Equestrian sports developed out of the various uses of horses in history, including military warhorses, hunting horses, chariot race horses and working cattle horses. Today there are two main categories of equestrian sports: "English" and "Western".
Of note is the fact that in neither category are any of these disciplines segregated by sex, even at the highest levels of competition.
English riding is largely descended from the hunting and warhorse traditions of Europe. Classical dressage developed in Greece and in cavalry units, and showjumping, cross country and hunt seat riding developed from the foxhunting traditions of English nobles. Today three different disciplines are competed in the Olympic Games.
Showjumping or Stadium Jumping
Possibly the most famous discipline of riding, showjumping requires speed, fast turns and high jumps. It is held in a standard arena with a "course" or jump sequence specified as well as a maximum time. Going over the time earns you time faults, knocking down poles incurs more and falling off is A Very Bad Thing and gets you disqualified. Riders would usually rather rack up a couple of time faults than knock down a pole because time faults are much less serious than pole faults. A round where no poles come down is called a "clear" round: if more than one rider goes clear there will be a jump-off and whoever goes clear fastest (or has the fewest faults fastest) wins the competition. Horses can earn thousands of dollars in top levels of competition.
Whereas show-jumping focuses on speed and power, hunter jumping focuses on form, discipline, and teamwork. The jumps are no more than three-and-a-half feet high, so there are quite simply no excuses for sloppy riding here. The horse and rider are judged on how well they work together, how well they cleared the jumps, and if they completed the course within the time limit. Falling off is still a Very Bad Thing (and will disqualify you) and points are still deducted for knocking down poles. Notably, this is not an Olympic sport, but many top-level showjumpers started as hunter-jumpers due to the latter providing an excellent foundation in equitation.
Developed out of Spanish and Austrian military discipline, dressage is elegant, refined and depends on the rider's ability to control the horse with virtually no visible signals. Riders enter the arena, bow, and ride a pattern of circles, serpentines (S-shaped figures) and straight lines to demonstrate their horse's obedience. Higher levels require lead changes (switching which forefoot leads every canter stride): the inside foot must always be leading and a change of direction requires a lead change. In addition internationally competitive horses do a move known as a "tempi" - the horse swaps leads every or every other stride and appears to be skipping. Another famous move, the piaffe, is the horse trotting in place and takes years to train.
Three-day eventing is a combination of showjumping, dressage and cross-country riding over three separate days. Cross-country is similar to showjumping insofar as there is a time limit and horses go over jumps, but the jumps are usually solid (in a contest between a stadium jump and a horse, the horse wins; in cross-country it's the other way around), involve water and hills, and courses are usually much longer. This is usually the most difficult phase and is generally held on the second day of competition.
Western riding developed out of the working cattle ranches of the American West. Although no Western riders compete in the Olympics, due to the sport largely being confined to the United States and Australia, reining has recently been added to the World Equestrian Games. The National Reining Horse Association, American Quarter Horse Association, National Paint Horse Association and National Cutting Horse Association are affiliated governing bodies and between the four of them largely govern Western riders.
In recent years reining has seen an absolute explosion in growth, becoming quite popular in Western Europe - indeed, the woman widely considered to be the world's best dressage rider, Anky van Grunsven, has recently begun competing in reining. Should Western events ever be added to the Olympics, this is likely to be the first to make it in.
Reining is often referred to as "Western Dressage" and the name is apt, as it serves largely the same purpose: to demonstrate the obedience and ability of the horse. Reiners ride patterns, usually figure eights and circles, and demonstrate their ability to lengthen and shorten a horse's stride, swap leads "on the fly" and change direction. Reiners are known for two other moves: spins, in which the horse sets back on a hind foot and spins very fast many times in a circle; and sliding stops, where the horse will plant its back feet under its hindquarters and literally slide to a stop. World-class horses can slide for thirty feet or more - roughly halfway across the arena. Rollbacks, another famous move, involve the horse sliding to a stop, pivoting 180 degrees on a hind foot and galloping off the other direction.
Demonstrates the abilities of the horse to cut (separate) a cow or calf from the herd and prevent it from rejoining for a given length of time. This discipline has obvious roots in stock management and requires a horse with agility, intelligence, and good balance. Ideally the rider will loosen the reins and give no direction once the animal has been cut from the herd. Good horses can not only read the animal's body language (a trait known as "cow sense") and be ready to counter any swerve or plunge, but will work with style, energy, and evident enjoyment.
Demonstrates the ability of the rider to rope and tie a calf in a minimum time - usually done with two people on a team. In rodeo, in which this is a standard event, the team members are known as the "header" and "heeler", who respectively lasso the calf's head and hind legs, in that order.
Rodeo covers bucking horse contests and similar disciplines, as well as gymkhana-style events, such as barrel racing and pole weaving, which are largely contested by women and seem to be nothing so much as an agility test for the horse. Rodeo and gymkhana are often the most colorful and exciting of all Western riding disciplines and can draw huge crowds in the American West.
Should demonstrate that a horse is "a pleasure" to ride: riders wear colorful and often glittery clothes, unlike reiners and cutters, and make it a point to go as slow as possible at a walk, jog and lope. The rider should not look like he or she is doing any work.
The Epic Race made into a sport, seeing as it deals with riding for a literal day across harsh terrain. While the literal need for long journeys has existed ever since people domesticated horses, the official sport was formed in America. Stemming from cavalry fitness tests, most official courses range from 50-100 miles long, as that's the generally-agreed distance that horses can cover in a day without dying of exhaustion. However, there are shorter distances of less than 50 miles for new riders and in-training horses, and longer rides that span MULTIPLE days. There will be checkpoints spread across the trail to check the horse's fitness levels, and the pair will be disqualified if the horse is deemed unfit to continue. Most riders will try to take at least one buddy on the ride to help out, and riding solo is a task best left for experienced riders. While endurance riding is a Western-type sport, using actual Western tack on a high-level ride may not be a good idea. Western tack is certainly better-equipped to deal with harsh terrain and long rides than English tack, but it can be too heavy and protected for the top-level races, and specialized "endurance-riding" tack is often a fusion of English-style tack that got bulked up with Western-style protection.
Popular Breeds For Equestrian Sports
Just about any horse can be used for any of these competitions; some breeds, however, are better than others for certain competitions. For show-jumping, where the jumps are often up to six feet high, you're going to need a tall horse, like a Hanoverian or Dutch Warmblood. Three-day eventers need a horse with a strong constitution; Arabians, Barbs, and Thoroughbreds are popular choices here. Western riders tend to favor colorful horses, like paints◊, Appaloosas◊, and palominos◊; gaited breeds, like Tennessee Walkers◊, Saddlebreds◊, and Rocky Mountain Horses◊ are specifically bred for Western riding.note
And then there are breeds who can do any and all of these disciplines. The most popular horse in the world is the American Quarter Horse; thanks to their build (strong hindquarters, deep chests, and long necks) and extremely pleasant personalities, Quarter Horses are suited to almost every discipline imaginable (though, as they tend to be on the small side, they're not often seen in show-jumping arenas) note . Similarly, Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and most warmblood breeds are popular in many disciplines, and for short riders, taller pony breeds like the Connemara are more than capable of clearing hunter-jump obstacles.
Tropes that apply to equestrian sports:
- Do Well, But Not Perfect / Second Place Is for Winners: Invoked Tropes for endurance-riding, since trekking fifty miles without dying is an achievement in itself. Also, finishing FIRST doesn't always mean your horse is the best-conditioned, which is a separate award.
- Fan Nickname: Lots of them. God for Kiwi eventing rider Mark Todd, Mr Stickability for his compatriot Andrew Nicholson. Beau Cavalier is given to Canadian jumping rider Eric Lamaze by his Lamazing Ladies. El Maestro defines his rival German Ludger Beerbaum. British eventing rider William Fox-Pitt is also known as King William or His Majesty William Fox-Pitt. German eventing rider Michael Jung is known as The Terminator.
- Horses too: "Big Red" for both Man O' War and Secretariat and "The Grey Flash" for Australian sprinter Chautauqua are just two examples.
- Mundane Utility: Depending on how well the trail is marked, the usual vet checkpoints in an endurance ride can also be a way to find out if someone's having trouble. This can be anything from taking a wrong turn, getting injured/sick, or getting delayed from bad weather.
- Technician Versus Performer: The meticulous, precise, and absolutely correct (but less thrilling) hunter-jumping versus the flashy and dramatic (but often sloppier) showjumping. In a larger sense, English (Technician) versus Western (Performer); though Western disciplines are just as precise and technical as English, the more cowboy-esque clothes of Western riding vs. the formal stock ties and hunting jackets (or top hats and tails, in dressage!) of most English riding give this appearance.
- Starkly evident with the AUDIENCES for both disciplines; traditional dressage audiences are advised to stay as quiet as possible, theoretically to avoid spooking/distracting the horses, but reining horses perform to deafening cheers and applause. Especially strange since horses constantly work in loud, chaotic settings such as police-work, parades, and WARFARE, where English dressage is stated to derive from.
- World of Badass: It takes a badass to just compete in eventing or driving, to name a few.
- If training for endurance riding, it's recommended to start with eventing, cross-country, or competitive trail riding.
- While the minimum horse age for endurance riding is 5 years old to avoid strain on a growing horse's joints, many riders note that some horses get BETTER at endurance as they get older, when it's usually the opposite situation.
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