February 7, 2022


My top ten tips for high-scoring choreography design will take your freestyle from ordinary to exceptional. The same choreography design principles apply to every freestyle level from First to Grand Prix. 

1.) Organize gait segments to flow.

Use as many different gait segments as necessary, but as few as possible. Don't forget that every change of gait requires a transition in the music. Even at Grand Prix with its higher number of segments, you want to preserve musicality.

Very busy choreography with six or more gait segments at lower levels and ten or more segments at Grand Prix will chop up the freestyle and with it, the music. Before you know it, some of your artistic scores are compromised.    

Use the entry gait to set up the horse for his best possible work after the halt. Don't walk into the arena just to be different. If musicality gives you a good enough reason, go ahead. Otherwise, you potentially plant a seed in the judge's brain that the horse can't cope.  

3.) Plan impressive starting and ending movements.

Use your first and last freestyle movements to make the best possible impression on the judge. Don't copy other riders just because they make a good initial impression with a movement like trot extension. If your extension is weak, don't be afraid to put your best hoof forward and begin with a less dramatic movement such as half-pass.

Show clear intention at the beginning of the freestyle by performing the first movement as soon after halt as possible for your horse. Some riders go forward from halt and then circle around to the top of the arena at "A" to begin the first movement. The horse looks like he arrived for the freestyle party only to turn around and leave.

4.) Include configurations which best suit your horse.

In principle, shoulder-in performed on the centerline will result in a higher score for difficulty. If your horse can't perform it well, you torpedo the score. Include configurations you ride well and let the quality of the work earn the best score possible for this stage in your horse's development.

5.) Use combinations you can ride with ease and confidence.

Combinations might feel difficult to ride, but they need to give the appearance of ease to the judge. There's no reward for obvious struggle. You don't necessarily want to include every difficult combination you think you can perform. A combination performed in isolation might be rideable. Lash together one difficult combination after another and the performance can fall apart.

It can also be easier to ride combinations before adding music to the mix. Don't underestimate the difficulty of riding very precisely to musical phrasing.

6.) Minimize the connecting lines.

Make the most of your allowed time by maximizing scored movements and minimizing connecting lines. You don't receive a score for wandering around in aimless circles. Keep firing technical movements at the judge and building your scores.

7.) Make every movement clear and recognizable to the judge.

Don't let your desire to be creative destroy the "sense" of the ride. You risk receiving a low score when the judge is unsure of the movement you're riding or if you're even performing a movement at all. For instance, avoid putting leg-yield on a circle and place it on a diagonal line instead. Ridden on a circle, the horse might simply appear to be crooked.

If you can present a movement like shoulder-in on the second track, quarterline, or centerline with steady angle and bend, do it. If not, you risk receiving a catastrophic comment like "movement not shown" with a corresponding score of zero on your score sheet.

8.) Don't try to hide weak movements.

There's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide in dressage. The arena isn't that big and judges are trained to see everything. You can't try to hide a movement like pirouette near "A" and expect to raise your score by doing so. The judge can still see it.

Let's say you do manage to more or less hide a movement, like placing collected walk on the centerline going toward "A." You could receive an even lower score than typical for your horse because the judge can't score up a movement she can't see. Let the judge see the movement, do the best you can, and get your best possible score.

9.) Build technical scores and minimize non-scored movements.

Don't waste your allotted time on non-scoring movements. Keep building technical scores one after the other. If you want to show a movement like counter-canter at Junior, Third, or even Fourth Level, do so in connecting lines like turns and short sides. 

Don't perform halts or walk pirouettes within the body of the freestyle unless required. Your music is playing. When you halt during the freestyle, the music continues on without you. Put another way, you give the impression of the freestyle setting sail while the horse stays behind at the dock. You're also using up precious time. In the time it takes to ride a walk pirouette, you could have performed a dramatic movement such as trot extension and received a score.

10.) Show exactly as much difficulty as you can perform well and no more.

Difficulty is the trickiest element of choreography design. It's a mistake to assume that choreography with the highest degree of difficulty will automatically win the class. In my personal experience, I see freestyles with the best flow and ease of movement win titles at NAYC and national championships. I'm not saying that high degree of difficulty won't win, just that you'd better pull it off with near perfection.

I find that most riders attempt too much difficulty and end up lowering their technical scores as well as the scores for difficulty and choreography. Planning difficulty is like walking a tightrope. You can fall off the tightrope in either direction by planning too much difficulty or not enough. Start by showing at least the level of difficulty seen in the highest test of your freestyle level and ideally, exceeding it. Stop short of throwing every trick in the book into the design unless performed with ease and assurance.

Ask yourself if you think you'll raise or lower your technical score with the inclusion of difficult movements and combinations.