How a Composer Puts a Horse's Movements to Music For the Tokyo Olympics

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Britain's Tom McEwen riding Toledo de Kerser in the individual dressage competition at the Tokyo Olympics, July 31, 2021.
Britain's Tom McEwen riding Toledo de Kerser in the individual dressage competition at the Tokyo Olympics, July 31, 2021.  (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP) (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images)

TOKYO — In equestrian dressage, horses maneuver through complicated, dance-like choreography. The animals pirouette, step high, extend their legs long, and side step to music, signaled by an expert rider.

Olympic teams are turning to special composers to put together music tailored to highlight the best qualities of the horse and the routine.

"The music side of it really brought our sport to life," said Winnie Murphy, a spokesperson for British Equestrian. That's particularly true for spectators who aren't already attuned to the highly technical aspects of equestrian.

The Grand Prix Freestyle event, where riders can choose their own music and moves rather than go through a pre-set test, is the blockbuster event of Olympic dressage.

Horses move to electronic music, disco and classical

On a hot night last week, a huge range of tunes blasted through the nearly empty arena.


U.S. rider Steffen Peters rode Suppenkasper, nicknamed Mopsi, to a bumping electronic mix. That earned him the nickname "rave horse." Germany's Isabell Werth looked to the majesty of Beethoven's Ode to Joy for her performance.

Norway's Carina Cassoe Kruth went for an 80s medley including "I Want To Know What Love Is" by Foreigner and "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins.

Kruth said she wanted to bring out her girly and fun qualities of her horse, nicknamed "Dancer," and get the judges to tap their toes to the beat. "It's fun to ride, and yeah, I'm actually singing a bit along in my head when I ride it."

The U.K.'s Carl Hester rode his horse, En Vogue, to groovy disco music that channeled the Bee Gees.

"That's a funky beat," Hester said of the composition. "He's got such a good rhythm himself"

"I didn't want any background stuff. I wanted a beat that I could really ride to because he's so powerful," he added. "I loved all of that music, actually. I thought it was really, really suited to him."

A composer matches a horse's routine and personality to music

Tom Hunt, who composes the music for the U.K. team, is in charge of making sure the tunes suit the horses. He wrote that funky beat that Hester rode to.

Hunt said that years ago, music used to be more of an afterthought in dressage. "In some cases that I used to listen to, the music would just stop and something else would kick in."

Now, it's highly customized and carefully thought out.

The riders figure out what moves they'll do—and then Hunt will put together a composition to fit.

"The music is orchestrated and produced specifically to the transitions that the horse is doing and the tempos that the horse has," he said. "Every horse has highlights that the rider wants to show off, and you can use the music to really enforce that. So if you have a really good extended trot, you want the extended trot music to really kick in and emphasize what's going on."

There are also things he tries to avoid—like putting really powerful music with a small, delicate horse. "It would overpower the movement of the horse," he explained.

The music is especially important because it goes into a rider's artistic score at the freestyle event.

Besides Hester, Hunt composed for U.K. riders Charlotte Fry (upbeat, and inspired by tropical dance music) and Charlotte Dujardin (orchestral, fun and emotive). Dujardin took the bronze medal in individual dressage in Tokyo.

The range of acceptable music is expanding

Hunt said that dressage riders have traditionally gravitated to classical and orchestral music—but that's changing.

"I think there's no question that the music that was probably preferred or considered to be dressage music has definitely evolved in the last 10, 11 years," Hunt said. "We're doing tropical house music and disco and all these different styles of music."

Music is also becoming more tailored in other dressage competitions. For the first time at the Olympics, riders could also choose their own music during the Grand Prix Special, where all athletes go through the same movements.

Riders want to push the limits of what is accepted in their sport, Hunt said—and "the sport has had to adapt to modern times."

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