If you’re new to the riding world, we know how confusing it is to hear about all the different riding styles. As you start researching trainers and facilities, or start taking lessons, you will likely have heard a blow-through of the specialized discipline. As a newbie, you will likely just smile and nod, because (let’s face it )– there’s just too much information being told at once!
Not to fear, we are here to break down the English riding disciplines to help you find your fit.
Equestrian is a Global Industry
There are many, many different riding styles. Here is a list of the what are typically considered the main, internationally-recognized sports. These are the disciplines that you’ll see in the Olympic Games or the World Equestrian Games (the biggest world stage specifically for Equestrians).
Fun Fact: Unlike most sports, men and women compete as equals in these events, even at the highest level of the sport.
In the United States, you’ll most commonly find these types of English trainers and competitions: Dressage, Three-Day Eventing and Hunter/Jumpers.
If you like keeping all four feet on the ground, glitter, black leather, and big, fancy horses, Dressage is the sport for you!
The official description of Dressage by the USDF is: "The Olympic sport of dressage is derived from the French term meaning "training" and its purpose is to strengthen and supple the horse while maintaining a calm and attentive demeanor. The Pyramid of Training offers riders a progressive and interrelated system through which to develop the horse over time.
Currently, competitive dressage involves progressively difficult levels incorporating multiple tests within each level. Each test is a series of movements that must be performed by the horse and rider. Each movement is scored by a judge on a scale of 0-10. Special tests are also written for musical freestyle, sport horse breeding and performances incorporating multiple horses and riders."
The less-official description of Dressage is dancing with horses. The masters of the sport, like Laura Graves, Isabell Werth, and Charlotte Dujardin make the highest level of the sport look easy, but it takes years of hard work, discipline, and some serious talent to get that far.
The good news is- you don't have to be a freakishly elegant and talented rider to enjoy dressage. The majority of riders who enjoy dressage are out there to improve the connection they share with their horse and try not to bounce too much in the sitting trot. Find the right trainer to help you get the most out of your dressage experience!
Before I begin the explanation of what Eventing is, I feel obligated to mention that this is the best sport by far in my unbiased (very biased) opinion.
If you like adrenaline, precision, and bright colors Eventing might be the sport for you.
Eventing, as described by the USEA is, "the equestrian equivalent to a human triathalon, consisting of dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. This event is usually contested over three days, hence the other popular term for the discipline, three-day event. By performing each of these classes, horses that compete in eventing show their balance, stamina, and precision."
Dressage (see above), in Eventing, is a bit different than traditional Dressage. The level of Dressage is significantly lower than pure Dressage and the tests are specific to eventing because the riders and horses must also focus on two other disciplines. Tests are judged on the same criteria, but instead of being presented as a percentage, are marked on a penalty score. The lower your score, the better.
The second day of competition is cross-country, which is a phase exclusive to the Eventing discipline. According the the USEA, "The cross-country phase typically takes place on the second day of competition, but always after the dressage phase. Cross-country is the cornerstone of eventing, and proves the speed, endurance and jumping ability of the horse over varied terrain and solid obstacles. Carrying forward their penalty points from the dressage phase as their score, riders want to finish with the fewest penalties possible by jumping every fence on the first effort and finishing the course within the prescribed time limit."
Cross-country features solid fences natural obstacles (ie. logs, ditches, drops, water fences). Each level is ridden at a gallop with exact speed requirements varied depending on the level of competition. The highest level (international level, 5* competition) can have speeds that are equivalent to more than 21 mph.
Cross-country is a true test of the partnership and trust between the horse and rider. Riders must be extremely accurate, as there is a higher level of danger when jumping obstacles that do not fall down. The horses must be bold, brave, and extremely fit to compete in this phase. Most horses love cross-country because they’re outside of an arena setting and get to challenge their minds in a different way!
The USEA scores eventing based on penalty points. "Mistakes on cross-country are costly to a rider's final score. If a horse stops at a fence, known as a refusal, or runs past a jump, known as a run-out, the pair earns 20 penalty points. A second refusal or run-out at the same obstacle is an additional 40 points, and a third results in elimination. Penalty points are also earned for every additional second over optimum time."
The final day of competition is show-jumping, which is a phase included in the hunter/jumper disciplines, which we discuss next. The this phase, "tests the pair's precision over a series of colorful fences made of lightweight rails which are easily knocked down. This final phase tests the stamina and recovery of the horse after the very tiring cross-country phase."
To sum it up, this is a grueling phase not for the faint of heart. Horses and riders must be fit, brave, and precise to compete safely and successfully in this disciplines. As always, there are levels for the most beginner students, and most trainers will have experienced lesson horses available to learn on.
Hunters, Jumpers and Equitation
I am clumping the three disciplines together as they typically can have crossover for trainers and showing competitions, but let’s be clear: they are all different! The overarching similarity in the three disciplines is: they all involve jumping poles (“show jumps”) in an arena and competitions are typically held together. Many riders can be good at two or all three of these disciplines.
If you like jumping, but prefer a slow, rhythmical pace and want your horse to be the focus, check out the Hunter Ring!
"The modern show ring hunter’s roots were established in Europe when gentry rode across the countryside hunting for game, often aided by dogs used to track the prey. The horses were necessary to carry their riders many miles over the varied terrain of the countryside in pursuit of their game, often negotiating the creeks, ditches, walls, and fences they encountered along the way. Although somewhat recreational from its beginning, the task of the working hunter became less rugged and more refined and competitive, thus the show ring hunter was born," According to the USEF.
The hunters are subjectively judged with the horse as the focus. A quality hunter is defined by conformation, athleticism, disposition, and jumping form and "must still exhibit the traits desired of a good field hunter— calm disposition, good manners, smooth gaits, steady way of going, and pleasant and efficient jumping ability— but must do so with style, presence and superior technique."
Hunter classes are offered in a wide range of sections both over fences and on the flat for any level of rider. Most hunter courses are a basic combination of natural-looking fences (including flowers, boxes, etc, but are still made of poles that are easily knocked down). The exception here are International Hunter Derbys. These classes were created to bring tradition and basic riding principles back to the sport of showing hunters. In this class, a horse is judged on keenness, athleticism, and handiness as it negotiates obstacles typically encountered while galloping in the open field.
The hunter ring is ideal for riders who love to jump, but prefer a more controlled environment than the Show Jumping.
If you like running fast and jumping high with only the clock as your judge, the jumper ring may be the place for you!
Commonly referred to as "jumpers," this sport is about time and speed. According the the USHJA, "Jumper classes are scored objectively based solely on the horse’s athletic ability over fences as measured by time. A jumper’s only job is to clear all the fences in the course as quickly as possible without incurring any faults. A horse incurs faults for each mistake made: four faults for each rail knocked down, four faults for every refusal, and 1 fault for every second over the maximum time allowed to negotiate the course. The horse with the least amount of faults and the fastest time wins. Jumper courses, which are technical in nature and typically consist of 12-16 jumps, require strategic riding in addition to a swift pace."
Show Jumping is spectator friendly and easy to understand. The upper level classes offer various amount of price money (up to $1,000,000) to the winner of a class. Large sponsors, fun pre-event activities, and exciting jump-offs make the big-money classes a family friendly event for anyone in the community.
Ready to get involved? Browse trainers and schedule a lesson today!
If you are focused on improving your skill as a rider, and like more technical courses than the hunters, but maybe are not a major speed junky, try out the Equitation ring!
Equitation is a bit like a mix between Hunters and Jumpers... it’s not about speed, but it judges rider’s form and skill. Equitation classes are less traditional than the hunters, but not as “daring” as the jumpers can be.
The types of jumps included in an equitation course can resemble those used in either hunter or jumper classes, but the judging is subjectively based on the rider’s position, style, proficiency, accuracy, use of the aids (hands, seat and legs), as well as an overall impression of complete and quiet control. The horse itself is not judged at all. Competitions offer a wide range of classes for all levels of riders (most are amateur classes), the most competitive of which attempt to accrue enough points to quality for the Finals at the end of the year.
To sum it up... Hunters are where the horse is judged, Equitation is where the rider is judge, and Show jumping is judged based on speed and faults. Most Hunter/Jumper competitions offer classes in all three divisions and it is not uncommon for trainers to have a presence in all three rings.
Why We Do This
No matter which discipline you choose, keep in mind that the reason we all do this is to experience the unique bond between horse and rider. Most horses who are in a quality program and trainer properly enjoy their job. Competing, and riding as a whole, with these incredible creatures is nothing short of magic. The quality of life and care of the horse should be the priority for all disciplines.
We are confident that you will find your niche and the equestrian discipline that is best for you. The horses you ride and friends you'll make along the way are what makes this sport unlike any other.