Music of the Peers

Posted on July 12, 2018 by Jerrilee.
Categories: breed, history, riding, therapy, training.
USEF photo of Stefen Peters & Ravel (2012 Olympic Freestyle)

The dressage industry was one of the last disciplines to add the element of music to competition. The freestyle ride was long debated and denied as a performance class mostly because performance judges feared the option given to riders to create their own programs would initiate a trend toward circus-like presentations. In their opinion, over a period of years, the aberration of dressage movements could leave the classical principles of dressage in the shadows of  history. In the 1970’s, however, came a more immediate threat for the dressage industry: the financial burden of its horse events. Rising costs of stabling, insurance, maintenance of the ring footing, required such an excess of cash that the backing of corporate sponsors was essential. As they came on board, these sponsors began to encourage show organizers to consider more  ‘entertainment’ in the dressage field since it lacked both spectators and public appeal. To them, the musical freestyle seemed to perfectly fit that need.

The United States Dressage Federation and the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) met individually to decide on restrictions to set in place to protect the historical and classical nature of dressage in musical competition. Judging sheets were designed to include technical and creative scores. Freestyle riding forums were set up worldwide in order to publicly define acceptable performance movements and also to somewhat direct the quality of music expected. During the 1980’s, most freestyle riding refrained from extravagance with presentations almost exclusively relying on classical music. In addition, these original musical rides, constrained by rigid adherence to traditional movements, were only modestly artful in scope. Even so, dressage lovers were thrilled with the new classes. While spectators still yawned, the concept of dressage as a living, spontaneous “art form” was now dawning on its devotees. It gained even more momentum the moment it was finally allowed into the Olympic Ring in 1996.

With the new millennium came new riders with fresh ideas. New talent pushed toward the impossible in freestyle riding. No longer did Beethoven and Bach rule the freestyle ring. Hand-picked music picked up the beat with modern tunes. Daring riders heated up the competition through their innovative uses of mandatory movements. Overnight it seemed that empty bleachers became standing-room-only. The new phenomenon of the freestyle dressage class had commenced. Audiences cheered and applauded their favorites in the classes. Sponsors were elated. Judges were thrilled. Spectators left competitions with GPS directions to find the next up-coming freestyle event. Dressage became known as the ‘ballet of horseback riding’. Eager to keep competition classes fully attended, riders were generously rewarded in their scores.

However, some conservatives squirmed. The dark side of freestyle, so long ago feared, was beginning to emerge. Observers who set up alongside warm-up rings chronicled the use of controversial training methods bordering cruelty to defenseless mounts. Not only did Grand Prix riders lack common horsemanship, their brutality was heartily encouraged as the new, productive training method.

So-called ‘Roll-Kur’ technique seen in 2008 Olympic warm-up 

It was the shock wave that blackened the freestyle classes. In the 2008 Olympics the division widened between dressage camps as infuriated classicists revealed the barbarism of the new “Roll Kur”, a training technique that forced the horses to move briskly forward with their heads pulled into their chests, or all the way onto their knees. In addition, they pointed out that the  Individual Dressage Champion of the Olympic Games never performed the required full-stop at halt at any time during the test. Nor did its extravagant leg movement ever co-ordinate with the horse’s torso movement. The pressure of the bit in the horse’s mouth was so severe that it created a ‘blue-tongue’, proving lack of circulation, something never acceptable in correct dressage. It was demanded that the FEI, an organization long considered the protectorate of equestrian sports, meet to resolve the issue before the next Olympics. By the time of the 2012 Olympics,  stringent qualifications, ensuring that horses were more humanely prepared for show events, were put to the test. These corrections are still being evaluated and re-written to improve the public representation of classical dressage within both standard and freestyle Grand Prix classes. It is evident that the state of global dressage will always require keen scrutiny to maintain the classical principles. But the true highlight of the dressage freestyle is its breakout from the obscure timidity of its earlier days. It is finally acknowledged as a beautiful and accomplished art form. It has pranced forward to prove that both quality and musical entertainment are possible in the dressage industry.

Same horse in 2012 Olympics.Corrections to use of bit show a more classical ride

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