When you are ready to design your choreography, don’t start by asking, “How can I make this the most creative freestyle anyone on the planet has ever seen?” You are not painting the Mona Lisa; you are involved in a competitive athletic event. Would it not be better to ask, “How can I maximize my score?”
You will be judged on a very specific set of criteria. Know them and let them lead you to an optimum outcome.
While Choreography and Degree of Difficulty are evaluated separately, they are both components of the same design process. Why? Because what you choose to include for Difficulty will heavily influence the content and design of your dance. That is where you should begin.
Degree of Difficulty
First, you need to know the requirements for the level Freestyle you will be performing. That is an easy task since the material is online at usdf.com in a variety of places including the score sheets and in the Rules Guidelines and Definitions.
Secondly, you must know what is meant by above the level. Any element—whether movement, figure or transition—is allowed so long as it is in the standard test for the same level as your freestyle. For example, a half pass would be prohibited at Second Level, as would a full canter pirouette at Fourth, or piaffe in an Intermediate Freestyle. Deliberately doing a movement above your level will incur a severe penalty.
There are some non-compulsory elements that are permitted in the freestyle and they are listed on the score sheet as “Additionally Allowed.”
Thirdly, you must understand what Degree of Difficulty (DoD) means. Difficulty is assessed according to the standard tests of the same level. When the horse/rider team shows a single figure, movement, or a combination of elements, in a way that exceeds the requirement of the highest test for the level, the team has shown difficulty. For example, a First Level Freestyle may do a trot zigzag (two changes of hand) for DoD.
The following are general descriptions of what would be considered difficult: steeper angles than required for the level, placement of elements (shoulder-in off the rail), demanding transitions (canter extensions to walk on the same line), challenging combinations, reins in one hand, and tempis on a broken line. For a higher score, there should be difficult elements at both trot and canter.
Before you fill your freestyle with difficulty, however, be aware that it must be performed well. Poorly executed difficulty will reduce the score of the individual element, lower the score for DoD because you have taken an unacceptable risk, and if the risk causes resistance or disobedience, the score for Harmony will also go down. You can see that you must make judicious choices as to what to include for DoD.
Be a good analyst. While Choreography has a coefficient of 4, the USDF only places a “2” coefficient on DoD. By this we can safely assume that clean, well-constructed Freestyles are being valued over those that are deep in difficulty but may overface the horse. If ya got it, flaunt it; but if it is questionable, leave it out.
Know the Rules
First, determine your level. USEF rules state that the horse/rider combination must have achieved a minimum score of 60% at the top test of the level (or from one level higher) at a USEF sanctioned show. In other words, if you wish to do a First Level Freestyle, you must have a 60% at First Level Test 3 or from Second Level, and you need to have earned that on the same horse at a USEF sanctioned show. A copy of your score must accompany your entry form.
The FEI and USDF require that a movement such as shoulder-in take place over a minimum distance of 12 meters (between two letters). The USDF strongly recommends that movements like shoulder-in cover a minimum distance of 18 meters. This is wise. If the horse takes a few steps to develop the proper bend, and if the movement is not sustained over a long enough distance, the judge may not be able to ascertain whether or not the movement was performed. In this case, it is better to do more than less.
The halt and salute may be done anywhere on the centerline. As you start to work with your music, this becomes more important.
Extensions are only considered as such when they are performed on a straight line, because it is biomechanically impossible for a horse to extend on a curve. If performed on a curve, the pace would be considered a medium at best. Be wary if you are doing a Third Level or above Freestyle and you decide to use only two short diagonal (H-B) extensions. Unless your horse can establish the stretch very clearly and early on, this could be risky.
There must be 2 – 3 straight strides into and out of canter pirouettes in order to fulfill the requirement. If you combine tempis on a straight line with your pirouettes that is fine; however if you are doing a half pass into or out of the pirouette, you must make those straight strides very apparent.
Transitions do not need to be at the letter. If you are doing a movement for 18 meters (starting or finishing midway between letters), this will be acceptable. Later when you are working with your music, you may find this allowance very beneficial!
Point of View
There is one concept crucial to live performances, and that is the placement of the viewers, or in our case the judge. Any choreographer can tell you that an arabesque facing full front to the audience is lost, whereas one that is perpendicular allows everyone to see the height and stretch of the ballerina’s leg. For us, there will always be a judge at C, so C is our audience—it is the point of view to which we structure our dance.
Do you have two fantastic walks (medium and free)? Then put them both on short diagonal lines so the judge gets a good look at both. If the free walk is great but the medium not so much, perhaps the free can be on the short diagonal and the medium on a 20 meter half circle. Walks performed on the centerline (especially from D) are hard for the judges on the short side to see, and they may wonder if you are trying to hide something. This can cause a drop in the score.
How are your shoulder-ins, travers, renvers, canter pirouettes, tempis? Are they correct enough to expose on centerline for a higher Degree of Difficulty, not to mention more interest in the choreography? If not, put them in a more traditional place. Have you considered that a canter pirouette can be done facing the short side, facing the long side or as customarily done, on a diagonal?
While you may try to emphasize what your horse does well or minimize what he does not through point of view, you must remember that the judge needs to be able to identify what you are doing. If you feel your shoulder-in is weak and you try to mask it by doing it on the short side, you will be doing yourself a great injustice. Be clever, but be smart.
You have been a good student and read both the score sheet for your level and the USDF Rules Guidelines and Definitions. This will give you the information about what you must do, what you may do, and what you are forbidden to do. You have decided what Difficulty you will include and have a fairly good idea as to how you will present your movements (point of view). Your content is complete.
Choreography Part 2 will cover how to assemble that content into an interesting program.
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.