Cees Slings: Is it Time for Freestyle 'Goal Line Technology'?

Mon, 04/08/2013 - 00:16

Our Guest Columnist of the week is Cees Slings, a Dutch director, composer, choreographer and freestyle producer, whose productions earned riders multiple Olympic gold medals and international kur victories. Besides designing freestyles, Slings and his team have developed a software program for objectifying freestyle judging, which is now the hottest topic of discussion at the 2013 FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne on 8 - 9 April 2013.

With his whole system ready to be put to the test at the upcoming Judging System Trials in Aachen, Slings hopes that the FEI will be as innovative and progressive in its decision-making for the development of dressage as international federations for sports such as tennis (Hawk Eye officiating system) and soccer (Goal Line Technology) have been.

Is it Time for Freestyle ‘Goal Line Technology’?

Next week may well herald an exciting new era in Dressage when the FEI undertakes a round table review of Freestyle to Music judging at its Sports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland on 8-9 April 2013.

Football fans among you will know that FIFA has finally given the go ahead for a full test of goal line technology at the Confederations Cup in Brazil in June and, if successful, the technology will be used at the World Cup next year. It’s refreshing to see FIFA, a body which has been roundly criticised on many fronts, conduct an in-depth analysis of the options available to improve the quality of its sport.

The FEI now has the opportunity to look for its own ‘goal line technology’ for the Freestyle event - the pinnacle of dressage sport. In other words, how can the Freestyle components be marked in a precise, objective and transparent way, for the good of the sport and everyone involved? Or as the FEI states in its published FEI Sports Forum Review document; “Objective: To further increase consistency and accuracy in the judging of Freestyle competitions which will benefit athletes, judges and the Dressage sport in general.”

Much has already been written on this subject, with the general consensus being that it is the marking system that is lacking, not the judges. Columnists David Stickland and Wayne Channon have previously commented on this. David concluded in a previous article that five artistic components are simply not enough, and some are particularly subjective and not precisely defined. In last week’s Horse & Hound magazine article ‘Kur scoring – time for a shake-up?’ by Margaret Benson, IDRC secretary-general Wayne Channon observed that “the more components in a system, the more flexible and the greater the granularity.”

So what exactly will the FEI discuss and decide in Lausanne, what improvements can be made, and what tools are available to aid the FEI both in its review and at the proposed test event to be held later this year in Aachen?

For those of you who do not know who I am, I must declare my interest at this point. My team and I have composed and arranged many, many freestyles (including choreography) over the past 18 years, and during this time we have developed software tools designed to address the very issues the FEI will discuss next week. We have also contributed with presentations at FEI recognised seminars and forums -- the IDOC assembly, international judges’ meetings and debates in the media -- and we are pleased to see many of these ideas reflected in the review.

But before we look at the review, let’s turn the whole discussion on its head and ask a simple but vitally important question: What is the purpose of the music in the Freestyle to Music?

Not only must the FEI decide the purpose of the music, but they must also decide what weighting the music should carry in the overall performance. Otherwise why does the FEI call it Freestyle to Music, we might just as well call it ‘Freestyle’, as in ice skating. Then at least we are being honest as to the importance of the music.

Currently the music only accounts for 10% of the marks, with 10% for choreography and 10% for degree of difficulty. So the artistic part of the performance is really only 30% of the marks and it’s little wonder the existing system is so unsatisfactory.

Some of you might remember the FEI’s dressage factsheet which used to be on its website. One of the most important quotes of this factsheet was (with bold text as per the original):
“Grand Prix Freestyle (Kür) is performed to the accompaniment of a musical score. Most of the marks, based on purity of action, rhythm and regularity, impulsion and collection, are for technical performance. This weighting is to preserve the classical principles of Dressage, according to which all movements are generated from the natural gaits of the horse. The harmony between the action of the horse and the rhythm of the music, the symmetry and logic of the choreography and the special transitions in music are also looked at. The music of a Freestyle test is not just a background: performing in synchronisation with the rhythm is the ultimate aim. Freestyle is the pinnacle of Dressage execution and when it works, the result is magic.

This says clearly that the music and choreography are important, but unless the FEI is prepared to significantly increase the weighting for the artistic marks, for example 25% for music and 25% for choreography, including degree of difficulty (leaving 50% for technical marks), then there is little point in undertaking a detailed review in the first place, let alone introducing complicated criteria, definitions and codes of points that affect only 30% of the total marks.

And regarding degree of difficulty, surely the artistry of suitable and supporting music along with imaginative and attractive choreography should carry more weight than degree of difficulty? We all know that what one horse finds easy another will find difficult, so degree of difficulty becomes a lottery whereas music and choreography require the horse and rider to be in harmony and to show symmetry. And if we order these components by degree of artistry, then music would come first, followed by choreography and then degree of difficulty.

So what is the purpose of the music? Is it background, is it atmosphere, or is meant to be something else? What about the choreography? And what does the expression artistic mean? How do we apply this to the Freestyle?

ar·tis·tic [ahr-tis-tik]

  • 1. conforming to the standards of art; satisfying aesthetic requirements: artistic productions.
  • 2. showing skill or excellence in execution: artistic workmanship.
  • 3. exhibiting taste, discriminating judgment, or sensitivity: an artistic arrangement of flowers; artistic handling of a delicate diplomatic situation.
  • 4. exhibiting an involvement in or appreciation of art, especially the fine arts: He had wide-ranging artistic interests.
  • 5. involving only aesthetic considerations, usually taken as excluding moral, practical, religious, political, or similar concerns: artistic principles.

I repeat - if the music, choreography and degree of difficulty are less than 50% of the total score it will be very difficult to make effective changes to the marking system. However, if the whole marking system can be redesigned to give proper weighting to the artistic components, ie 50% for horse and rider technical performance and 50% for the combination of music, choreography and degree of difficulty, then many things become possible. And this is as it should be, because we already have the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special which are focused on the horse / rider / technical skills.

So let’s look at the FEI review as follows:

1. Judging the degree of difficulty i) according to a defined catalogue of difficulties, ii) by asking riders to submit their Freestyle choreography (only diagrams, not video) to an appointed panel who will decide what their optimal mark for difficulty can be when they achieved a perfect test. In case of mistakes or errors, the judges only have to deduct from the optimal mark given by the experts (if execution is marked with less than 6, it is a minus)

Different horses find different things difficult so a harmonious and imaginative choreography should be just as important. Pre-submitting choreography diagrams is an excellent idea and  the already developed EQM-C(horeographer) software can objectively show and help measure the degree of difficulty. We hope to demonstrate this to the FEI as soon as possible. O-Judge Kathrina Wüst has also done a great deal of work on this as well as cataloguing certain movements and figures (see point 3). Pre-submission for analysis should also be applied to the music (point 2).

2. Judging the interpretation of music according to detailed criteria (following FEI consultation of music experts)

It is commendable that the FEI will consult experts, but the purpose of the music must be defined and the weighting in the overall marks decided before any detailed criteria. And who are the experts the FEI will consult? Have any standards been developed? Expertise in music for dressage is extremely specialised. We hope to contribute to this discussion by demonstrating the EQM-Music Data Analysis software.

The MDA form can score 12 to 15 objective elements in the music, all of which are relevant to a Freestyle production. Dozens of Freestyles have been analysed over the last five years and this analysis is done pre-performance in the same way as the choreography and degree of difficulty can be analysed.

3. Judging the choreography according to detailed criteria (following FEI consultation of choreography experts)

Once again, what weighting should this carry in the overall marks and what are the criteria? Expertise in choreography for dressage will only be found within the sport. It would also create interest to give names to certain movements and figures like in figure-skating and gymnastics (the triple Axel, the Yurchenko), based on the names of the first performers and inventors. We have started to do this with, for example, the “Nathhorst / Vilhelmson Fishbone”: a series of half pass canter or trot, followed by a half volte, and returning in the same direction with a series of half pass trot or canter. We hope to take part in this discussion and demonstrate the EQM-C(horeographer) software as referred to in point 1.

4. Judging in pairs of 2 so that one judge awards the technical marks and the other judge the artistic marks

This may work if the marking system is completely rewritten. Judges would then need to be trained for the relevant tasks. The FEI tested this method at the 2009 Judging System Trials in Aachen but the judges were not able to give positive feedback. Those who were only giving artistic marks still had to assess the technical part in order to give fair and correct artistic marks.

5. Taking the marks for “rhythm, energy and elasticity” as well as “harmony between rider and horse” over to the technical side

This is necessary in order to increase the weighting of the artistic marks. On a separate note the word rhythm has an ambiguous use in Freestyle dressage, as do many other ‘musical’ expressions. An update of horse-technical and musical expressions is needed. Rhythm in music is totally different from rhythm in the bio-mechanics of a horse.

6. Splitting “music and interpretation of the music” into two marks for i) Suitability of the music to the horse and ii) Interpretation of the music

Suitability and interpretation of music are the two categories in freestyle judging which cause the biggest problems within freestyle judging nowadays. They have led to the biggest discrepancies amongst judges because these are totally subjective criteria. The MDA will check, for instance, whether the tempo of the music fits with the tempo of the horse, whether transitions in gaits/movements are supported by music (no matter what style of music is being used (house, classical, pop, retro), whether there are recurring themes, whether the music is broadcast quality or not, etc.

7. Using smaller decimal points in the artistic part for more precision (currently only .5 possible)

This is not an urgent issue at this stage, but desirable as the sport grows more competitive and cutting-edge each year.

8. Giving the JSP the opportunity to change marks in the Freestyle (procedural feasibility has to be checked with IT providers)

I agree with David Stickland that because the artistic marks are so imprecise and not defined there is little the JSP can do to improve the situation as it is now.

9. Merging “Choreography. Use of arena. Inventiveness” with “Music and interpretation of the music” so that there is only 1 mark for both

This would be very counterproductive as it is reducing the criteria and flexibility of the artistic marking and not improving it. These are all subjective criteria that should be measured with suitable tools.

10. Splitting some technical marks in order to have more of them (the more items, the more precise the final result)

As previously discussed it is the artistic marks that need more criteria and precision, not the existing technical marks.

These are our opinions from our many years of experience and we may have raised more questions than we have answered. We hope these ideas help fulfill the objective stated by the FEI in their review document. We will closely follow the outcome of the Sports Forum and if anyone is interested in our expertise, feel free to contact us!

-- Text by Cees Slings (SMC director, composer, choreographer and producer) and Jayne Caudle (SMC Press editor)

Cees Slings is a renowned Dutch composer, arranger and producer who has written pop music hits and TV music, as well as producing bands. He was responsible for all of Anky van Grunsven’s Freestyles between 1995 and 2005, including the famous Bonfire Symphony (1996 Olympic silver), Something Old, Something New (2000 Olympic gold) and L’Esprit Chanson (2004 Olympic gold). He has now created freestyles for many other top riders including Laura Bechtolsheimer (UK), Matthias Rath (GER), Sanneke Rothenberger (GER), Victoria Max-Theurer (AUS), Evi Strasser (CAN), Tinne Vilhelmson Silfvén (SWE), Cathrine Rasmussen (NOR), Nathalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (DEN), Victor Alvarez (ESP) and Beatriz Ferrer-Salat (ESP). In 2006 Cees Slings started a new concept: Slings Music Cast, a collective of composers, arrangers and musicians led by Slings and focused on production in new creative era in horse sport; music productions and choreography’s for freestyles, ceremonial leaders and fanfare's, promotional video-clips, website formats, scripts & design, and software development. Slings has a state of art studio attached to his house in Leersum (Holland) where he lives with his partner Mirjam Madiol. They have a daughter, Vera Anna Madiol Slings