Dressage Musical Freestyle Rule Changes for 2019

Editing my freestyle with a little help from my horses. Photo credit: Kimberly Chason

Editing my freestyle with a little help from my horses. Photo credit: Kimberly Chason

Every four years the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) reviews their dressage tests and makes improvements/changes. This year there were a few notable changes in the freestyle tests that you should keep in mind when preparing to show.

Qualifying Score

For USDF Recognized dressage shows you need to earn a qualifying score at the highest test of the level (or above) before you are allowed to compete your freestyle. The qualifying score was 60% and it was raised to 63%. It might take you a little longer to earn that qualifying score but in the end it will help prepare you for your freestyle technical scores.

You are planning to ride a Training Level Freestyle at a USDF Recognized show. First, you will need to earn a 63% (or above) at a USDF Recognized show in Training Level Test 3. You may also earn your 63% at a higher level/test, such as First Level Test 1.

Choreography Changes

  • Lengthenings/Mediums/Extensions on Straight Lines

There was a significant change in the choreography requirements regarding lengthenings/mediums/extensions (will refer to these as extensions) at the trot/canter. Previously, you could choose to ride your extension on a bending line or a large circle. The rules have changed so that you MUST ride your extension on a straight line. You can choose to ride a second extension on a curved line but it will NOT be counted towards your technical marks, just your artistic scores.

This will limit your available movements but try to incorporate straight lines in a non-test-like fashion by utilizing your quarterlines, centerlines, long sides of the arena, and riding a diagonal line from the centerline to the corner and vice versa.

Scoring Changes

The test sheets are easier to navigate for the judges/scribes and there are fewer collective marks in the technical side of the test. There is only one score for rhythm, energy, and elasticity. There are also designated areas for errors and deductions. Keep in mind that your judge cannot ring the bell for test errors (example: forgetting to salute at your halt) while your music is playing. There is a great article by Janet L. “Dolly” Hannon in the USDF Connection magazine that goes into more detail about these changes. Click here to read it.

Click here to read the current freestyle rules on the USDF website and view the freestyle tests.

Download my Free Resources

Stay organized with my Musical Freestyle Checklist and begin sketching choreography with my Blank Arena Diagram Page.

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Browse my Freestyle E-Book Store

Learn how to create a musical freestyle from start to finish or choose an e-Book with choreography ideas just for your level.
Click here to view all Freestyle e-Books.

Related Freestyle Articles

How to Create a Musical Freestyle - Learn the Seven Phases of Freestyle Creation

Watch our "Outlander" inspired first level freestyle... photo credit: spotted vision photography

Watch our "Outlander" inspired first level freestyle...photo credit: spotted vision photography

Imagine riding up the centerline to the music of your very own musical freestyle! If you are reading this article you are thinking of, or have decided to, design a musical freestyle. How exciting!

Just think how much fun you and your horse will have dancing to music. I know that my horses enjoy their music and they will start to learn their transitions and follow along. 

This video will give you an overview of what's in store for you in the months ahead. I have broken down the process into Seven Phases to help you keep track of your progress and avoid overwhelm. 

You can just watch the video or scroll down to read a description of each phase. I have also included links to articles and resources to help you along the way.

#1: Plan & Prepare

You are currently in this stage right now, planning ahead for your freestyle. If this is your first time I recommend giving yourself ample time to work on it. There will be a learning curve with the music software and how to choreograph your routine so be careful not to rush yourself.

The best time to start working on a musical freestyle is in your "off" season. If you compete in the summer months try to begin in the winter, right after the holidays is usually a good time to get focused. Download my free Musical Freestyle Checklist to help you stay on track (scroll to the bottom of this article).

#2: Rules & Requirements

You will need to learn the rules that pertain to freestyles at a competition, especially if you want to show at a USDF recognized event. It would be a shame to enter your first show and realize you are missing a movement or get disqualified because your entrance music is too long. There is a handy resource on the USDF website that summarizes the freestyle requirements...click here.

Download the USDF EquiTests 1 App so that you will have quick access to your freestyle test sheets if you aren't sure about a movement...click here.

#3: Gather Info

In this phase you will be gathering information that will help you find your music and create your choreography. You will need to figure out the beats per minute for your horse's gaits so that you are prepared to select music. Learn how to determine your horse's beats per minute in this article...click here. 

There are many smartphone apps available that will also help you with the BPM's, choreography, and music. Click here to see which apps I use and where to get them. 

#4: Discover your Music

It is a lot easier to find music with the availability of online search. Platforms such as ITunes, Spotify, and Pandora will help you find music to match your horse. Don't forget to look in your old CD collection as well, there may be some gems that you forgot about. Click here for some ideas...

If you feel overwhelmed about selecting music, there are some options online for pre-made music such as Marvin's Music and MusiKur.

#5: Choreography

It is a fun challenge to work with a horse and rider to showcase their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Try to "marry" the music and the choreography together, doing your best to follow the natural progression of the music. Avoid movements that will add stress for you and your horse, your test should HELP you, not hinder your horse's ability. My blank arena diagram sheet is very helpful during the process. Scroll down for your free copy.

If the idea of creating choreography overwhelms you, I have pre-designed routines in my Freestyle Choreography e-books. If you don't see the level you want just sent me an email (beginthedance@gmail.com) and I will let you know when it is available.

#6: Edit, Edit, Edit

This is perhaps going to be the longest, most frustrating stage of the game. Keep faith! You are so close to the end it should help you gain momentum to push through. If you are not very "techy" this part of the process can be outsourced to a friend or a professional. I have gathered together some popular music software and extra options in this article...click here.

If you get stressed out, take a break and try one of the four ways I stay motivated. Read the article here.

#7: Go to a Show

Time to take your freestyle for a trial run! Keep in mind that the first show is a learning experience. You will become familiar with the process, how to submit your music to show staff, the sound check, how to deal with different sound systems, and most importantly...how does your horse do with the freestyle at a show. 

You may discover that your horse's tempo is a lot faster than normal or he/she spooks at the speakers set too close to the arena. After you receive feedback from your judge you can go back to the drawing board, adjusting choreography and music based on their scores. 

Here's some advice, do not drastically change your freestyle based on ONE judge's opinion! The artistic scores can vary widely from judge to judge. For example: One of my clients rode her new First Level freestyle at a schooling show and received a score in the low 60's, the artistic scores ranged from a 6 to a 6.5. She rode the EXACT same freestyle at a USDF Recognized show for an "S" judge and received a 76%! All 8's in the artistic scores.

Artistic value is in the eye of the beholder, don't lose faith if one judge doesn't resonate with your music. 

Download my Free Resources

Stay organized with my Musical Freestyle Checklist and begin sketching choreography with my Blank Arena Diagram Page.

Freestyle Free Downloads.png

Browse my Freestyle E-Book Store

Learn how to create a musical freestyle from start to finish or choose an e-Book with choreography ideas just for your level.
Click here to view all Freestyle e-Books.

Related Freestyle Articles

Sandra Beaulieu & Friesian Douwe - "Outlander"-Inspired First Level Musical Freestyle

We dance for laughter,
we dance for tears,
we dance for madness,
we dance for fears,
we dance for hopes,
we dance for screams,
we are the dancers,
we create the dreams.

                  -Albert Einstein

After a long hiatus from the dressage competition arena, I decided it would be fun to work on my USDF Freestyle Bronze Bar with Douwe and Rovandio. To earn this award, the rider needs two freestyle scores (above 65%) at First level, two scores at Second level, and two scores at Third level from recognized shows. Douwe earned both of our First Level scores and Rovandio earned both of our Second Level scores in one weekend! I am so proud of them, they seemed to enjoy themselves and I did too! If you watch the TV series Outlander you will recognize the music, the tempo and drama of the music really go with Douwe's stride. Enjoy!

Are you inspired to start working on your First Level musical freestyle?

My "how-to" e-book will take you through the creation process of your very own freestyle. 

  • 10 Fully Choreographed Test Patterns! Just Add Music!
  • 37 pages of choreography!  
  • 7 Online Resources to help you find freestyle music.
  • Creative freestyle questionnaire to help get your creative juices flowing!
  • Freestyle checklist to help you stay on track.
  • Blank arena diagram pages for you to take notes and draw your own choreography.
  • Rules to remember, arena & sound requirements, copyright laws and more!

I also offer CUSTOM FREESTYLE design and FREESTYLE WORKSHOPS. Click here to learn more. 

Create Your Own Training Level Musical Freestyle! Sample Videos of Good Choreography & Music Selection

Create Your Own Training Level Musical Freestyle! Sample Videos of Good Choreography & Music Selection

Have you always wanted to ride a musical freestyle? Getting started at Training Level is a great way to get your feet wet and learn how the entire process works. 

In this post, I have shared some examples of Training Level musical freestyles and reasons why they are good, from a judge's perspective…

Read More

Developing a Musical Freestyle for the 2015 Pan Am Games with EquiChord and Julio Mendoza

I came across an interesting video on YouTube of Julio Mendoza practicing his Pan Am Games freestyle with a GoPro camera. I contacted his freestyle designer, Equichord, to learn more and ended up having a wonderful chat with Cece Maddlone.... She is very knowledgeable and passionate about designing musical freestyles. She took the time to write an article, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation process for Julio's freestyle. Thank you so much CeCe! Enjoy the article!

Developing a Musical Freestyle for the 2015 Pan Am Games with EquiChord
by Frank and CeCe Maddlone

It is always exciting when we get the opportunity to work with dedicated and talented professionals who take the freestyle process seriously. Julio Mendoza is one of those professionals. Our overall goal is to create premium quality freestyles. This means creating a design that demands the highest in technical accuracy, musicality, and appeal; not only from the riding side, but the artistic side as well. There is as high a level of technical demands for the rider on the artistic side as there is on the riding side. We have developed our own intensive and hands-on process that is designed to help the rider achieve that goal. Once a rider has established a solid foundation in the technique, they are then free to add the dynamics of emotion and performance to the ride. In the end, that is what we want to create, and audiences want to see. Ultimately, achieving this takes a commitment of time and attention on the part of the rider. The best way to show how we approach this undertaking is to run through the entire process. Julio’s freestyle journey to the 2015 Pan Am Games with Chardonnay is a  perfect example of how we work.

FALL 2014
Julio and Jessica Mendoza called upon EquiChord, as they were excited to have several new horses for whom they wanted to develop freestyles - seven, to be exact. All the horses were of very high quality, ranging from First Level to Intermediare 1. They were also a wonderful array of breeds and personalities ranging from Friesians toOldenburgs. One in particular was a huge focus of our attention - a 2005 Oldenburg chestnut gelding named Chardonnay. Julio had set a goal of qualifying for the 2015 Pan Am Games. In order to achieve this, he had to compile his qualifying scores by the end of May - to include a freestyle score. For us, this was a definite challenge. Since we strongly believe in having plenty of time to practice and perfect each freestyle, regardless of the level, our time was already rapidly ticking away.

When we first met with Julio and Jessica to discuss their horse, they brought us a video from a recent clinic. Chardonnay (or Chardy, as he is known by his family and fans) was a new acquisition for Julio, and he was just starting to work with him. Chardy was beautiful, and you could certainly see that he was extremely talented and expressive. However, he was very uneven - so much so that his trot was extremely difficult to match to a steady BPM. There was no consistent rhythm, and there was lack of flexion to the right due to a former shoulder injury. Needless to say, we were a bit worried. Without rhythm, you cannot have the fundamentals of dressage or music. The Mendoza’s expressed that they wanted to use music that was more contemporary and easily recognizable. This always makes things even more challenging for us, because even though contemporary music is fun, much of it can be pretty uneventful since it is mostly a collection of loops with a vocal track. And, since we are limited to using only a few vocals throughout the course of a freestyle, contemporary music minus the underlying vocal tracks can sound more like muzak, or just a collection of never-ending loops. We put together a couple of samples for them, based on what we saw as possible fits, and passed along our recommendations. In our mind, once Chardy became more even and correct, he was going to develop into a lighter horse with a good staccato movement. Therefore, overly heavy or driving music would certainly overwhelm him. Chardy is also a very sensitive horse, so we wanted to ensure that he didn’t overreact to the music and become tense. Certain tonalities do not resonate well with some horses, so these considerations are always a part of the selection process. Jessica and Julio liked two of the roughs we put together, and together we ultimately decided on one. However, our choice was only a part of the selection process; we had to see if Chardy would respond positively to it.

We went to Julio’s farm to work with Chardy, and to get some insights on a few other horses. As we played the different pieces of music, we were looking for selections that would help Chardy find his rhythm. Julio had already made progress with him, and his cadence (i.e. how each footfall evenly matches the music’s rhythm) was improving. One of the selections we had on hand was a medley of U2’s music. We were all very excited to see how Chardy found his rhythm when we played the track! It was settled; that would be his music.

1. Finish the music and choreographic design
2. Run through it again in person to ensure the moves worked
3. Give Julio the music, the choreographic counts, and a voiceover so he may
practice the freestyle when off the horse.

Due to the scarcity of approved CDIs in our area, Julio needed to travel to Florida to get his qualifying scores. This gave us under a month to pull everything together. With his attention focused on acquiring the scores needed for qualifying, the freestyle fell into a lower priority level on the practice list. To make matters more challenging, Julio’s facilities back home did not have a regulation size indoor arena. So this made practicing the freestyle that much more difficult once he returned home. To help alleviate these challenges, Julio transported Chardy to a friend’s farm to use their indoor arena to practice. At this stage of the process, we still had not run through the entire test. It was truly amazing to see the progress Chardy was making. His gaits were stronger, and far more supple and rhythmic. However, he still was unable to consistently run through the freestyle. For us, this meant that we were not quite certain if the freestyle needed to be modified, or even worked. Since Chardy was still having problems rhythmical matching the steps, we couldn’t accurately count out the movements to the music. Based on what we had initially recorded, Chardy would need more counts than average to complete the movements. We had to go back to the studio and find a musically correct way to accommodate his odd sets of beats. As a result, we felt that it wouldn’t be prudent for Julio to try and show the freestyle while in Florida. Instead, we suggested that he afford Chardy more time to find himself. Once Julio had him where he needed him to be, we could introduce the freestyle again. However, time was a component that we had little of.

During this month, Julio competed Chardonnay to Florida. In the meantime, we took this opportunity to work on the music and anticipate the changes that may need to happen in the choreography. We devised several plans to help support Chardy through the music, while ensuring that Julio had what he needed to perform the movements technically correct.

Practice #1
The weather was nice enough to practice outside in the beautiful regulation-sized arena. Chardy was also getting better and better during this time. However, he seemed to be developing some tension during the freestyle. Frank and I were worried that the music may be causing the tension, and suggested that we might want to try something different since time was running out. Julio wanted to work through the music, so he began playing the music for Chardy in the barn every night. Julio also noted that he might be causing the tension himself, as he had not had enough time to listen to the music and voiceover files in earnest, or really focus on learning the test. There was just so much time in each day, and Julio and Jessica were extremely careful not to overwork Chardy. We asked Julio to ride through the test without the music; to perform the movements in a way that he felt was the most comfortable, and to do them as technically perfect as possible. We filmed the ride and took the tape back to the studio to score the music underneath it.

1. We make some more tweaks to the choreography and the music.
2. We sent Julio a new count sheet and the video with adjusted music so he could see (as well as hear) the cues and where each should fall matching his ride. We were happily surprised to see that it fit almost perfectly - and Julio needed to see that. All that was needed was enough practice time so that both horse and rider could feel confident in what they were doing. At this stage, they needed to trust each other and the music.

Practice #2
BEST EVER!!! Almost perfect. We ran through it once and stopped.
1. We mastered and EQ’ed the music with the new adjustments, then formatted it and sent them the digital copies so they could generate the CDs.

During this time, Julio had to go to Canada to do two sets of shows in order to get his scores. Time was running out. This was it. He had to perform his freestyle.

Chardy’s freestyle came in 5th in an international field of riders!! The highest artistic score was a 77% and Chardy received a 75%!!!! Riders and officials complimented the Mendozas on their music.

RESERVE CHAMPION!! This is what we needed to see. Julio was going to the Games.

Julio had a very busy and tight show, clinic, and training schedule this month. They booked a practice session for one of Julio’s rare open slots. Although the Canadian trip was very successful, there were still some sections of the freestyle where we needed to work on the timing. During the next practice session, we worked solely on nailing the timing with the cues. It was hard to believe that this was the same horse we saw in January. Now, he was happy, strong, supple, and right on in every movement. His technique was getting solid, and we could now begin working in earnest on the nuances and performance components of the freestyle so it will shine.


Because Chardy had come so far, his movements, timing, and rhythm had changed dramatically. Once again, we had to adjust the music. He was able to enter and exit compulsory movements more quickly, cleaner, and with greater precision. This meant that we had to edit out the additional music we had inserted earlier in the process. He no longer needed it, as it was causing Julio to hold him back in order to stay with the cues. That simply could not happen. He needed to flow fluidly from one movement to the next without having to alter the horse’s rhythm or frame.

We couldn’t practice with Chardy because something wasn’t right. We were all very worried. It seemed to be just a bit of tightness, so the chiropractor came out to confirm the observation. This meant that Julio would not be able to ride to the new music before
he showed it at the Pan Am Games. This was truly nerve-racking. Instead, we sat down with Julio to count through the entire test over and over again. Frank recorded another voiceover for Julio; this time in Spanish, so that Julio could have both English and Spanish versions to listen to. Julio said he was going to listen to it in the truck all the way up to Canada.

Chardy did the best all-around test of his life. In a field of international competitors, during the first year when the Pan Am Games were now brought up to Olympic standards, Julio ended up 17th in the freestyles. That was amazing!!!

Anky van Grunsven was, undoubtedly, the best at putting together winning freestyles. She once said that she would never show her freestyle until it had been practiced at least 200 times. In the grand scheme of things, that amounted to a year’s worth of work that she would tuck away under her belt before showing. We only had the opportunity to work with Julio a handful of times, and with a horse that was just coming into his own. The music and choreography were constantly changing to adjust to the developing horse, and all within time and space limitations. Despite it all, Julio and Chardy worked extremely hard, listened to our input and, in the end, rode a performance that was truly
the stuff of dreams.

What an awesome article and interview, it really shows the dedication and time commitment that goes into a freestyle of that level. I encourage you to connect with Equichord and the Mendozas on Facebook and visit their websites. The links are down below. Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment and/or question here on the blog or you can email me at beginthedance@gmail.com.

Equichord Music on Facebook
Equichord News on Facebook
Equichord Website
Mendoza Dressage on Facebook
Mendoza Dressage Website

Create Your Own First Level Musical Freestyle! Sample Videos of Good Choreography & Music Selection


If you are creating a first level musical freestyle, please check out my First Level eBook.  In the eBook, you will find choreography you can use and resources on where to find freestyle music. While I was creating the book, I watched a lot of First Level freestyle videos on YouTube. Below are some of my favorites with bulleted points detailing why.

Watch these videos to help inspire you with ideas for your freestyle!

Video #1: Recognizable Music Suitable To The Breed

The music in this freestyle matches the horse's physique and movements wonderfully.

  • Recognizable music (and same theme used throughout).
  • Choreography matches music.
  • Music accentuates horse's impressive movement and figure.

 Even though some soundtracks have been "over-used", that doesn't mean that you shouldn't go for it if you really love the music. I think James Bond would have chosen a Friesian, don't you?

Video #2: Music Expressing Rhythm and Tempo of Horse's Gaits

This freestyle demonstrates a seamless combination of choreography and music.

  • Choreography reflects changes in music.
  • Music matches tempo of horse's gaits.
  • Orchestral pieces match the regal air of the horse.
  • Cohesiveness to music and seamless editing.
  • Creative use of serpentine to demonstrate counter canter.
  • Balanced use of space and cohesive routine design.

Lovely freestyle!

Video #3: Ease of Accomplishing Patterns and Obvious Trust Between Horse and Rider

This pair demonstrates synchrony and confidence of horse and rider.

  • Music matches rhythm and tempo of horse's gait
  • Playful and pretty trot music gives indication of energy and emphasizes horse's character.
  • Coherent music theme.
  • Choreography of transitions matches changes in music.
  • Canter music is graceful and matches horse's physique.
  • Extended canter on the diagonal showcases higher difficulty, along with the counter-canter.

Beautiful pair!


Video #4: Use of Vocals Does Not Detract From Elegant Performance

This pair shows beautiful harmony and the music and choreography enhances the horse's punchy and handsome gaits and physique.

  • Use of vocals does not take away from elegance of test.
  • Music matches horse's rhythm and tempo of gaits and charming and handsome physique and coloring.
  • Transitions in music are obvious and match choreography.
  • Impressive leg yield!
  • Rider and horse performed in obvious harmony.

Nicely done!

If you would like to watch more videos, I have a special First Level Freestyle Playlist on my YouTube Channel.  Sign up for my free downloads to help you get started with your freestyle.

 Please leave a comment below or send any questions to beginthedance@gmail.com.

Have fun creating!