horizon and in March 2015, the USEF presented this same program at its national judges symposium. Judges who take this course and pass an online test will receive a special designation (like Equitation and Young Horse) on the USEF list of Licensed Officials.

The good news for hosts is that they do not need to go it alone either. Since this program is part of judge education, grants are available from The Dressage Foundation’s Edgar Hotz Judges Fund. With good heads-up planning, most groups are eligible for financial assistance.

Onward and Upward
At one time, many judges evaluated Artistic Impression as a percentage of the Technical Execution score. That begs the question, “Why bother having Artistic marks at all?” While most judges have gone beyond that over-simplified approach, there still has been an absence of an across-the-board platform upon which all judges can operate.

This need for a nationwide format with an objective way to evaluate Freestyle has existed for a very long time. With the revised and comprehensive Continuing Education in Freestyle Program, we now have that format. Regardless of where in the country it is taught or who the instructor is, the curriculum will be the same.

Let’s have no more griping; instead let’s get educated! If you or your group is interested in hosting this informative program, you should contact Sharon Vander Ziel by email at or by phone at (859) 971-7039.

This column was updated in 2015 to reflect rule changes.

Terry Ciotti Gallo established Klassic Kur in 1989. Since that time, her freestyles have appeared in the Olympics, World Equestrian Games, Pan American Games, and hold two World Cup titles. She currently serves on both the USDF Freestyle Committee (six years as chair), and Judges Committee.

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