The Art of Freestyle Dancing with Horses

Explore the art of freestyle reining, dressage and liberty with world-class riders in Horse Week feature “Art of Dance” presented by Boehringer Ingelheim.

In the arena, freestyle routines combine a mixture of maneuvers, movements, costumes and music to create a new form of art. Through freestyle, riders engage their equine partners in new ways, perfecting their training while connecting and building unbreakable trust. Not limited to one discipline, freestyle routines can be found in both the English (dressage) and Western (reining) disciplines as well as in liberty competitions.  

Often compared to a figure skater’s performance, freestyle reining combines the athletics and finesse of reining maneuvers with music. Horses and riders often wear costumes and may include props and actors in their performances. 

“I hear music and I picture a reining pattern,” says elite freestyle reining competitor Sharee Schwartzenberger. 

Amongst many other accomplishments, Schwartzenberger has been Reserve Champion in the Dodge Invitational Freestyle for the last four years. Often competing bridleless, she knows that, more importantly than the costume, music or routine, it takes an incredible amount of trust to be successful in freestyle reining. 

“I know him (Schwartzenberger’s horse, Eli) probably better than I know myself,” says Schwartzenberger. “I know all his ins and outs, when he’s having a good day and when he’s having a bad day. He trusts me. He knows I’m not going to put him in a position where he’s going to get hurt or be in danger. There has to be a lot of trust for that, especially when it comes to the bridleless. I have to trust the horse pretty well.” 

Similar to freestyle reining, dressage freestyles incorporate compulsory dressage movements into a test choreographed to music chosen by the rider.  

“What appears in the end is a totally synchronized dance between rider and horse,” explains U.S. Dressage Team Technical Advisor Robert Dover. “These tests are exciting for the public to watch because they often feature popular music and invite the spectator on a ride for six minutes into a fantasy that the rider is trying to express.”   

Olympic silver-medalist Sabine Shut-Kery is an elite dressage rider and freestyle artist. In 2018, she earned a spot representing the U.S. at the Nations Cup, where Team USA won the team gold and swept the podium in the Grand Prix Freestyle. In her riding, Shut-Kery emphasizes the importance of partnership between horse and rider. 

“It’s very prestigious to ride grand prix —it’s the highest level — but to me it’s about what it feels like when you ride,” says Shut-Kery. “To me there is no better feeling than to ride for a really high score because it represents the lightness, suppleness and the partnership you have with your horse. That’s what I’m fascinated with, not necessarily the higher the level, but how the horses goes.”  

Shut-Kery also notes the role the music can play in the success of her freestyle ride, often picking music from movies because it’s packed with emotion. Then, she carefully pairs the correct music with the horse’s movement and personality.  

“I want to get points for where people get goosebumps,” says Shut-Kery. “I want the music to enhance or carry with the horse’s movement.” 

Founder of the International Liberty Horse Association (ILHA) Dan James has been giving liberty horse fans goosebumps without putting a foot in a stirrup. His liberty horse exhibitions, demonstrations and training show the incredible amount of horsemanship and creativity that comes with the discipline.  

For decades, liberty methods and techniques have been a practiced by top horsemen and women worldwide across cultures and countries.  From circuses to shows, movies to colt starting, liberty is renowned for showcasing the extraordinary physical and mental abilities of horses to connect with humans and work without any tack or equipment. 

Since its founding in 2019, the ILHA has united liberty trainers and exhibitors globally, recognized liberty as its own discipline and showcased different levels and styles of liberty training. 

“(ILHA) doesn’t just grow the sport or help you win the next thing, it betters your connection with your horse because of the competition element,” says James. 

Three distinct disciplines, three different expressions of creativity, however at their core, each discipline centers around a partnership based on trust between horse and rider. What may have started out as training for a competition has definitely grown into much more for these three riders and their horses.  

Watch “Art of Dance” presented by Boehringer Ingelheim during Horse Week November 5-11 to explore freestyle reining, dressage and liberty.  

This article and Horse Week feature video are brought to you by Boehringer Ingelheim.

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