“Women dressing up in top hats and tails, riding horses and performing to music like equestrian Marlene Dietrichs? I can kind of get into that,” remarked my husband, when he first heard about dressage musical freestyle. He has heard much more about it than he might like, as I am a dressage rider and, since we moved here in 1986, Orange County has become a rocking dressage area. Although ten stables in Warwick alone are devoted almost exclusively to this sport, most locals, like most Americans, have never heard of dressage, much less seen it.
A form of equestrian ballet that originated at Versailles under Louis XIV and quickly went viral through the courts of Europe, dressage was one of the 27 sports included in the first modern Olympic Games, and is one of the few in which men and women compete equally. Though today’s enthusiasts are, jokingly, referred to as “dressage queens” (as befits the sport’s dominant gender), dressage is a demanding athletic pursuit requiring extreme flexibility, aerobic fitness, and mental focus on the part of both rider and horse. Precise balletic moves, such as flying leaps and pirouettes, are scored, like figure skating, on a scale of 1-10, with marks for both the technical and artistic performances. Like figure skating and ballet, dressage demands years of training.
The Orange County Dressage Association recently hosted a musical freestyle clinic in the horse ballet studio of Alexandra Tomson’s Hidden Charm Farm in Circleville. A group of twenty devotees assembled in this 20-foot-high indoor arena, a tad longer and narrower than half of a football field. Warmly wood-paneled and illuminated by sunlight from the massive, Palladian windows, it provided the sand-surfaced stage on which to create equestrian dances.
Calvados, a macho black Danish gelding, bounded across the horse arena, performing flying changes of stride on every third beat of a Scott Joplin tune under the invisible signals of his rider, Carol Seaman, owner of Outfoxed Farm in Chester. His forelock bounced raffishly to ragtime, and his rider grinned at moving in perfect harmony with her 1,200-pound partner. “Just remember, the music has to give you and the audience the shivers,” said veteran equine dance-mistress, Mary Harrison, who has been designing freestyles for decades. “Let’s have everyone in the audience be the judges. Thumbs up for music that makes you shiver!”
Kerry Rose, an amateur from Middletown, and her Dutch gelding, Otto, inspired group toe-tapping and head bobbing as they traipsed through trot zig-zags and serpentines to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. When “Do-Re-Mi” and “Edelweiss” perfectly matched the tempo of Otto’s canter and walk, helping to elevate his gaits, their ride was a wrap.
“You want all the music in the performance to go together so that the choreography can tell a story,” Ms. Harrison explained. “And, the music must have phrasing, so you can choreograph to it. When the horse looks like it’s really dancing, that’s when people get the goosebumps.”
Orange County’s most notable mounted goosebump raiser is Tom Noone, who uses Glenmere Dressage in Chester, owned by Simon and Shelley Welch, as his summer palace. Noone has trained numerous horses to the international level and has represented the USA at the Dressage World Cup to Music.
“Riding musical freestyle is a very uplifting and emotional way to connect with your horse and interpret music,” he said. “It is a unique opportunity for the horse and rider to express themselves artistically and truly dance as partners.”