How Do You Win the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final?

FEI Dressage World Cup Final 2024 in Riyadh. Photo by FEI/ Leanjo de Koster

Edited Press Release

“Every good Freestyle must start with a wow effect.” The FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final begins in Riyadh in just a few days. International five-star judge Katrina Wüst is regarded as an absolute Freestyle specialist. Wüst has analysed numerous Freestyles, holds advanced training courses for judges on the subject of Freestyle and has herself sat at the judges’ table five times at a FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final. And it was she who, together with IT expert Daniel Göhlen, developed the system for recording the degree of difficulty (DoD) of a Freestyle.

What is important for a world-class Freestyle? What does the Freestyle have to look like if you want to become a FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final winner?

Answers from Katrina Wüst:

What is the most important thing for you when judging a Freestyle at a FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final?
Katrina Wüst: The most important thing in general when judging – from the lowest class right up to the World Cup Freestyle – is that horses and riders act in great harmony. You have to have the feeling that the horses are happy to do their ‘job’.
Let’s start with the basis of Freestyle judging. What does this basis look like?
Katrina Wüst: Every Freestyle is judged with a technical and an artistic mark. In the technical mark, the Freestyle is judged movement by movement, but at the same time the judge has to think about the artistic quality of the Freestyle. He expresses his judgement in the artistic mark, consisting of five partial marks: Rhythm, Energy and Elasticity, Harmony between Rider and Horse, Choreography, Degree of Difficulty and Music.

The first two components, Rhythm and Harmony, more or less reflect how the individual lessons were graded as such. This means that the artistic mark is not a purely artistic mark, but is still 40 percent technical, with the first sub-mark for rhythm, energy and elasticity, being a little on the outside: here the purity of the gaits and impulsion are assessed, and it is more or less about the quality of the horse. If a horse with outstanding gaits shows a very faulty Freestyle, it must still receive a good mark for its quality here. And vice versa, a less talented horse can score successfully with a difficult and successful Freestyle.

For me, the harmony mark is a key mark in the assessment of the Freestyle. It reflects 1. the horse’s training in accordance with the classic training scale, 2. the absence of faults in the presentation and 3. the rider’s influence. If a horse makes a lot of mistakes in its Freestyle, then the choreography is usually wrong. In addition, the level of difficulty was too high and then the music often no longer fits. As a result, this score also influences the three artistic scores that follow.

What exactly are the three artistic scores about?
Katrina Wüst: Firstly, the choreography, which is a purely artistic score. However, artistic does not mean that it depends on the judge’s personal taste. Rather, it depends on whether the rider presents his horse in a particularly favourable way, i.e. can he emphasise his horse’s highlights and conceal any weaknesses? This shows the extent to which the rider has analysed his horse honestly and is able to assess his own ability and that of his horse. An example: If a horse tends to be particularly warped to one side in the half pass, then it may be skilful to show the half pass from behind.

But there’s more: does the rider start the Freestyle with a wow effect so that judges and spectators are impressed from the start? Is there another highlight at the end? In terms of dramaturgy, Freestyles can be compared to a theatre play or a good book. If a book starts out boring, you don’t want to continue reading it. It’s the same with a Freestyle; it has to start off with a bang. We judges look to see whether the Freestyle has a positive arc of suspense, but also whether it convinces us with creativity or whether everything is just shown along the familiar lines of the standard tasks. Spaniards, for example, often show a combination of canter half pass, piaffe and back into the canter half pass to the other side – that is unexpected and exciting.

Let’s move on to the fourth point, the Degree of Difficulty – it’s hard to describe it as purely artistic, isn’t it?
Katrina Wüst: No, that’s right, it’s a semi-technical mark, which is why we were able to develop the system a few years ago, which measures the Degree of Difficulty, or DoD for short. The DoD is clearly dependent on the quality of the execution. If a rider shows a difficult movement and it does not work for at least a score of 7, then the judge cannot and should not include this lesson positively in the DoD score.

What all counts as a difficult movement?
Katrina Wüst: There are actually only three movements: the piaffe-pirouette, the passage-half pass and the double pirouette. In addition, there are 2. difficult transitions, such as from the halt into the passage, and 3. difficult combinations such as canter half pass, pirouette and from there into the canter changes. 4. some movements are shown on difficult lines, such as canter changes on the circle line, and 5. finally, repetitions are also included. This does not mean that the rider has to repeat all the movements, but the core movements such as piaffe, passage and transitions should be included.

The fifth note is still missing, the music…
Katrina Wüst: With the evaluation of the music, we are again looking at a purely artistic score. But not as subjective as some people think. Under no circumstances should the judge base their judgement on their own taste; there are also criteria for assessing the music: Does it suit the horse’s gaits and is the athlete riding exactly to the music or is he slightly ahead or behind the music? These are the basic requirements. If you want to go into the higher note range, it can be effective if individual movements are also skilfully accompanied by music, the pirouette with bells ringing, for example. It is nice if the music matches the charisma of the rider and horse, for example if there is a recognisable connection to the horse’s name, country or similar. Think of Nadine Capellmann, who rode her Elvis to Elvis music. Or the Spanish riders to castanets. But actually, the most important thing is that the music creates emotions and makes the Freestyle a unique experience for the spectators … and judges.

What would you say: Is Freestyle judging, especially at a very high level, more difficult than judging a fixed task?
Katrina Wüst: Freestyle judging is always difficult. It has become much easier thanks to the system for calculating the Degree of Difficulty. Since then, the riders submit a floor plan and you already have everything the rider wants to show in front of you. This is fair to the riders because the floor plan reflects their ideas and hidden difficulties, some of which would otherwise certainly not be recognised in their entirety.

One final question: The FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final is being held in Saudi Arabia for the first time, what do you think about that?
Katrina Wüst: One of the oldest horse breeds in the world, the Arabians, originate from the Arabian Peninsula. So far, Dressage has not played a major role there, but Saudi Arabia is a country that is also developing rapidly in terms of sport and has the necessary resources to organise a great FEI World Cup™ Final. That’s why I see it as a great opportunity for dressage in this region.