Horse Activities: Eventing

Often referred to as an “equestrian triathlon,” three-day eventing (or horse trials) is a competitive sport with roots in a traditional cavalry test. This test was designed to gauge not only a rider’s mastery of three English riding disciplines, but his horse’s versatility, athleticism and fitness.

The modern, “short format” version of the sport is contested in three phases: Dressage, Cross-Country and Show Jumping. The competition traditionally took place over three days—hence the name—but can be staged over one to four days. Eventers compete in different types of English tack, with saddles and bridles appropriate to each phase and level. Horses are often outfitted with protective and/or supportive boots for the jumping phases.

An event or horse trial traditionally kicks off with the Dressage phase, which tests the horse’s suppleness and balance, as well as his responsiveness to the rider. This competition consists of a preset test of required movements in an arena marked with letters (for more information, see Dressage). This phase is important not only to a competitor’s overall score, but to assess the skills and the mutual cooperation needed to complete the other phases successfully.

The Cross-Country phase is designed to test a horse’s courage, speed and endurance over a long course of 12-40 solid and challenging obstacles. As the name implies, these are built at different distances along an outdoor circuit and jumped at a gallop within a certain optimum time. Depending on the competition level, the jumps can include ditches, water obstacles, large logs, banks, drops, and a variety of other obstacles and combinations (sometimes with multiple options) to test the expertise and bravery of horse and rider.

If a horse refuses or “runs out” at an obstacle in the cross-country phase, 20 penalties are usually incurred. Other penalties vary by level, but going off course or falling generally leads to elimination. There are also penalties for exceeding the optimum time, as well as finishing the course too quickly at some levels in some countries.

The third and final phase in eventing is Show Jumping (also known as Stadium Jumping), a timed competition in which horse and rider negotiate a colorful, jumper-style course in an arena. (For more information, see Jumping.) The purpose of this phase is to test the fitness, stamina and technical skill of horse and rider, particularly after the physically challenging cross-country phase. Penalties are given for every second over the required time and for obstacle knockdowns, as well as refusals or run-outs. Fall of horse and/or rider, or going off course, usually results in elimination.

Eventing rules and scoring vary from country to country, but generally, the horse and rider with the fewest penalties at the end wins.

Though any breed of horse or pony can compete in eventing, Thoroughbreds, Thoroughbred types, sporthorses and warmbloods are most successful at the international level. Eventing is one of the equestrian sports contested in the Olympic Games.

The term “combined test” refers to a variation of three-day eventing in which just two of the three phases are contested, most commonly dressage and show jumping.