Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

The Magic (And Talent) Behind The Freestyle

Developing a winning freestyle performance is much more than simply matching music to your horse.

For many dressage enthusiasts, the highlight of the sport is watching a brilliant rider guiding an elegant and  powerful horse through a meticulously rehearsed freestyle test. Arguably, the best—and most successful—freestyles allow the  horse and rider to shine brightest and creatively amplify their personalities and strong points through music.


Developing a winning freestyle performance is much more than simply matching music to your horse.

For many dressage enthusiasts, the highlight of the sport is watching a brilliant rider guiding an elegant and  powerful horse through a meticulously rehearsed freestyle test. Arguably, the best—and most successful—freestyles allow the  horse and rider to shine brightest and creatively amplify their personalities and strong points through music.

Terry Gallo, of Klassic Kur, Karen Robinson, of Applause Dressage, and Marlene Whitaker, of Custom Freestyles Inc., all understand this philosophy and work toward this goal. They produce freestyle anthologies to enhance the strengths of each horse and rider, and, to them, it’s a narrative beyond a simple competition.

But it wouldn’t exactly be a stretch to say “freestyle producer” is an uncommon vocation. These professionals found their calling through combining their own passions and putting themselves in the right places at the right times.

Following Their Instincts

Whitaker rode hunters for 25 years before showing up for her first dressage lesson in 1991. There she glimpsed Lynn Leath schooling a Grand Prix freestyle. It was the first time she’d seen music matched with a horse, and it became the spark of a calling that would soon strike her most profoundly.

“A few weeks later, I saw Carol Lavell ride Gifted’s Robin Hood kur at the Washington International Horse Show [D.C.]. I cried and knew I was hooked forever,” she said.

She created her own amateur freestyle a few years later and was shocked by how well audiences and riders alike received the performance. An impressed Jessica Ransehousen, international dressage rider and judge, later asked Whitaker to produce a Grand Prix freestyle for her.

“I never really intended to have a full-time business doing it,” Whitaker admitted, “but it’s become the tail wagging the dog trying to keep up with demand.

“One could say I never really took the leap,” she added, “but rather rolled down the hill. I never charged clients for the mistakes or experimenting I did. Any profits were turned back into the business to buy better equipment.”

Likewise, Robinson also got a taste of the freestyle in the early 1990s after watching a demonstration at the Burghley Horse Trials (England). The Grand Prix freestyle thoroughly fascinated her.

Maintaining Momentum

Reviewing previous works can typically nip creative blocks in the bud, but freestyle producers Karen Robinson, Terry Gallo and Marlene Whitaker note that patience and organization are simple and important remedies.

While they’re responsible for thousands and thousands of musical tracks ranging from Frank Sinatra to Fifty Cent, the key to maintaining sanity among those expansive libraries is order.

Stacks of CDs stand neatly atop Robinson’s desk, colorfully adorned with Post-it notes denoting which tunes best accommodate which gaits. Excel spreadsheets and other advents of the digital age also help keep her library up to date and each track within a click’s reach.

But if all else fails and that spark just isn’t snapping, “I will walk away from a project for a day, sleep on it and wake up with a head full of ideas,” she said.

Whitaker finds consolation in a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a spiritual path to higher creativity.

“I thought I was being compulsive wanting the house vacuumed, the laundry and ironing done, the yard mowed, and the barn cleaned before I could start my creative work,” she explained. “Now I realize those mindless, repetitive tasks are in fact fuel for the creative process. Sometimes my best work is when I’m making it up as I go!”

Another important key that keeps Gallo sane among an ocean’s worth of music are those three all-important words: beats per minute. Whether a horse’s particular gaits beg for easy lounge jazz or big band bounce, Gallo can find selections for any gait of any style to help avoid drawing a blank when piecing a freestyle together.

“It’s also organized according to genre,” she said. “When I’m working with a horse and rider, I’m trying to decide what kind of music will work best for their personalities.”

“I was still eventing back then, so it didn’t enter my mind that I was seeing a sample of what my life would eventually revolve around,” she remembered.

Robinson began lending fellow riders a hand and an ear with choreography and music selection for their freestyles while a friend helped edit the music. She rode her first freestyle in 1996 but only started accepting payments from clients in 2000.


Six months passed before she realized a growing demand for her craft. She quit her job managing a library book wholesaler to pursue musical freestyles more seriously and also picked up a pen to write articles for equestrian magazines.

Gallo’s path might have seemed only natural given her background coaching and participating in gymnastics and studies in dance, theatrical choreography and music. Though she only rode horses briefly in the late 1970s, her movement philosophies translated from two to four legs with hardly a stutter.

“I shouldn’t say it came naturally as much as I used my instincts,” Gallo explained. “The human athlete is a little more flexible in terms of the movements he can do. So I went back to basics; the idea that you want the dance to look like it’s interpreting the music.”

Gallo studied with some of the nation’s finest in American Jazz during the mid-’70s. She later took her talents to San Diego State University (Calif.) in 1985 where she coached. Her door to the freestyle opened when a gymnast, Dawn Paul, who also rode dressage, requested Gallo’s music and movement expertise.
Gallo had already collected an eclectic music library thanks to her extensive resume. But she soon realized that learning dressage’s finer intricacies would take some digging.

But for her first attempt, she asked Paul the same questions about her horse that she would have asked a human dancer. “It’s the same concept; what kind of mover is the athlete and how can their strong points be best represented?” she said.

She later spent countless hours scanning the pages of books, drawing out tests from training level through Grand Prix, studying patterns, and learning to piece together choreography for a dressage athlete, all the while educating herself from a judge’s point of view.

Staying Progressive

But even more important than understanding a freestyle from the judges’ box is realizing that the piece is ultimately the rider’s creation.

Developing freestyles from the ground up is a team effort, and the magic only happens when everyone involved puts their hands in the creation process. And it doesn’t necessarily spell success to construct a production that merely reflects the requirements and expectations of judges.

Freestyle Producer Tidbits

•    Karen Robinson’s initial training was in dressage, but she turned to eventing in her teens. She also participated in Arabian costume and trail classes and ski jorring (horses pulling skiers over a snow track). In 2000, she returned to dressage at Prix St. Georges level with her Thoroughbred Punch.

•    Terry Gallo volunteers as an organizer of Challenge Of The Americas, an annual Grand Prix international  freestyle and quadrille team challenge that has raised more than $1 million for breast cancer research in the past five years. She also serves as the chairman for the U.S. Dressage Federation Freestyle Committee.

•    Marlene Whitaker bought her dream horse in 2001 but has spent the past six years diagnosing and treating his EPSM (equine polysaccharide storage myopathy) and related problems. Though it’s been an unexpected road she said he’s taught her a lot. She also has a yearling filly by Sir Sinclair and hopes to bring her up the levels.

•    Whitaker said she’s “a sucker for beautiful, rich, emotional music.” For Gallo, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald often pop up on her personal play list, and Robinson’s musical muse is the unique worldly ambiance of Buddha Bar, soundtracks based on music heard in one of Paris’ finest Asian-cuisine lounges.

“If everyone is doing the best they can, we all come away satisfied with whatever result we get. If they’re happy, I’m happy,” said Whitaker.

Of course, you won’t find any of these producers resting on their laurels after the ribbons have been pinned.
Gallo said it’s nearly impossible for her to watch a performance she’s created without feeling the pressure
herself. While it’s exhilarating and nerve wracking to watch her work in action, the enormous amounts of time, effort and emotion invested in each piece make it difficult to watch objectively.

All three producers study their freestyles as often as possible to remain progressive and learn from each creation, whether from the arena, word of mouth, or the screen.

“I generally purchase videos of major international competitions,” Robinson said. “My clients don’t send me videos of their rides as often as I’d like. But I love to watch my work in action.”

They all make the extra effort, however, to attend international competitions where their clients compete. Robinson watched one of her most memorable creations at the 2006 World Equestrian Games when Mexican rider Bernadette Pujals rode Vincent in Aachen, Germany.

She’s also written freestyle music for Leslie Reid, who won an individual gold medal at the 2003 Pan American Games, Grand Prix riders Leslie Morse and Ashley Holzer,  2007 North American Junior and Young Riders Championships gold medalist Alexandra Duncan and other local and international clients, novice to Grand Prix.

Likewise, one of Gallo’s most memorable productions was during Debbie McDonald’s performance aboard Brentina at the 2005 FEI World Cup Finals in Las Vegas, Nev.

“It was one of the ones I worried about the most but was the easiest to put together,” she remembered. “I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering if maybe we were pushing it too far with the use of vocals and lyrics. But we tried it at the USEF Freestyle Championships [Calif.], and the audience went ballistic. We figured if the judges didn’t pound us there, they wouldn’t pound us in Vegas either.”


McDonald, who’s worked with Gallo for 15 years, enjoyed riding that freestyle as well. She mouthed the words as she rode to the energetic compilation of The Commodores’ “Brick House,” Motown hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the always-crowd-pleasing finale, Respect, by Aretha Franklin.

“I always kind of had the feeling that Brentina never quite had the respect she deserved [before that],” McDonald said. “I wanted to find a way to enjoy this more than I was and find a way to bring the audience in.

“The only way we’re going to bring this sport into a different light and get more people involved is to bring the audience to the shows, to where they can’t wait to come and  watch some of these top freestyles,” she continued. “Was I sticking my neck out there and taking a risk? Yes. But I wasn’t afraid of anyone saying, ‘OK, Debbie, this is over the top, and we’ve eliminated you.’ ”

Whitaker has also produced freestyles for a diverse group, from young riders to top professionals including Arlene “Tuny” Page and Robert Dover.

“In 1997, I did a baseball kur for Robert Dover riding a horse owned by Jane Clark. Her family [founded] the Baseball Hall of Fame, so we thought it would be an entertaining and meaningful theme,” Whitaker remembered.

But regardless of horse, rider or venue, these freestyle producers all enjoy the process and consider it an honor to be asked to be a part of the team.

“Freestyles have given me the biggest emotional paycheck of my life,” said Robinson. “I love it when my clients win, of course, but I love it even more when I know they left the ring with an irrepressible grin on their faces.”

Joshua A. Walker

The Trouble With Television

Last May, thousands of viewers tuned in for Animal Planet’s coverage of the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas, Nev. Show jumping aficionados were treated to ample coverage, but dressage buffs were incensed when their sport received almost no coverage.

Infuriated fans railed against Animal Planet, pointing out in e-mails and letters that the elegant freestyle performances would be entertaining to a wide audience. But Animal Planet and Carr-Hughes Productions representatives quickly explained that the problem
wasn’t a lack of interest in the sport, but rather the difficulty and expense in procuring licensing rights to the freestyle music.

Any time a recording artist’s music plays at a sporting event or on television, the rights must be appropriately cleared. When you watch figure skaters dancing to an aria, or rock music playing during a pause in a football game, the TV network has negotiated with the music producers allowing them to play each song.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation has agreements with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers as well as Broadcast Music, Inc., that allow them to play copyrighted music at sanctioned competitions, but broadcasting these competitions on television requires the networks to pay expensive licensing fees. Wary networks balk at that high a level of financial investment in an unproven sport.

Carr-Hughes Productions—the company behind the Pegasus-award winning Rolex Kentucky CCI**** coverage—ran headfirst into the licensing issue when their staff put  together the production of this year’s World Cup Final for Animal Planet. But since then, co-founder Bob Hughes has been hard at work pitching dressage to major networks and trying to smooth out the licensing issues that have beem a significant obstacle in the path to dressage dominating the airways.

Music licensing is so complicated that some TV networks have entire departments devoted to music clearance. A few networks—such as NBC—have negotiated a master-licensing fee allowing them to play any song on any program broadcast on their network.

But such agreements are rare and can cost well more than $10 million. Normally, one must contact the producer of each song to negotiate and buy permission to use the song.

“There’s a lot of legwork involved,” said Hughes. “You’ve got to know your songs, which is more difficult than it sounds, and, obviously, we can’t dictate to the competitors what music they can use. Then you have to go to the producers to negotiate. It’s not like going to McDonalds.”

The cost per song can vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on where the song is being played and how long the network needs the rights. Broadcasting seven dressage tests with three different songs per test requires 21 separate agreements. And, of course, these fees are on top of the $450,000 Hughes estimated it would cost to put together a superior TV program of a top-tier competition like the World Cup for a major network.

One less-expensive alternative would be to broadcast on the Internet, but even this route is not without its problems. Big changes are afoot in the hitherto laissez-faire world of web broadcasting. A March ruling by the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board forced anyone who broadcasts music online to pay heavily increased royalty fees beginning July 15.

Carr-Hughes Productions is considering putting together a quality webcast of a future top-level event even if they can’t find a TV network willing to take the plunge, but the new law makes it more expensive.

“We’re ready to go ahead and try a webcast and work through the financial issues,” said Hughes. “But in order for it to work, we have to have a reasonable idea that people will watch it. You don’t want to go in with a low-budget, one-camera shoot—if you show up with a garbage production no one will pay attention. You need to be careful how you present the sport, so you have to put together a credible production.”

Hughes is quick to point out that there exist less scrupulous individuals in TV production who simply don’t bother paying licensing fees. But in order to ensure a bright future for dressage on television, Hughes is hard at work finding ways to let the music play but keep the recording artists satisfied.    

Mollie Bailey




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