Equestrian sports have a rich history dating back hundreds of years. Today, horseback riding sports and competitions are practiced all over the world, from beginner leagues to the Olympics. Many riders marry their love of horses with the thrill of competition by participating in one or more of the exciting equestrian sports available. In this guide, we’ll share some of the most popular English riding sports and how you can get started today.

Types of Horse Sports & Competitions

There are numerous English-style horseback sports and competitions that equestrians and spectators can enjoy. Here are a few of the most popular equestrian sports in the English riding world.

1. Show Jumping

Show jumping is an equestrian discipline that involves riding a horse over a course of jumps and obstacles within a designated arena. The primary goal of show jumping is to navigate the course with speed and accuracy while avoiding knocking down any of the obstacles. It is a thrilling and visually impressive sport that requires a combination of horsemanship, rider skill, and horse agility.

Show jumping is not only a competitive sport but also a crucial component of equestrian events such as the Olympic Games and the World Equestrian Games. It showcases the athleticism, precision, and partnership between horse and rider, making it an exciting spectator sport as well.

Show jumping courses are designed with a variety of obstacles, including verticals, oxers, combinations, and related distances. The course designer arranges these elements to create challenges that test the horse and rider’s ability to adjust their stride, balance, and pace. Competitions are held at various levels of difficulty, ranging in fence height and from local shows to international events. Riders progress through these levels as their skills and experience improve. 

In competitions, riders start with a clear round score of zero faults. Throughout the course, faults can be incurred for various reasons, including altering the height or width of a fence, refusing to jump, and exceeding the time allowed to finish the course. A disqualification occurs if a rider falls off during competition or if more than two refusals take place. 

How to Start Show Jumping

Training for show jumping requires a great deal of practice and trust between horse and rider. Before jumping, focus on flatwork exercises. These exercises improve your horse’s balance, responsiveness, and your communication skills. Work on transitions, circles, serpentines, and lateral movements. Begin with small crossrails or ground poles to introduce your horse to jumping. This allows both you and your horse to get comfortable with the concept. Always work with a qualified instructor so they can safely teach you proper show jumping techniques. As you gain experience and confidence, you can progress to participating in local show jumping competitions.

Learn more: Show Jumping Attire & Etiquette

2. Dressage

Dressage is a highly skilled and artistic form of riding that originated from military training and classical horsemanship. The primary goal of dressage is to develop a horse’s natural abilities, enhance its balance, flexibility, and responsiveness to the rider’s aids, and create a harmonious partnership between horse and rider.

In dressage competitions, riders and their horses perform a series of predetermined movements and patterns in a designated arena. These movements are designed to demonstrate the horse’s obedience, suppleness, and athleticism, as well as the rider’s effective communication and control.

Dressage not only requires precise riding skills but also a deep understanding of horse anatomy, training principles, and the ability to develop a partnership built on trust and communication between horse and rider.

Key components of dressage include:

  • Gaits: Dressage focuses on three main gaits: walk, trot, and canter. The horse is required to perform these gaits with precision, balance, and engagement. In advanced levels, collected and extended versions of these gaits are also showcased.
  • Transitions: Smooth and seamless transitions between gaits, as well as within gaits, are essential. These transitions demonstrate the horse’s responsiveness to the rider’s aids and showcase its ability to adjust its pace and movement.
  • Figures and Patterns: Dressage tests include various figures and patterns, such as circles, serpentines, diagonals, and changes of direction. These elements test the horse’s suppleness, balance, and obedience to the rider’s cues.
  • Collection and Extension: Collection involves shortening the horse’s strides while maintaining energy and engagement, while extension involves lengthening the strides while keeping the horse balanced. Both collection and extension demonstrate the horse’s athleticism and responsiveness.
  • Half Halt: The half halt is a crucial aid used to rebalance the horse, prepare for transitions, and gain the horse’s attention. It involves a combination of seat, leg, and rein aids.
  • Contact and Frame: The rider maintains steady and elastic contact with the horse’s mouth through the reins. The horse is encouraged to work with a rounded frame that originates from the engagement of the hindquarters.

Dressage is divided into different levels, known as “tests,” each with increasing complexity and difficulty. Judges evaluate the horse’s performance based on its correctness, quality of movement, and the rider’s effectiveness in communicating with the horse. Dressage competitions are typically held at various levels, from introductory levels for beginners to the highest levels of international competition.

How to Start Competing in Dressage Events

To start competing in dressage events, you’ll need to sharpen your riding skills and find a suitable dressage horse. We also recommend taking dressage training lessons with an experienced dressage instructor. Regular lessons will help you and your horse develop the necessary skills, refine your technique, and work on specific dressage movements.

Learn more: Dressage Show Attire, Dress Code, and Style Tips for Riders

3. Cross-Country

Cross-country is a challenging and exhilarating equestrian discipline that involves riding a horse over a course of natural obstacles and jumps set across varying terrains. It is a key phase in eventing competitions and also exists as a standalone sport known as “cross-country riding” or “cross-country jumping.” The primary focus of cross-country riding is to test the partnership between horse and rider, as well as their ability to navigate obstacles and challenging terrain at speed.

Cross-country courses are designed with a variety of obstacles that mimic natural challenges found in the outdoors. These include solid fences, logs, ditches, banks, water crossings, drops, and combinations of jumps. The course designer arranges obstacles in such a way that riders need to make strategic decisions on pace, line, and approach to each jump.

Competitions take place across various types of terrain, including fields, woods, hills, valleys, and water features. The diverse terrain adds an extra layer of challenge, requiring both horse and rider to adapt to changing ground conditions. 

Riders must have solid riding skills and be able to maintain a secure and balanced position while riding at speed and jumping over obstacles. They need to be able to judge distances accurately, adjust their horse’s stride, and make quick decisions. Likewise, the sport requires a fit and conditioned horse capable of covering the distance and jumping the obstacles with energy and enthusiasm. Horses need to have the stamina to handle the demands of the course.

How to Start Cross-Country Riding

Beginning a career in cross-country riding looks similar to show jumping training in that you should slowly introduce your horse to obstacles and jumps. With cross-country, you should also incorporate trail riding in your training. This will help you and your horse become accustomed to riding in different outdoor environments and dealing with uneven terrain. You can also work on your horse’s stamina during these trail rides, which will be necessary for cross-country events.

4. Eventing

Eventing, also known as horse trials or three-day eventing, is a comprehensive equestrian sport that tests the versatility, skills, and athleticism of both horse and rider across three distinct phases: dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. Eventing is often considered the triathlon of the equestrian world, as it requires proficiency in multiple disciplines.

Throughout the eventing competition, each phase is scored separately. The overall winner is determined based on the combination of scores from the dressage, cross-country, and show jumping phases. Penalties incurred in any phase are added to the score, and the rider with the lowest cumulative score wins.

Eventing is a demanding discipline that requires a well-rounded partnership between horse and rider. Riders need to possess a deep understanding of their horse’s capabilities, excellent riding skills, and the ability to adapt to different environments and challenges. Eventing competitions are held at various levels, from beginner to advanced, allowing riders to progress as they gain experience and expertise.

How to Start in Eventing Competitions

You’ll need to train and become proficient in the dressage, show jumping, and cross-country disciplines before you can enter eventing competitions. Each discipline requires extensive training and has specific milestones of its own. If you’re interested in eventing competitions, consider partnering with an instructor who is specifically experienced with eventing and the work required to become proficient in the sport.

5. Hunter-Jumper Competitions

Hunter-jumper competitions combine two distinct disciplines with hunter classes and jumper classes (or show jumping). Each hunter and jumper classes assesses different aspects of the horse’s and rider’s abilities, emphasizing elegance and style in hunter classes and speed and accuracy in jumper classes. Hunter-jumper competitions offer a diverse and dynamic experience for equestrians. Competitions are held at various levels, allowing riders to progress as they gain experience and confidence.

In hunter classes, the emphasis is on the horse’s movement, style, and jumping form. Horses are judged on their smooth, flowing gaits, even strides, and attractive and relaxed jumping technique. A horse with a “hunter” look is desired, which typically involves a level head carriage and a comfortable, ground-covering canter. Hunters are judged on how they jump fences, including their bascule (arched back over a fence) and even pacing. A horse that exhibits a graceful and correct jumping form is favored.

Hunter courses often simulate a natural hunting field, with jumps set in a flowing, rhythmic pattern. The rider’s goal is to make the course look effortless and harmonious as if they are navigating a picturesque cross-country inspired course.

Jumper classes prioritize speed and accuracy over style. Riders aim to complete a course of jumps as quickly as possible while avoiding knocking down any rails or refusing jumps. Penalties are incurred for faults, including knocked-down rails and refusals.

How to Start Competing in Hunter-Jumper Events

Participating in hunter-jumper riding can involve training in both disciplines, refining your riding skills, and working closely with your horse to excel in each type of class, however it is not required if you don’t plan to compete in both forms. A horse with a specific hunter conformation is favorable for hunter classes. If you are interested in competing in both types of classes, partner with a riding instructor who can teach you both.

6. Polo

Polo is a team sport played on horseback that involves two teams of four players each. The objective of the game is to score goals by hitting a small ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet. Polo is often referred to as “the sport of kings” due to its historical association with nobility and royalty. It is a fast-paced, physically demanding sport that requires excellent horsemanship, teamwork, strategy, and precision.

Each polo team consists of four players. The players are assigned positions based on their strengths and abilities. The positions are numbered 1 through 4, with the number 1 player typically being the most offensive and the number 4 player often taking on a defensive role.

Polo is played on horseback, with players riding specially trained polo ponies. These ponies are athletic, agile, and responsive, making them well-suited for the fast-paced nature of the game. Players often switch horses between chukkers (periods of play) to ensure the horses remain fresh and perform at their best.

Polo is played at various levels, from local and amateur matches to professional and international competitions. Major tournaments, such as the Argentine Open and the British Open, are highly prestigious events in the world of polo. The sport’s rich history, competitive nature, and the close bond between horse and rider make it a unique and captivating equestrian pursuit.

How to Get Into Polo

Getting into the sport of polo involves a combination of learning riding skills, understanding the game’s rules and strategies, finding opportunities for practice, and eventually participating in matches. Start by building a strong foundation in riding skills. If you’re new to horseback riding, take lessons at a reputable riding school or equestrian center to learn the basics of riding and horsemanship. 

When you feel confident in the saddle, enroll in introductory polo lessons at a local polo club. These lessons will teach you the basics of riding offensively and defensively, mallet technique, and the rules of the game. As you become more comfortable and skilled, start participating in low-level polo matches or tournaments. These matches allow you to gain experience, learn from other players, and apply your training in a real game setting.

Learn how to become a professional equestrian.

Saddle Up

The world of equestrian sports is rich with opportunities for every caliber of rider, from thrill-seekers to riders with a focus on style and discipline. No matter which equestrian sport you choose, you need the right riding outfit. R.J. Classics has you covered with the finest equestrian apparel available. From breeches to show shirts, show coats, and more, you’ll find everything you need to compete with R.J. Classics.

 

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