What Should Be Most Important In A Freestyle: Artistic Or Technical Merits?

Nov 8, 2010 - 12:31 PM
After their fifth-placed freestyle performance, Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz and Fuego XII were the talk of the town at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Photo by Kat Netzler.

Two Chronicle writers debate whether technical skill should triumph over artistic expression in the dressage freestyle.

Lisa Slade

I’ll admit to getting carried away during Fuego XII and Juan Manuel Muñoz Diaz’ freestyle at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

I don’t think anyone in the arena could have left without being moved by this Spanish partnership and their combination of showmanship and animation. When they came passaging down the centerline for the final time, Diaz’ reins in one hand and the crowd pounding along in rhythm with the music, I had a brief thought of, “How cool would it be if they took home a medal?”

But that thought passed after I saw the next three rides—Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas (the Netherlands), Steffen Peters and Ravel (the United States), and Imke Schellekens-Bartels and Hunter Douglas Sunrise (the Netherlands).

Silver medalist Laura Bechtolsheimer with Mistral Hojris (Great Britain) completed her harmonious ride before Diaz and Fuego. Though the U.S. crowd gave their fair share of cheers for Peters and Ravel, no one moved the audience in the same way as Fuego.

Still, the top horses were more technically correct than Fuego, and in the end I wasn’t disappointed with the final placings. Some of the crowd clearly disagreed with me; when Fuego’s overall score was announced, an 81.45 percent that would eventually place him fifth, there were boos all around.

Linda Zang, O-level judge and president of the ground jury sitting at C during the freestyle, placed Fuego fifth with an artistic score of 86.00 percent and a technical score of 80.00 percent. She said Fuego had a few weaker movements that brought down his score. They were things the average spectator might not have noticed, but the five judges did.

“I thought the pirouettes, in both directions, of the top three horses were better quality,” Zang said. “They had a tighter radius in the hind legs. When I looked at [Fuego]’s pirouettes from the front, they were very large and had a little tension in the hind legs.”

Zang also remarked that Diaz’ final halt and salute never really happened, and that also decreased their overall technical score. Diaz thrust his hat in the air almost immediately after stopping, causing Fuego to bolt off. The horse showed tension in his walk, another costly error. None of those things really detracted from the experience of watching him dance, but they did, and should have, lowered his score.

While the other top horses also had minor mistakes, such as Totilas dropping out of his first piaffe for a split second and Mistral Hojris stepping back in the first halt, they weren’t large enough to bring down the overall score significantly.

Since freestyles were first included at the 1994 World Equestrian Games in The Hague, the Netherlands, there’s been debate over technical versus artistic merits, and Fuego brought that debate to light again. Should the judges have been influenced by the crowd’s warm reception of Fuego and Diaz? Many people probably left the WEG thinking only of that ride—shouldn’t that have made them the winners?

Another O-level judge, Axel Steiner, says no. If the technical aspects of the tests are compromised from the artistic, we may find ourselves looking at a version of riding that scarcely resembles true dressage.

“That’s why we always have to keep it in control,” Steiner said. “I think the freestyle has done a tremendous amount for the sport. The only time it’s sold out is for the freestyle. But we definitely have to be careful that we do not let it turn into circusy-type performances, and that’s why we’re rather strict to keep the technical in check. That’s why you can only do a double pirouette, for instance, and no above the ground exercises are allowed. Movements are shown both ways, and the walk is shown, to keep it grounded in the technical area.”

But, according to Steiner, freestyle has also allowed the technical side of dressage riding to flourish, and not just the artistic.

“Overall, I think the freestyles have gotten much better,” he said. “People are trying to experiment with some combination of movements we’ve never thought of. Years ago, going from extended canter to a pirouette was, ‘Oh, wow,’ and now everyone does it. You can show a horse is very well trained without getting into circusy.”

Both Steiner and Zang were careful to mention that they didn’t think Fuego’s test was circusy, or a step in the wrong direction for dressage—which is why he received technical scores between 71.50 percent and 80.00 percent. In any other company, he could have been the winner. And he might be in the future.

“Clearly, all the horses at the top were the best horses,” Zang said. “When you get to that kind of competition, there’s so much to look at. It’s not just about the movements of the horse, but also about working of the horse and rider and the harmony. Personally, I think it’s wonderful to see the Spanish rider come up and be such an exceptional ambassador for the Spanish who have worked very hard to come into the international scene. The horse is an exceptional horse. And he’s done an exceptional job. It’s just a matter of time for getting that softness.”

It also might help to better educate the crowd so everyone understands how the freestyle scores are computed, and no one goes home disappointed. If the average spectator could understand how much it cost Diaz when he missed the last halt or his horse went wide behind in the trot work, the final placings wouldn’t be a surprise.

“Some good, compressed commentary before the freestyle would help,” Steiner said. “Not just having a guinea pig rider but really explaining what a score sheet looks like. There are technical requirements and then there are artistic—you could show what is being looked at and being scored. You want to make the spectators kind of mini-judges. That way when something happens, the spectators see, oh, it was kind of off.”

Though the crowd should react to the rides, feeling the emotion presented in the tests and partnerships they’re watching, the judges should be removed from that emotion so they can do their jobs properly.

“When the crowd’s going crazy, we can’t let ourselves go crazy because we have to think of the technical aspect,” said Zang. “If the judges don’t continue to look at that, we could lose the quality of the dressage. Freestyle could take dressage in another direction. We have to always be the guardians of the technical aspect of dressage.”


Kat Netzler 

You know what was the best part of freestyle night at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games? It wasn’t watching Steffen Peters and Ravel get their second individual bronze medal of the week. It wasn’t seeing Laura Bechtolsheimer’s Mistral Hojris come within 6 points of Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas. Heck, it wasn’t even Totilas himself.

It was the moment at the end of Juan Manuel Muñoz Diaz’ test with Fuego XII when the Spaniard thrust his fist in the air and the crowd erupted, sending the gray stallion bolting down centerline. We’d seen the horse halting all week; in that moment, it didn’t feel like an inability or failure to perform a movement. Rather, it was just a horseman so thrilled with the ride of a lifetime he’d just concluded that the final mark didn’t even matter to him. It was an all-too-rare, exhilarating expression of joy, and I’d like to think he’d do it all over again if he had the chance.

The smile on that rider’s face is the thing I’ll remember most about that evening, and anyone who says otherwise must have been watching a different test than me. I won’t speculate as to whether that’s what judge Linda Zang was doing a few days before in the Grand Prix Special when she gave Hans Peter Minderhoud’s Exquis Nadine a 75.62 percent for a test that included a movement in which the mare literally leapt into the air with all four feet.

The problem with relying on judges to define the sport of dressage is that it just doesn’t belong to them. It doesn’t really belong to anyone, but if it did, it certainly wouldn’t be the judges. It belongs first and foremost to the riders who compete in it, and given the globalization of the sport in recent decades, the fans should have some buy-in too.

After all, the freestyle was created explicitly to attract more spectators to dressage. So it’s a shame when the crowds have to end up booing the judges, as they did at the WEG, when their favorite performances don’t earn the scores they’d like. “Here, we created this thing we think you’ll love so you’ll pay us money, but don’t for a minute think we actually care about what you enjoy enough to reward it with winning scores!”

If anyone knows about the essential relationship between dressage and its fans, it’s Frank Kemperman. He’s been the managing director of the Aachen CHIO (Germany), the largest horse show in the world, since 1993, and he’s also the chairman of the Fédération Equestre Internationale Dressage Committee.

“I am sure the freestyle to music has saved the dressage sport,” said Kemperman. “I was in Kentucky for 10 days, and the dressage freestyle was the only [performance I saw] with a full house. The freestyle test assures almost all organizers a full house. This means it is of great importance for every show. Stars like Totilas are really affecting the ticket sales, and in many countries the dressage is more popular than show jumping.”

There isn’t much room for creative expression in show jumping, but dressage has always been a much more emotional, subjective sport. And while superstar horses and riders are a big draw, show organizers have learned to rely on the freestyle itself, in all its dramatic glory, for a more consistent following.

Because for all the recent platitudes about how the discipline has been rejuvenated in the past two years with new stars replacing the seemingly incomparable Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth, I question just how much has actually changed.

Yes, we have new names on the leaderboards now, but aren’t they always still ranked the same? It was Edward, 1; Laura, 2; and Steffen, 3, in all three tests at the WEG. What was the point of creating a new entity—the freestyle—if it was just going to be more of the same at the end of the day?

“I’ve compared the results from Aachen 2006 and Kentucky 2010,” said Kemperman. “The percentages for some good riders are about the same, but new riders and horses are now in competition, and they are better than the old stars. The riders are also improving the quality of the sport, and the tests are more technical.”

But technical merit rules almost every aspect of every sport, and at some point horses like Totilas, who regularly scores in the 90s, may actually run out of technical challenges, just as there are a handful of event horses who seem almost too competent and need a five-star cross-country course. To liven things up, can’t dressage have one class in which creativity and showmanship earn just slightly more credibility, without the sport deteriorating into a dog and pony show?

Granted, Fuego should not have won gold in the freestyle. Totilas is a brilliant freestyle horse in his own right, and he deserved the 91.80 percent he earned in Kentucky. But to be frank, tests like Laura’s and fourth-placed Imke Schellekens-Bartels with Hunter Douglas Sunrise just didn’t wow the crowd in the way Fuego’s did. They were just technical tests with background music. Steffen and Ravel couldn’t even garner the applause that the Spanish pair did, and they had the home crowd advantage.

Imagine what a buzz it would have created in the global dressage community if Diaz’ incredible performance with Fuego earned a surprise bronze. If things the crowd loved about his test, like his brilliant musical selection, his stallion’s flamboyant synergy with the soundtrack and the very thing the judges penalized him for—the emotion he showed in that final pseudo-halt—counted for something more.

But for the time being, dressage fans will just have to get used to booing. And being ignored when they do.

“It’s OK if spectators are reacting to the judges’, scores,” said Kemperman. “I am not sure if the classical way (what is the classical way?) is the only way. Emotions belong in the sport.”

It’d be pretty hard to argue there was any lack of emotion in dressage. It’s just too bad the scores can’t reflect that.

Did you enjoy this article? Consider subscribing. The complete version of “What Should Be Most Important In A Freestyle: Artistic Or Technical Merits?” ran in the Nov. 5, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Dressage

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