Choreography Part 2 — Putting It Together

According to the Glossary of Judging Terms, Choreography is the arrangement of gaits, paces, movements, figures, transitions and combinations used to create a program. While reading “Choreography Part 1,” you should have made critical decisions about the content of your program and how you would ideally like some of those movements to be presented (point of view). Now you need to arrange them.

Begin at the Beginning
I always ask my clients, “After your salute, what do you want as your first gait?” Some feel more comfortable in trot, some in canter. Unless the music strongly suggests it, I very very rarely find it interesting to start at walk. What is the best for your horse?

The next question is, “How do you want to finish?” Your final centerline is the last thing the judge will see. End with a well-executed line that has flair, so long as you can still perform a clean transition to halt.

For greater excitement, consider these. A First Level ride is structured as trot, walk, (short trot to) canter. The horse is not permitted to do a canter to halt though. A possible end would be to do the transition from canter through the trot to the halt—but all on the centerline. This exposed transition shows bravado.

Perhaps the last line could be a transition to trot on the long side and then finish with a lengthening on centerline. Three to four steps of collection before the halt would be perfectly acceptable, and you still would have made your point.

Music is also a consideration. When a rider performs a solid freestyle but ends with the music fading out, the impact is lost. If one piece of music has a clear ending but the other does not, finish with the music that indicates a conclusion.

Most riders like to group all their gait work together. Musically this almost always works best, though it is okay to break up one of the gaits. Caution should be taken if you decide to do more than that because the whole composition can start to sound choppy.

For instance, it would be okay to begin at trot, then move to walk, canter, and finish in trot. Another example would be canter, walk, canter then trot. Any combination is good as long as it can coordinate with the music.

The First Draft
While choreographing, you are bound to make changes as you discover that you have painted yourself into a corner or that your ideal ending faces A and not C. You may even find that to get the particular point of view you want, something else needs to move. That’s fine. Choreographing is not a linear process.

Klassic Kur LLC has worked collaboratively with Guenter Seidel, shown here with 2013 U.S. Grand Prix Reserve Champion Coral Reef Wylea, for over 20 years
Klassic Kur LLC has worked collaboratively with Guenter Seidel, shown here with 2013 U.S. Grand Prix Reserve Champion Coral Reef Wylea, for over 20 years

When designing, I find nothing replaces paper, pencil and a large eraser. You can hand draw—or use a computer spreadsheet program to draw—multiple rectangles representing the arena. Make several copies of this paper (or print out a bunch) because you may end up crumpling a few. By knowing the gaits with which you will begin, knowing the ending you want, and knowing the content of your ride (Choreography—Part 1), you are ready to start your work.

Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle—this piece goes here; that piece goes there. You can even use your music to help. Most music has a few bars introduction that leads to the first verse or to the chorus. If the first change in the music suggests an extension, then perhaps you want to start at X or I (depending on the length of the music), turn the corner, and as the music changes, you begin your extension.

Or perhaps that first change in the music is not very exciting, so you start at D or L, go straight, then proceed to do a circle, leg-yield, shoulder in, travers, or half pass—depending on your level—with the change of music. Then you continue through the short side and as the music indicates a more robust section, you do your lengthening. Timing this all will come later, but for now, at least have a plan.

When you are done sketching, are you facing the wrong direction? Look at your walk and find a solution there. Let’s say the original design for the walk was H-B-K, and then you planned to pick up the canter, proceed through the short side and half pass from F.

Instead, make the walk pattern H-B-E-S. You are now facing the opposite side of the arena. Pick up the canter and then continue H-C and at M half pass. If you wanted the point of view for the half pass to be flowing toward the judge, then do an MXK extension instead. Now you are set to follow your original plan of doing the half pass from F.

Criteria, Criteria, Criteria
In Part 1, we learned that the key to maximizing your score is to understand the criteria upon which you will be evaluated. Choreography is no different. Its broad scope is broken down into the subcategories: design cohesiveness, use of the arena, balance, and creativity.

According to the Glossary of Judging Terms, design cohesiveness is the clarity and logic of the structure; use of the arena means that the area must be covered in its entirely and that there is a good distribution of the elements (everything cannot happen at A); balance is the relatively equal use of right and left rein work (directional balance); and creativity examines whether elements are combined in interesting ways, whether less common lines (M-D) are incorporated, and whether or not the freestyle is “test-like.”

Our first thought is that the most important aspect is creativity. It is not. It is design cohesiveness. Sometimes in the attempt to be clever, riders plan patterns that are hard to follow or leave the judge wondering what movement was just performed. If the judge cannot clearly discern what you are doing, the rest of the criteria will be unidentifiable and the effect will be a low score.

Design Cohesiveness
Employ open lines and avoid being too “busy.” This will make your movements and patterns more understandable. Take a good look at the lines you have drawn on your first draft. Do they seem a jumble or are they easy to follow and have nice flow? Remember, it is your obligation not only to make your choreography interesting, but also to make the intent clear. When a judge has to guess, the score will not be good.

Klassic Kur LLC has worked collaboratively with Steffen Peters, shown here with Legolas 92, on the design of his many freestyles for over 20 years
Klassic Kur LLC has worked collaboratively with Steffen Peters, shown here with Legolas 92, on the design of his many freestyles for over 20 years

While you have the pattern in front of you, check for other criteria. Did you do three shoulder-ins to the right and only one to the left (directional balance)? Did you use the arena in its entirety; were your elements distributed throughout or were most of them at E & B (use of the arena)?  If you find weaknesses, correct them.

Most, but not all, of the standard tests are fairly symmetrical. This gives a sense of forethought and stability to the design, and it is also a good way to determine directional balance. Symmetry is not a necessity however. You can use asymmetrical design as long as you have covered the entire arena, distributed your elements, shown good balance (right and left rein work), and made your patterns coherent. If you watch upper level freestyles, you will notice that a great many of them include both symmetrical and asymmetrical design.

What Is Creativity?
Of all the criteria for Choreography, creativity is the most misunderstood by both competitors and judges. One of the more common criticisms from a judge is that the freestyle is too test-like. Even patterns that appear in no tests at all have been given this comment. Unless you do a pattern exactly as it is stated in the standard test and you perform it in the same location, you are not test-like.

How can you achieve more creativity? Combinations. The First Level trot requirements are circle, leg yield and lengthening. If you performed a circle right to leg yield left in the same place as it is in the test, you would be rightfully dinged for being test-like. But suppose you did circle right to leg yield right? That would not only be more creative, it would be more difficult. How about circle to lengthening or lengthening to circle; leg yield to leg yield (change of bend); leg yield to lengthening on the wall? Get the picture?

Rather than doing the Prix St. Georges trot pattern, change it. For one thing, take out the circle. Now explore placing the shoulder in on the quarter or centerline, and/or increasing the angle of the half pass. Since you have already considered these for your content under Difficulty (Part 1), you can now see how a more difficult pattern opens the door to greater creativity too—another reason why we consider Degree of Difficulty first.

Combinations apply to canter as well. In fact, as you go up the levels and have more than three requirements (half pass, pirouette, tempis, extension), you will have an even greater number of potential combinations to ponder.

Review your first draft. If either your trot or canter is test-like, make some changes.

Appraise Your Ideas
Do not stress your horse, especially when you are introducing Difficulty. “Sneak” the trial material into your normal routine, trying some potential moves on one day, and others a day or two later. Engage your trainer to help guide you as to what will be best for the horse. Besides, the memorable freestyles usually involve some collaboration.

When you are fairly certain your ideas can be performed with comfort and ease, you may include them. If you discover that what you conceived in your first draft isn’t viable, or if your trainer thinks it is not a good idea, take it out. Freestyles are not immutable. You can always substitute or add things in the future as your horse becomes more advanced.

When you are ready to try the entire revised choreography, abbreviate the warm up so your horse is fresh enough to do two run-throughs, or at least one run-through and repetition of any bumpy places. Record the rides because the next step will be to coordinate choreography with music—a whole other article!

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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