By Charity Lucente
The word “dressage” originates from the French word “dresseur,” which means to train. Dating back to 350 A.D., dressage finds its roots firmly planted in military soil. Creating a well-trained horse that was agile, quick and clever with footfalls provided the upper hand on the battlefield, when quite literal death hung in the balance. Today, dressage is an art form pursued fiercely for more sport-centric reasons, lending itself to the professional competitor and adult amateur alike.
One of the most thrilling parts of modern-day dressage is the musical freestyle program that draws an enthusiastic following. Dressage freestyles, comparable to freestyles in figure skating, join required movements into a test choreographed to music specifically chosen by the rider to have a specific emotion they wish to present to their judges and the public.
A former gymnastics coach specializing in musical editing makes Terry Gallo of Klassic Kur a bit of an unlikely suspect to be the frontrunner in choreographing dressage freestyle programs for the biggest names in the sport. With more than three decades of experience in the field, her portfolio includes Debbie McDonald, Adrienne Lyle, Steffen Peters, Laura Graves and more.
Gallo’s process of engineering a freestyle makes sure that it checks off all three of the key ingredients — tempo, suitability and rider preference.
“Creating a spectacular and custom program requires a great deal of input from the rider,” she said. “Ideally, I am onsite for the initial consultation, so I can watch the horse and rider move and interact, find out musical preferences and pinpoint the desired feeling that the rider wants to elicit from those watching. This initial process takes about two and a half hours, but that is just the tip of the iceberg!”
Gallo brings a library of music along to the consult to match the tempo of the music to the horse’s natural gait. “I don’t sit there in an ivory choreography tower and tell the rider what to do,” she said. “I listen to the rider closely and design the program to specifically fit the horse and rider pair. I want it to look as if the horse is dancing right along with the music and moving to the beat.”
The next step in completing the program is ensuring its suitability. “You want to match the expression of the horse with the musical selections,” Gallo explained. “If the horse is a big, bold mover, you need a big, bold piece to complement it.”
Lastly, and most importantly, the rider must like the musical selections.
“Some horse and rider pairs are more musical than others,” Gallo said. “They have to feel moved by the music as a team, so the judges believe the story they are telling. By editing the music around the choreography, you can shape the way the program is visually and audibly interpreted.”
The longest part of the process is choosing and then finding the music in Gallo’s extensive library.
“After those parts are completed, I send them a file with my voice over so they can see what I had in mind for interpretation of the piece,” she said. “The riders need to study it at length before they even try to ride it. In some cases, there may be minor adjustments to the program, but all totaled, I am usually in about 20 to 25 hours of work per piece. For a Grand Prix freestyle, the fee is approximately $5,000, and the pricing goes down as the levels go down. I have to pull and edit fewer pieces of music, as there are fewer of movements to choreograph.”
When it’s showtime, Gallo is often there to watch.
“I don’t get nervous watching the pieces I have created being ridden down centerline, as there is nothing I can do at that point, but I do recall holding my breath for entirely too long watching Debbie McDonald and Brentina in Las Vegas and Steffen Peters in Aachen.”
Talented Grand Prix competitor Sarah Lockman Tubman has worked with Gallo on creating a freestyle program.
“We work with Terry to help us come up with the choreography. My husband, Lee Tubman, is also a 4* FEI judge, so he has judged many Friday night freestyles. He knows what movements look good strung together and score well,” Tubman said. “We have to submit a ‘floor plan’ before we compete that tells the judges the order in which the movements are going to be performed. We get extra points for stringing harder movements together.”
A score for a freestyle’s “degree of difficulty” plays a large part in the final score, so that’s why it’s important to push the choreography to the limit, Tubman said.
One of the hardest parts of creating a freestyle program is picking the music.
“We may have our own ideas of what we might like for music, but sometimes the music we like won’t actually go with the horse,” Tubman said. “Terry Gallo, who has created countless Olympic freestyles, uses a metronome to pick the horse’s tempo, and then we pick a few songs that work. After that, we will ride the horse to the music. It’s funny, because honestly, sometimes the horse picks the music. You will turn on the song, and the horse seems to just start dancing!”
Each level of freestyle has a list of required movements to be performed. “Almost everything is from the International Grand Prix test, from simple things like 20 meters of collected walk and 20 meters of extended walk, to piaffe for 10 steps in a straight line,” Tubman said. “Working from the list of required movements, that’s where we decide how many movements we can string together in a way to increase the degree of difficulty but highlight our horse’s strengths.”
She likes to highlight her mount First Apple’s strengths during the performance. “Apple’s highlights are the passage and also his incredible flying changes that we show on a circle and on bending line,” Tubman said. “His ability to be elastic is unbelievable, so we show an extended canter into a double pirouette into one tempi changes on a bending line.”
As a professional trainer, she uses the musical freestyle for another reason that is far less obvious to spectators.
“We have used the freestyle and the ability to choreograph our own test to help build confidence in this young Grand Prix horse,” Tubman said. “We always notice that after a freestyle competition, he is more confident in the work not only at home, but also in the regular Grand Prix tests. He is a showman and loves the atmosphere and the lights and the crowd!”
While it is important to make it challenging, it’s equally important to get the ride right.
“We have to plan as difficult a freestyle as is possible that we know we can ride mistake-free,” Tubman said. “If it’s too difficult, and you make a lot of mistakes, then you will end up with a lower mark, and the horse will lack confidence. It’s better to ride it clean and on time with the music.”