Combining dressage, cross-country and jumping across a multiple-day event, eventing is the pinnacle competition in equestrian sports. These tests cover every aspect of horse training, from relationship between horse and rider to agility to endurance. Horses and riders are required to master all three phases in order to ultimately win the event, though each discipline requires immense training. These events can span across an entire day up to four days depending on the competition. It is complete and comprehensive and exciting to watch.

Dressage Section

The first phase in eventing is typically the dressage portion. Dressage is a subtle art that combines the grace and beauty of movement with the strength of the horse and also the harmony between horse and rider due to a heightened level of obedience and mutual respect. Dressage is almost like ballet on horseback. In a dressage competition, horses perform a series of pre-determined movements and are scored on the execution of those movements.

In dressage, important factors help determine the scoring of each move. Each movement is scored on a scale from 1 to 10. Judges take the execution of the move into consideration, as well as the suppleness of the horse, the position of its body and the level of obedience and relaxation the horse displays.

There are a number of movements displayed in dressage, from simple to advanced. The most advanced moves (those at the Grand Prix level) generally do not appear in an eventing competition. For example, while riders may be asked to perform a counter-canter, which is an almost skipping movement, they may not have to perform an advanced piaffe, which is a trot in place.

Other movements a horse may perform in an eventing dressage competition are a half-pass, travers, shoulder-in or flying change. These movements fall under the categories of lateral movements, extensions and flying-leg changes. While these are not the highest level of difficulty, it still takes a lot of training to perfect these movements. Many horses will train for years learning the aids. Aids are the subtle movements the rider uses to indicate which move the horse ought to perform. Aids, like a squeeze of the leg, should be hardly noticeable to the audience, but the horse should recognize and respond to the aid immediately. Dressage is as subtle as it is beautiful; it requires time and training but those who master it are of the equestrian elite.

Cross-Country Section

The second phase of an eventing competition is the cross-country portion. In this cross-country section, the horse is required to go through a variety of obstacles designed to imitate natural elements. These obstacles include a series of jumps made out of sturdy objects like stone walls or logs. There are generally 12-20 lower-level jumps and 30-40 high level jumps.

Other natural obstacles along the course include streams or ponds, ditches, drops, banks and other naturally occurring obstacles. The horses must travel through these obstacles in a specified time limit. In some divisions, riders are penalized for riding under a certain time as well.

The cross-country portion of an eventing competition tests not only the endurance of the horse, but also the heart. The horses competing in this event must be brave enough to clear all of the natural obstacles that will not give way if they are not cleared. Horses must face the terrain at a quick speed and any hesitance in jumping will result in a penalty.

The path the horse will take is marked with red and white flags. Typically the rider will walk the course first to get a feel for the layout and natural occurrences in the land. When the rider has the lay of the land, he/she will better understand what to expect and will have confidence entering the jumps that the horse will need to feel in order to proceed with intimidating natural jumps.

Jumps Section

In between the cross-country portion and the jumping test of eventing, a mandatory inspection is conducted of each horse. Veterinarians will ensure that horses are physically healthy enough to continue on with the competition. The jumping test ensures that horses have maintained their energy and willingness to continue. The horses run a course with anywhere from 12 to 20 obstacles to jump over.

The jumps used in the jumping portions are unlike the cross-country jumps in that they can be knocked down if the horse does not fully clear the jump. This tests the fitness of the horse without requiring quite as much bravery as the rigorous cross-country section. The jumps are bright and multi-coloured so they are easier to see and less intimidating. The jumping portion is intended to ensure the stamina and athleticism of the horse, particularly after two days of hard work in events.


In each category, penalties are assigned for scoring purposes. In the dressage phase of eventing, an error will result in the subtraction of two points. A second error will dock four points and a third will result in elimination. Each move is scored on a scale of 1 to 10 based on execution of the movement. Once all totals are added, penalties are taken into account and scores are calculated.

The scoring is slightly different for the cross-country section. A refusal, run-out or circle hesitation at an obstacle results in 20 penalties, with a second instance at the same obstacle resulting in 40 penalties. Should the horse refuse a third time, both horse and rider will be eliminated. A fall results in elimination as well as double the time limit, omitting an obstacle, approaching obstacles out of order or backwards or repeating an obstacle.

In the jumping portion of the competition, penalties are issued in a similar fashion. A refusal, run out or circling will result in 4 penalties, while a second refusal will result in elimination. If horse or rider fall, both are eliminated. The jumping portion is timed, and each second over the time limit results in one penalty. If the horse attempts a jump and knocks it down, four penalties are issued. After the points and penalties are added up, the winner is declared.

The rider and horse with the most points and least penalties is the winner of the eventing competition. At the Olympic level, this results in a gold medal. There are numerous other prestigious international competitions including the Burghley Horse Trials and the Rolex Kentucky Three Day. Whether at the Olympic level or amateur, eventing competitions can be found worldwide to compete in, or to simply enjoy watching.

Veterinary Surgeon, London at Blue Cross UK | + posts

A London based Veterinary surgeon, Sanja is also an avid writer and pet advocate.