Teamwork Choreography with Marlene Whitaker for Shelly Francis’ Grand Prix Musical Freestyles

Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage - Saturday, November 21, 2015

Marlene Whitaker helps Shelly Francis and Patricia Stempel prepare their Musical Freestyle with Danilo Photo: Betsy LaBelle

For the last three years, freestyle scores have been climbing for Shelly Francis in the international arena on Patricia Stempel’s geldings, 12-year-old Doktor and this year with 11-year-old Danilo. This past summer in Europe’s Grand Prix Freestyle competitions, Shelly scored 75.350% in Aachen with Doktor and 74.100% in Rotterdam with Danilo. “Quite a lot of thought goes into the best way to help these two horses grow as athletes for a long career on the world stage,” explains Shelly. “It takes a team.”

Shelly’s choreography “team” includes Shelly herself, the horse’s owner Patricia Stempel and choreographer Marlene Whitaker, creator of many dressage freestyles for the Olympics, World Cup, Pan Am Games, WEG, Asian Games and NJYRC. Marlene, the rider, coach, and owner take a look at judges’ collective feedback and work together to try and maximize a horse’s scores through their musical freestyle program.

The team evaluates the degree of freestyle difficulty a horse can handle. Ideas are then thrown around. It's important to ensure that both rider and horse feel confident through every move. Marlene describes, “We’ll discuss current trends, music and the strengths or weaknesses of a particular horse and how the horse will develop over time because ultimately the horse, the real dancer, will bring out the best in the music.”

Marlene customizes the music so you, ‘hear what you see and see what you hear.’ She wants riders to have their own signature piece they can use over time. The horse will evolves through proper training and strength making that particular music to require striding adjustments that reflect the development. “A horse will develop muscular strength over time and the audience appreciates the progress. There will be tempo changes made to the music as the horse grows stronger. You put together what you think will work and then improve it.”

Marlene uses a metronome as part of each training session she does with the horse and rider. She will document the numbers as the horse develops more elevation, more power and more collection. “It’s really fun to see the metronome numbers change as the horse develops more elevation, more strength and more collection. That same horse over time will change a significant amount in their tempo, especially in the piaffe and passage. Shelly’s horses really have developed.”

Choreographing with Shelly Francis and 12-Year-Old Doktor

“It was only three years ago that Shelly and Doktor began performing freestyle in the evenings under the lights,” reveals Whitaker. “Since Doktor was relatively young and inexperienced, Shelly decided to do her walk right after the initial halt with the idea that he would enter more calmly on the freestyle evenings. She then picked up the canter and did her one-tempi changes down the quarter line. It was the premise, which worked at home, but didn’t work ‘under the lights’ as we had hoped. We listened to the horse and made some adjustments. It's one perfect example on how a musical kur evolves. The walk was moved to the middle section to give him a break and we were able to use his early exuberance to strike off from the halt and instead of the walk start with passage.”Shelly Francis and Patricia Stempel's Doktor at Aachen Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Marlene continues, “Shelly loves, ’The Man from Snowy River,’ so we used that music the first year of Grand Prix for Doktor. However, with time, training and strength, Doktor’s young juvenile body developed into a powerhouse and he overpowered the music.” 

“One day during that second year in 2014,” Marlene says, “when Shelly was training Doktor at home, I tried out some new music ideas for them. I picked one particular song and Doktor grew in volume in his motion. It was a look we liked, and the inspiration for ‘Big!’ His musical freestyle now is an orchestration from Fleetwood Mac with a bit of punch. The choreography is some of the most challenging you'll see in competition and Doktor handles it beautifully.”

She describes Doktor’s riding fluidity, “It has been so much fun to watch them develop, to see Doktor’s body change. Shelly makes him look so rideable." She continues, "I’m used to big horses with big slow gaits (big metronome numbers) in the passage, but Doktor not being so big, also has low numbers. In fact, he has the lowest passage tempo numbers of any horse I’ve metronomed in 25 years. That strength he’s developing is an amazing ability,” she says proudly. “And, his choreography is quite difficult. It’s as tough as anyone’s out there and Shelly pulls it off. With a 75% as her average score this year, it’s just what you want to see in a horse’s international high performance development—the scores just keep climbing and climbing.”

Choreographing with Shelly Francis and 11-Year-Old Danilo

“Danilo,” says Marlene, “is equally as talented as Doktor, but a different type with different strengths and weaknesses. Shelly waited one extra year to compete ‘Dani’ on the international stage, opting to show as a non-competing horse to guarantee him time to build confidence in the show environment. She realized that when others were riding their freestyles and the music came over the loudspeaker, it would really scare him. She understood that he may be a sound sensitive horse, so she held him back just to make sure he could maintain his relaxation level.” Shelly Francis rides Patricia Stempel's Danilo Photo: Betsy LaBelle

Mindful of Danilo’s lightness and potential sound sensitivity, Marlene brought acapella music tempoed to Dani’s gaits during a training day, “I was aware that no other rider had presented this kind of music before. It was a fresh sound that didn’t overwhelm him and Shelly, Pat and of course, Dani loved it.”

In 2014, they only performed the freestyle at home, “It gave us a whole year to grow. We developed the trot half-pass, which is challenging in all freestyles. I tempoed the music for the trot half-pass footfall by footfall and the first year it was great. But, as expected, the second year he’d improved so much that we had to let the music grow. It was good to retempo the half-passes to a new cadence and even better to remove time from the pirouettes because he was able to keep his hind feet on a dinner plate. Also, the canter extension music had to slow down to allow for a more uphill carriage. As the metronome numbers changed, so did the music. The metronome shows the true development of the horse.”

At the 2015 winter season Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Shelly and Danilo competed under the lights for the first time. His relative inexperience in that venue caused some unfortunate mistakes and the total score was not as high as hoped, yet Robert Dover texted Marlene as Shelly and Dani exited the arena. “Robert said that the performance was a masterpiece and that made me feel good. I like to maintain a low profile, but I appreciated the pat on the back. It’ll be fun to watch the pair continue their journey to be the best. The future looks bright for Shelly and Dani. This summer in Europe, they already scored in the mid-70s.”

Danilo received 74.100% in the Grand Prix Freestyle in the June 18-21 Rotterdam CDI 3* and 73.850% in the Grand Prix Freestyle in the Hagen CDI 4*.

About Marlene Whitaker

Marlene, a retired first grade school teacher, lives in Ashville, North Carolina with her husband. She is also the primary caregiver to her 97-year-old mother. With children and five grandsons living nearby, it is never dull or quiet. Her life and home have always been filled with music, herself on the piano, her daughter on the flute and her son on the trumpet. Marlene and daughter took their act on the road, “Until my daughter left for college, we were a traveling mother and daughter Ferrante and Teicher.” But, when both children left home, the music moved into different areas.Marlene Whitaker at work with Shelly Francis on a Musical Freestyle Photo: Betsy LaBelle

In 1991, after competing mostly hunter-jumpers for 24 years, her husband requested she finally stop jumping. So, Marlene combined her love of music, equestrian knowledge about a horse’s biomechanics and turned to developing dressage musical freestyles. With an instinctive understanding of this particular competitive equestrian sport and mentoring from Jessica Ransehousen, Marlene soon opened her own dressage freestyle choreography business where her skills intuitively continued to evolve. In 1994, she was the recipient of a USDF Horse of the Year Award for Musical Freestyle. 

She has taught freestyle clinics and symposiums, recorded the first USDF “L” Education Program teaching video on music and served on the USDF Freestyle Committee, “I’ve been a solid link in the chain and still work diligently with every bit of passion intact. I work for ‘more and better,’ like every good dressage rider!’”

Humble at her accomplishments, she prefers maintaining a low profile and does not advertise. She remains busy with about 20 actively competing musical freestyle kurs at any given time. “My job is to create a program the rider is confident and proud to present regardless of any external variables. When you really believe you can do your best, you can be happy with the outcome.”

She admits, “I think that in many ways I’ve never stopped being that first grade school teacher. I follow my clients through their careers with great interest. They make me happy.”

Shelly Francis competes Patricia Stempel's Danilo in Rotterdam 2015 Photo: Shannon Brinkman