When Dan and I attended our first gathering I was wowed to see the musical freestyle competition. I was moved to tears by almost every performance and wished so much for the time I could be out there riding to music with my horse as well. While many of the rides were fancy and included maneuvers that my horse and I wouldn't be able to do smoothly for some time the rides that inspired me the most were the ones that went perfectly with the music and seemed effortless like a true dance between horse and rider. Because in Cowboy Dressage we place more importance on partnership and harmony and soft feel the freestyle should be a showcase of those things above all others.
When the freestyle division was conceived by the partners of Cowboy Dressage World it was imagined to be the pinnacle of the Cowboy Dressage rider's skills. They believed it would be reserved only for those riders that really had something to show off; a place for the advanced maneuvers that are not yet showcased in our written tests. It has evolved into something both a little less than that and in my opinion a little more. The musical freestyle for many folks is a place for celebration of not how far you and and your horse have come but a celebration of where you are as a partnership and where you are going together into the future.
If you sit around the a campfire long enough with a group of Cowboy Dressage enthusiasts, the conversation will eventually morph into the selection of freestyle music. Even for those riders who have not performed a freestyle, everybody likes to play around with selection of fun or silly or moving music that they feel perfectly fits their horse or style of riding or personality. It's our favorite road trip pastime, and I think that we rarely listen to music anymore without wondering if the song would be a good freestyle song.
We have started using musical rides during our Introduction to Cowboy Dressage clinics. On the last afternoon we give everybody who has an interest in riding to music a chance to play with the timing and transitions and ride while feeling the music. After spending the weekend working so hard on teaching bend, straight lines, transitions and softness, we find that when the music comes on, that's when we are finally able to really focus on the partnership and harmony and we all get a little misty eyed watching the partnerships blossom to the music as horse and rider do their thing in the arena.
Even if you never plan on performing a freestyle ride at a competition I feel that the use of music in your riding can be a very important tool for developing rhythm and timing. I think that for some people the music allows them to just be with the horse in the moment. The forethought involved in planning out a ride that includes the required movements and timing those movements to music is a useful exercise for preparation and execution of transitions. I have play lists of different music depending on which horse I am riding and what we are working on.
There are now 3 different class in the Freestyle division. We have the Walk/Jog Freestyle, the Walk/Jog/Lope Freestyle and the Drill Team Musical Freestyle for 2 or more riders performing in a group. For all of these classes the ultimate goal is the same. Your ride should showcase soft feel, partnership and harmony at it's best. There are required movements in the Walk/Jog and Walk/Jog/Lope Freestyles that must be choreographed into the ride providing more challenge and making the selection of the perfect song that much more challenging. The new Drill Team Freestyle is a class that I am very excited about. We use drill team like maneuvers in our clinics to explore the court and teach riders how to maneuver across the diagonals and straight lines of the court. The purpose of the Drill Team in Cowboy Dressage is to showcase partnership both with the horse and with your fellow rider. Think not so much of the fast paced drill teams that we may have watched do intricate exciting patterns in the rodeo arena but the synchronized and beautifully perfect rides of the Spanish Riding school.
I believe that any rider that feels so moved to celebrate their partnership and journey with their horse should feel welcome to put together a Cowboy Dressage Musical Freestyle and ride at a Gathering. I encourage riders to embrace the purpose of the class always remembering that soft feel, partnership and harmony are at the forefront and should be the most important thing in any freestyle ride. I also encourage you to get some assistance in the choreography of the ride. It takes some skill and timing and choreography to put together a nice freestyle and select the perfect music that will move the audience.
Choosing the music for a freestyle whether it is a group performance or individual is so important. The music must both move the riders and the audience and provide a sensual background for the visual beauty of the ride. If the music distracts from the ride or if the ride doesn't match the music it is uncomfortable to watch (and though I'm not a judge, it must be hard to judge as well). I highly encourage you to carefully and thoughtfully select your music. While mixed music (if done well) can create a beautiful freestyle I often find the freestyles performed to a single well selected song to be more moving to me as an audience member. The song often tells a story or sets a mood for the ride and I enjoy getting to know the rider through their musical selection.
When selecting a song it is important to find a song that has a good consistent rhythm with changes in the music that can be used for transitions between the gaits. For the Walk/Jog Freestyle especially finding that song that has the perfect change from working jog to free jog is essential for the seamless look of the ride. The Walk/Jog Freestyle can often be the most difficult to choreograph because it has the most required elements. Choosing the song that allows you to flow through those elements is key to finding a successful freestyle song.
While the musical freestyle division is not a costume class, many riders feel that costumes add to the overall performance. There are folks on both sides of that debate when it comes to costumes in the freestyles. Many feel that it can take away from the ride turning it from a celebration to a spectacle. Others feel that it is all in good fun and the costumed rides are often the ones that are remembered by the audience over all the others. If you choose to wear a costume for your freestyle ride I encourage you to remember that the costume should not detract from the partnership and harmony of the ride. Any costume that interferes with the horse's movement or sight are not allowed in the Cowboy Dressage freestyle. Less is often more when it comes to costuming. Just remember to place soft feel, partnership and harmony first and your ride should be a success.
The musical freestyle division is just another piece of Cowboy Dressage that allows us to celebrate our partnership with our horses. Like performing on stage, it isn't for everybody and you shouldn't ever feel that you must put together a freestyle in order to participate in a Gathering. But, if you are moved to ride to music, put your heart and soul into it and make it the most important ride of the day. If we keep the focus of this division on the celebration of soft feel and partnership it will continue to evolve and become the pinnacle of the Cowboy Dressage Gatherings into the future.