Lights, camera… freestyle! Alfred University’s freestyle reining night is a big hit each December and this year was no exception. Kristen Kovatch explains the concept and gives some tips for choreographing one yourself.
We count down to it every year, the students getting excited earlier and earlier, ideas getting tossed around in September even though it won’t happen until December. As far as my limited knowledge is aware, we’re the only university that does it. It’s one of our best-attended, most talked-about, videoed and photographed events of the year. It’s the one and only freestyle reining night.
Think of the excitement of reining itself: slow and fast circles, flying changes, spins, rollbacks and those big dirt-kicking sliding stops. The audience at a reining really gets into it, whistling and cheering and clapping when the horse and rider execute a really good maneuver. Now think of a well-choreographed concert, the audience singing along with every word, clapping or dancing. Combine those two ideas, add costumes and horses, and you’ve got a freestyle reining.
There are a few key concepts to keep in mind as you watch a freestyle, or better yet, try choreographing one for yourself.
We’re lucky enough at Alfred to have a stable full of pretty decent reining horses. Obviously there is a lot of “wow factor” with the crowd if your horse can really get his butt in the ground and slide or spin around like a top. No matter how naturally talented and well-broke your horses are, however, they’re going to learn a pattern and a song really quickly. Most of the students responsible for putting on our freestyle show only practiced their full patterns once or twice, and the horses still got to knowing the music.
Typically, everyone thinks country when they think of western riding. However, out of seven performers in our show on Sunday, only two of us used “country” music, bordering into pop territory. Our set list also included “Pretty Fly For a White Guy,” “Barbie Girl,” something really loud and rocking by KISS and some sort of blended genre called “hick hop” that involved a lot of growling bass. Closing out the night was a bridle-less and bareback pattern to Bon Jovi—always a classic.
The best patterns match the maneuvers to the song—last year I came up with the “cheater’s formula” that works well when set to almost any modern song with two verses, a chorus and a bridge (circles, stops, circles, stops, spins, lead changes and another stop to finish.) The audience can anticipate a big move coming up and the excitement builds.
Costumes and Props
Here you can really go nuts. Anything goes—you can even have dancers on foot, and they can be in costume. One of my students covered her horse in mud, camo, cardboard tires and working headlights and brakelights; he transformed from Frank the horse to Frankenstein the monster truck. Another student spent hours painting her horse, as well as her own face, turning them both into pretty legitimate members of KISS. I danced out with five other women during “Pretty Fly For a White Guy” and grooved around the middle of the arena as another student spun his horse in the middle covered in gold chains.
Bringing It All Together
So how DOES it all come together? As the opening act for the freestyle, I knew I had to have a pretty exciting ride planned—it was going to be my job to get the crowd fired up for the student riders. I spent the week loping my horse, a very talented school-owned gelding named Kiddo, feeling out his capabilities, where I could push it, where I needed to hold back. I chose a song—Miranda Lambert’s “Fastest Girl in Town,” offering plenty of places to kick it into gear— and I picked attire that matched the theme—a little white T-shirt, big ol’ hoop earrings, cherry-red lipstick I applied hurriedly in the barn aisle in the reflection of my aviators. It was showtime.
Here is the finished product.
Go ride a reiner.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian, Take the Reins, and most recently Ranch & Reata.