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Everything you wanted to know about Dressage to Music

How to start? First, find out the rhythm that your horse walks, trots and canters to - in terms of beats per minute. How? Get hold of a modern quartz metronome (not one of the old mechanical tick-tock jobs). You can get them from music shops and some good sports shops as aerobics people use them. You can count paces over a set time against a stop watch, but it isn’t as accurate and the metronome comes in again when assessing music.

As a guide for, trot will be between 136 - 150bpm, canter 92 - 108bpm and walk 98 - 110bpm. The lower end applies to bigger moving horses and the upper end to those who don’t naturally have mega paces. Size is not a sure guideline, I had a 16.3 Danish Warmblood that scuttled along at 148/106/108 as he wasn’t blessed with the best paces in the world, but my current 16.2 Dutch Warmblood works at 138/98/103. I have also known ponies that had slower rhythms than horses.

Once you know what beat you are looking for in music, start listening to lots of it (haunt your local record library) and time it against the bmp you need. You’ll need tracks with a good, obvious beat - try and avoid “background” music as that can’t really be interpreted with any individuality. Listen to the bass beat that runs consistently under the music, not the twiddly bits on top (though they come in useful for interpretation). You can immediately discard most military music as the British Army marches to 120bpm which is useless for anything. A lot of pop/rock also comes in around that beat, though I have found a number of Orchestral arrangements of classic Rock tracks that work very well.

It is important that you like the music to which you are going to ride. Even if you find a track that fits perfectly, if you don’t like it, it won’t inspire you to ride to your best. A good selection of music will enhance the movements that you have to ride. As to type - try and avoid the more outlandish - judges are only human and can’t help being swayed if they feel that a piece of music is particularly grating to their ears. Instrumental tracks are by far the best - vocal music can be distracting and is particularly difficult to cut at an appropriate place when you are putting your tape together. Having said that - I did once use Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell - but that was for a costume class when I was dressed as a Hell’s Angel!

Having used your metronome to identify which tracks have the right beat, the next thing is to get a video of you riding your horse at all three paces and play the music against it. This is a very quick way of seeing if what fits in theory, actually works. You’ll discard some along the way and hopefully be left with a selection of tracks that you like and seem to fit your horse. Don’t make a final decision until you ride the music as, however well it may seem to match on video, it can feel different when you actually ride against it. You’ll know when you have it spot on as suddenly you will have an audible confirmation of the way your horse is moving underneath you. (If you have absolutely no sense of rhythm, don’t give up - just cajole a musically minded friend into helping!).

So - you’ve found three pieces of music that fit your horse. Hopefully they are all of a similar style. It can sound very disjointed if you trot to a Brass Band, walk to flute music and canter to a pop track! How do you put them together into a sequence?

First, check the required movements for the level at which you are riding. There is no official Prelim test, Novice requires a minimum of 20m free walk and 20m medium walk; a 15m circle in working trot on both reins and lengthened strides; 20m canter circles on both reins and halt salute at the beginning and end. You can use any movement included in Novice tests, but will be penalised 2 marks for any movements of an advanced standard. For example, you can show counter-canter on a straight line, but not going round a corner.

Elementary needs medium walk, working trot, collected trot including shoulder-in on both reins, medium trot, working canter, counter-canter on both reins, change of lead through trot both ways and medium canter. Again, all movements in Elementary tests can be used, but none above. Medium brings in half pass and you get to changes in Advanced Medium.

Novice and Elementary tests must take between 4 and 4½ minutes timed from the move off after the first halt to the final halt at the end. You will be penalised for going over or under. If you aim to have around 2 mins of trot, 1min 30 secs of canter and 45 secs of walk, that gives you time to do everything you need to do and gets you to 4mins 15 secs. So - find bits of your chosen tracks that fit roughly to those timescales. Listen for when the music comes to a “natural break” - it sounds dreadful if it suddenly cuts off in the middle of a phrase - particularly if it is well known music that your audience is mentally (or actually) humming along to. Pick parts of the music that allow you to interpret it though the movements. Music that rises to a crescendo is good for lengthened paces; canter music that is made up of a number of shorter phrases or sections makes it easier to find a place to ride your canter-trot-canter transitions. Use something dramatic for your entrance music so that people sit up and think “this sounds good”, but keep it down to around 15 seconds, otherwise the judge may start to get impatient. Don’t forget to give yourself 5 seconds or so to establish the halt and salute before moving off.

To put it together, you really need at least a tape machine which has a facility for fading out tracks as it makes things 200% easier. My tape deck has a recording balance knob which does this and was not hugely expensive. Trying to put tapes together without this is possible - but very difficult, time consuming and frustrating - believe me I know! I now do all the mixing on computer and output to CD, which is 100 times easier – don’t quite know how I managed before.

Once you’ve got your music all in a sequence, then is the time to work out your ground plan to incorporate the required movements and interpret those carefully chosen phrases. At Novice/Elementary you will be in a 20 x 40 arena, Medium upwards is in a 20 x 60 arena. You can save wearing out your horse by riding a variety of movements and timing how long they take. A bit of work with pencil and paper can give you a rough idea of where you are going before you get on. Once mounted, if you can’t get that long suffering friend to operate the tape machine for you, then use a Walkman - it makes it easier to go through particular sections. Have someone stand at C so that they can look at it from the judges eye. Is it obvious what you are doing and does the test look reasonably symmetrical?

Judges will smile favourably on you if you make it easy for them to mark the test by doing your left trot, followed by right trot, etc rather than mixing it all up. However, try not to simply copy an existing test as that won’t gain marks for originality. When they are marking the test, they will be looking firstly and mainly at the quality of the work, so don’t try to throw in a more difficult movement if your horse can’t do it reliably. It is better to do simple movements very well - making it all look easy, rather than more complex ones only satisfactorily. The finished product should look as if you and your horse are dancing along without a care in the world - just for the fun of it.

When you go to your competition, make sure that your tape is wound up to the very start of your music. That means that as soon as you give the operator the signal, your music will start and you’re not left waiting whilst the non-playing leader runs through. It helps it you always use a new tape and put the track right at the beginning. Write your name and your horse’s name on a label on the tape itself and on the plastic cover and also include instructions on when you want the music to be started - eg - “Please start when I signal from outside the arena” or, if you’re not using into music - “Please start when I salute at X”. Make your signal obvious - raise your hand high so the operator is in no doubt that that’s what you mean - you weren’t just scratching you nose!

So - that’s all there is to it! It does take a lot of effort but please don’t be put off - it is hugely rewarding to do and great fun.

This article is courtesy of Sara.
"Dressage to Music is my passion and I can bang on about it for hours. I’ve also prepared tapes right up to International Grand Prix (not for myself – Advanced Medium is as far as I’ve got), so do have practical experience of what I’m talking about."
If you would like to contact Sara, please visit and post a message marked "FAO Sara".

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