Para riders prepare to strut their freestyle stuff at Tokyo 2020

Sanne Voets of The Netherlands on Demantur N.O.P. at the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
Sanne Voets pictured on Demantur at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games. © Sportfot

Para Dressage riders will be pulling out all the stops to impress the judges in their final event of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, the Individual Freestyle Tests to music.

The test is the final event for the para equestrians, and riders from all five Grades will take to the Baji Koen Equestrian Park arena on Monday, August 30.

While dressage is considered the most artistic of the equestrian sports, it is in the freestyle tests, which are specially choreographed for each horse and performed to music, that the horse and athlete have a real opportunity to come into their own.

No one knows this better than Dutch rider Sanne Voets, who won individual gold in Tokyo last week.

She is not afraid to make a statement with her original freestyle choreographies or her unconventional choice of music. Before the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, Voets worked with critically acclaimed Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren for a chance to perform to his song This is What it Feels Like. Together with her horse Demantur, Voets brought home the only equestrian gold for the Netherlands.

“It all starts with your choreography. And the first ingredient of good choreography is to know your horse very well, to know what your strong exercises are and what you are good at. Top sport is all about standing out and having the audacity to show the world what you’ve got,” Voets said. “The freestyle gives equestrian Dressage and Para Dressage athletes that opportunity.

“When the horse, rider and music all come together in a perfect fit, that’s when the magic happens.”

The 33-year-old will again ride Demantur — known as Demmi — and has a new freestyle routine, developed in collaboration with top Dutch freestyle producer Joost Peters, and one of the Netherlands’ most popular bands, Haevn. Founded in 2015 by singer-songwriter Marijn van der Meer and film soundtrack composer Jorrit Kleijnen, Haevn’s music has a unique sound that Voets believes will allow her to make her mark.

“Haevn compose cinematic music that has a distinctive sound with their piano, string and electronic sounds. The singer Marijn has a clear and warm voice and this really makes the sound of the band unique. I first heard them when I was in my car and the lyrics touched me deeply,” Voets said.

“I heard someone say a few years ago that a good freestyle is like a movie. It should tell a story. It should tell your story. And that is what this Haevn-freestyle really does.”

Singapore rider Laurentia Tan will wear a special backpack so she can feel the music for her freestyle test at Tokyo 2020.
Singapore rider Laurentia Tan will wear a special backpack so she can feel the music for her freestyle test at Tokyo 2020. © FEI/Liz Gregg

Voets, who was born with a condition that weakens her legs and affects her other joints, holds team, individual and freestyle gold medals at European and World level. She won gold in the Grade IV Individual Freestyle on the opening day of the Para Equestrian events, and is hoping to achieve a ‘triple-triple’ of golds in Tokyo.

Composer helps rider to “feel” the music

If there’s anyone who knows how to find that perfect fit and bring music, athlete and horse together into a breathtaking freestyle routine, it is British composer and producer Tom Hunt.

Based in London, Hunt is the man behind Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester’s freestyle music, and composed the music for Dujardin’s bronze medal freestyle at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He also worked with Great Britain’s Natasha Baker and Singapore’s Laurentia Tan on their routines for the Tokyo Paralympics.

“Usually the process begins with a discussion with the athlete where we talk about the Freestyle and about preferences they might have,” Hunt said.

“If the athlete is passionate about creating a really good Freestyle, then that feeds into how I work with them. Some athletes are very hands-on at every stage and are really passionate about getting every detail absolutely perfect.

“Before I even begin creating the demo, I need to see how big the horse is, what its paces are like and how expressive it is. Then I look at the floor plan and how it has been crafted, so I can emphasise the strengths of the horse and have the music highlight those sections of the choreography. It is important to build on the dynamics of the music in order to really show off the horse’s paces.

“When creating freestyle music it is important to figure out how to fit the music to what the athlete aims to do and the story they want to tell, and to make the style work for them and the horse.”

However, when composing the music for Laurentia Tan, Hunt has had to take into account input from a number of different people. Tan, who is currently ranked No.4 in the world for her grade in Para Dressage, is profoundly deaf.

“With Laurentia we’ve been working, not just with a whole team of people who tell her what the music sounds like, but also with technology so she can feel the music,” Hunt said.

“The Subpac is a piece of technology that she wears like a backpack and it feedbacks all the low frequencies of the music so she can feel its pull when she’s riding. The creation of Laurentia’s Freestyle music for Tokyo has been a longer processes than others, and not something we could have done quickly. So it has been good to have had the time to work with her over the past year.”

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