Eventing is the triathlon of equestrian sport. Also known as horse trials or three-day eventing, this discipline requires horses and riders to master three phases of competition: dressage, cross-country, and show jumping.

Initially developed to test cavalry horses, the sport evolved to maintain its spot as one of three equestrian disciplines featured in the Olympic Games. Today, eventing horses are some of the most impressive equine athletes in the world.

However, eventing isn’t just a sport for daring elite riders. There are several levels of competition, allowing riders and horses of all abilities to participate in the discipline and train as well-rounded athletes.

Get to know these triathletes of the equestrian world and keep reading to learn more about eventing history, competition, training, and horses.

What is Eventing?

Eventing is an equestrian discipline in which horses and riders complete three stages of competition designed to test training, endurance, and versatility.

Successful eventing combinations demonstrate balance and harmony in dressage, bravery and accuracy in cross-country, and precision and timing in show jumping. Combinations receive a score for each phase, combined for an overall score to determine the winner.

The dressage tests, cross-country courses and show jumping courses become more complex as combinations move up the levels. Competitions can take place over a single day or multiple days. Three-day events traditionally schedule the three phases on separate days.

History of Eventing

Dressage and show jumping are their own equestrian disciplines with unique histories. Eventing is unique because of the cross-country phase, which has roots in military endurance tests and fox hunting.

The first competitions to resemble modern eventing occurred at France’s 1902 Championnat du Cheval d’Armes. These early military competitions tested the fitness, training, and versatility of cavalry horses. [1]

Only commissioned military officers could participate in Eventing when the sport first appeared in the Olympic Games in 1912. [1]

Early competitions during the military era included a speed and endurance test with five phases:

  • Phase A: Road and Tracks
  • Phase B: Steeplechase
  • Phase C: Road and Tracks
  • Phase D: Cross-Country
  • Phase E: Cool Down

Known as the long format, the five phases totalled over 20 miles and had a complicated scoring system.

Eventing began to expand outside the military when the 10th Duke of Beaufort established the first Badminton Horse Trials in 1949. Event riders during the era typically participated in other horse sports and often used eventing to train for fox hunting.

Scoring systems and competition formats gradually became less complicated until the modern format debuted in 2004. This format removed the endurance aspect and established the three phases seen in competition today.

Eventing Sport Organizations

The emergence of official sports organizations helped standardize competition formats as more riders began participating in horse trials. Eventing still relies on these organizations to govern the sport and develop national and international competition rules.

FEI

The International Olympic Committee recognizes the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) as the official international governing body for horse sports. The FEI oversees all international eventing championships and events, including the Olympic Games.

The FEI recognizes seven international disciplines, including the three Olympic equestrian sports.

Recognized FEI disciplines include:

USEF

Established as the American Horse Shows Association in 1917, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) is the national governing body for horse sport in the United States.

USEF recognizes all the FEI disciplines and 11 additional national disciplines.

These national USEF disciplines include:

  • English Pleasure
  • Carriage Pleasure Driving
  • Hunter
  • Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation
  • Parade Horse
  • Reining
  • Roadster
  • Saddle Seat
  • Western
  • Western Dressage

USEA

The United States Eventing Association (USEA) is the official association for eventing in the United States.

Founded in 1959 as the United States Combined Training Association, the USEA educates sports participants, maintains safety standards, and registers qualified events.

Their programs support their mission to advance the sport of eventing through education while maintaining the health and well-being of horses. USEA aims to make eventing safe, fun, fair, and affordable for all members.

Equestrian Canada

Equestrian Canada (EC) is Canada’s national governing body for horse sport. EC governs national eventing competitions in the country and nominates Canadian national teams for international eventing championships, including the Olympics.

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Eventing Phases

Dressage is always the first phase of an eventing competition. Depending on the format, cross-country and show jumping can follow in either order. Traditionally, three-day events hold dressage on the first day, cross-country on the second, and show jumping on the third.

Dressage

During the dressage phase, horses and riders perform a predetermined sequence of test movements in a standard-size arena. Licensed judges evaluate their performance by assigning each movement a score of 0 to 10.

In standard dressage, scores are added together for an overall percentage. In eventing, dressage scores are converted to a penalty score based on lost points. For example, a dressage test scoring 70% is converted to a penalty score of 30. The lower the score, the better the performance on the dressage phase. [2]

The movements in the test increase in difficulty as combinations advance up the levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, eventers don’t need to master the Grand Prix movements to reach the top of their sport. The highest-level eventing test is comparable to a Third-Level dressage test.

Cross-Country

For many athletes and spectators, the highlight of eventing is the cross-country phase. This exhilarating phase involves a long course of obstacles over varied terrain that simulates riding through the countryside.

Most events include a course walk, which allows riders to walk the cross-country course on foot and plan their route. Numbers and flags mark each obstacle, which the rider must ride over sequentially, with the red flag on the right and the white flag on the left. [3]

The course typically consists of 15 to 25 obstacles at the lower levels and 30 to 40 at the upper levels. The obstacles include solid fences and natural barriers like ditches, water, drops, and banks.

Riders start their cross-country ride in the start box, where the steward gives them a 60-second and 30-second warning before counting down from ten to their ride time. The timer for their ride stops when they cross through the finish flags at the end of the course.

Horses must be fit enough to clear the obstacles and complete the course within a set time window. Riders guide their horses over the jumps while maintaining a pace, typically at the gallop, that is neither too fast nor too slow.

Cross-country is an intense test of focus, bravery, and athletic ability for both horse and rider that requires careful conditioning to complete safely. Mistakes on the cross-country course, such as refusals or run-outs, add penalty points to the rider’s final score.

Show Jumping

The show jumping phase takes place on a jump course in a riding arena. This phase tests the precision and accuracy of the horse’s jumping ability. Unlike cross-country obstacles, show jumping fences are made of poles that fall if the horse hits them.

Knocking down fences adds to the penalty score. Combinations receive additional penalties if the horse refuses a jump or the ride exceeds the time allowed to complete the course. Jumping after the cross-country phase’s intense athletic effort also tests stamina.

A show jumping course at an eventing competition consists of 12 to 15 brightly coloured fences. Different show jumping fences include verticals, oxers, walls, and water jumps. These jumps can be up to around 1.35 m (4.4 ft) tall at the upper levels of the sport. [2]

Eventing Competition

Eventing competitions can have slightly different formats, but all events follow the same rules established by the sport’s national and international governing bodies. Recently, the sport has also begun initiatives to increase safety for eventing horses and riders.

Scoring

Event riders aim to finish with their starting dressage score and complete the cross-country and show jumping phases without accumulating additional penalties. For the final results, riders are placed based on the overall penalties from lowest to highest.

Riders can be eliminated for mistakes or violating the rules during competition. Deviating from the course on cross-country or during show jumping leads to elimination, as does competing with improper equipment.

On cross-country, eventers earn penalties for disobedience and time faults. For example, the first refusal, run-out, or circle at an obstacle results in 20 penalties. Multiple disobediences can lead to elimination. Falls on cross-country cause elimination at most levels. [3]

Combinations earn 0.4 penalty points per second if they exceed the time allowed and are eliminated if they exceed the time limit on cross-country or show jumping.

Each obstacle knocked down in show jumping adds four penalties to the score. The first disobedience on the show jumping course also earns four penalties. [3]

If multiple riders complete the cross-country and show jumping phases without penalties, the rider with the lowest dressage score wins. Eventing competitions often come down to exciting finishes, with championships won and lost from a single mistake in the final phase.

Safety

Horse and rider safety is a significant concern for equestrian eventing. Studies show eventing competitions have the highest incidence of horse and rider injuries among the three Olympic equestrian sports. [4]

The greatest risk of injury for eventing riders is linked to horse falls during the cross-country phase. Rotational falls carry the most significant risk. An FEI report found 8% of nonrotational and 24% of rotational falls resulted in serious rider injuries at 2021 FEI eventing competitions. [5]

A rotational fall occurs when a horse somersaults and lands on its back after hitting a fence. Solid cross-country obstacles that don’t collapse can also lead to rotational falls.

New safety initiatives led to the introduction of frangible pin devices in cross-country jumps. The technology mitigates the risk of horse falls by allowing the obstacle to collapse if the horse makes critical contact with the jump.

Safer jump designs, dangerous riding penalties, dedicated safety coordinators at competitions, higher standards for safety equipment, and strict qualification criteria to progress to a higher level have helped significantly reduce rotational falls and injuries in the sport. [5]

While accidents can happen to anyone, proper conditioning before a competition, competing at an appropriate level, and following their horse’s cues can help keep eventers safe.

Formats

Horse trials, three-day events, and combined tests are all forms of eventing competition. Most national USEF/USEA-recognized competitions are horse trials, which include all three phases and typically take place over one or two days. [3]

Combined tests are eventing competitions that include two of the three phases, often dressage and show jumping. These events help introduce new riders and horses to the sport and prepare experienced combinations for the next level. Schooling shows usually offer combined test classes.

Three-day events feature all three phases over three or more days of competition, each taking place on a separate day. Some events split dressage over two days to accommodate the number of competitors.

However, competition names can be confusing. Some of the most famous international three-day events, including the Badminton Horse Trials and the Burghley Horse Trials, are also called horse trials.

National Eventing Levels

There are seven levels of national eventing competition at USEF events, allowing a wide range of horses and riders to participate.

At the upper levels, competitors must meet Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MER) before moving to the next level. An MER is achieved when a combination completes an entire horse trial without exceeding certain penalty limits at each phase. [3]

Starter

Jump height: 2’3″ (0.69 m)

Objective: “To serve as the entry point into the sport by providing a low-impact introduction to the sport of eventing, competing in all the three phases of a horse trial: dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. The experience should be fun and educational.” [3]

Beginner Novice (B)

Jump height: 2’7″ (0.79 m)

Objective: “The Beginner Novice level is designed to introduce green horses and riders to horse trials, combining dressage, cross-country, and beginner jumping tests. It is for competitors and horses that have already had experience in schooling competitions in all three disciplines or who have competed at the Starter level. The entire experience should be safe, inviting, and educational to build confidence and a desire to progress.” [3]

Novice (N)

Jump height: 2’11” (0.89 m)

Objective: “The Novice level is a continuing introduction to horse trials. It is designed for competitors and horses with some experience at lower levels or for experienced riders and horses new to the sport.” [3]

Training (T)

Jump height: 3’3″ (0.99 m)

Objective: “The Training level is an elementary examination of competitors and horses with some experience and training.” [3]

Modified (M)

Jump height: 3’5″ (1.04 m)

Objective: “The Modified level is for the Training level horse with the intent on progressing to the FEI CCI* and Preliminary level.” [3]

Preliminary (P)

Jump height: 3’7″ (1.09 m)

Objective: “The Preliminary level is a moderate examination of competitors and horses in a regular training program preparing for two-star events.” [3]

Intermediate (I)

Jump height: 3’9″ (1.14 m)

Objective: “The Intermediate level is an examination of increasing technical difficulty, preparing competitors and horses for three-star events.” [3]

Advanced (A)

Jump height: 3’11” (1.19 m)

Objective: “The Advanced level is the highest national level of horse trials. It offers tests of significant difficulty designed to prepare competitors and horses for either four- or five-star events.” [3]

International Competition

International eventing competitions operate under the rules of the FEI. There are several categories of FEI International events, each able to host different levels of eventing competition.

CCI

A Concours Complet International-L (CCI-L) is an international three-day event. These international competitions typically occur over five days. [2]

The first day is a mandatory horse inspection, also known as the trot up, to ensure horses are fit to compete. Dressage is the first phase, usually held over the first two days, followed by cross-country as the second phase.

Show jumping is the final phase in a CCI-L. Riders present their horses for a second inspection before the show jumping to ensure they are still fit after completing the cross-country. The CCI-L format is the most challenging international format in eventing.

CCI-S

A Concours Complet International-S (CCI-S) is an international one-day event. However, these events are typically held over multiple days of competition. There is only one horse inspection at a CCI-S. [2]

The phase order of a CCI-S are often different from those of a CCI-L. Dressage is first, then show jumping, and finally cross-country. A CCI-S is less challenging and has a shorter cross-country track than a CCI-L and is often used to prepare for bigger international events.

CCIO

A Concours Complet International Officiel (CCIO) is an international event with a team competition. CHIO Aachen in Germany hosts a well-known CCIO competition.

In a CCIO, nations enter teams of riders to represent their country and compete against each other for team placings.

Star System

FEI-recognized events have different ratings based on a star system. In eventing, the FEI rates competitions from 1* to 5*, with 5* events representing the sport’s highest, most challenging level. [2]

Badminton, Burghley, Luhmulen, Pau, Adelaide, Maryland and the Kentucky Three-Day Event are all 5* competitions.

The star ratings were modified to include the 5* level after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro when the IOC approached the FEI about making the sport accessible to more countries at the Olympics. [2]

Today, the dressage and show jumping phases of Olympic eventing are equivalent to the 5* level, while the cross-country course is designated at the 4* level of difficulty. The World Championships are considered a 5* competition.

A CCI* introduces horses and riders to international competition. A CCI** is a preliminary level, and a CCI*** is an intermediate level and a CCI***** is an advanced level.

Eventing Tack

Eventing requires more tack than other disciplines because of the different phases. FEI and USEF competitions have slightly different guidelines for competition equipment, so remember to check the rulebook before show day.

Saddles

Eventers often use different saddles for each phase at the sport’s top level. Dressage saddles have a deep seat and straighter flaps, while jumping saddles have shallower seats and forward flaps.

These different designs help riders maintain the optimal balance for the unique demands of each competition phase. Some saddle brands offer cross-country models of jumping saddles that allow a shorter stirrup length and more security for the rider.

You don’t need to invest in multiple saddles if you’re just getting started in the sport. An all-purpose saddle is suitable for all three phases of lower-level eventing.

Bridle

Bridles with cavesson, dropped, crossed, and flash nosebands are permitted in all phases of national eventing competitions. A cross, or figure eight noseband, is more prevalent in eventing than in other disciplines.

The different phases of competition have slightly different bit rules. For example, a double bridle with a cavesson noseband is permitted for some upper-level dressage tests.

Horse Leg Protection

Horse boots and leg protection are prohibited in the competition arena during the dressage phase. However, horses can wear leg protection in the warm-up ring.

Protective boots are encouraged during the cross-country phase to protect the horses’ legs from impact with obstacles or hooves while galloping. Some eventers coat their horses’ legs in white eventing grease to help them slide over solid obstacles.

Open-front tendon boots are the most popular leg protection for horses on the show jumping course.

Rider Attire

Event riders should always wear protective headgear when mounted. While cross-country is associated with the greatest fall risk, accidents can happen during every phase. Research shows helmets can reduce head injury risk in equestrians by 40 to 50%. [6]

Skull caps are the most popular helmets eventers wear on cross-country. These helmets don’t have an attached visor, which can break and cause injury during a fall. Helmets with attached visors are typically worn during the dressage and show jumping phases.

All eventers must wear safety vests, known as body protectors, during the cross-country phase to protect their spine, ribs, and internal organs.

Some riders use the same pair of tall boots for all three phases, while others have different pairs for dressage and jumping. Tall boots used for jumping allow more flexibility over a jump, while stiffer dressage boots stabilize the rider’s leg.

Competition Turnout

Horses and riders wear standard dressage and show jumping attire during these phases of the eventing competition. In both phases, they wear light-coloured breeches, a collared show shirt, and stock or regular ties.

Riders wear short coats for show jumping and short coats or tail coats for dressage, depending on the level of the competition. Horses wear conservative saddle pads for show jumping and dressage, but cross-country has no saddle pad colour restrictions.

Breeches and long-sleeved shirts of any colour are permitted on cross-country. Riders must wear a safety vest and a medical armband or bracelet with their information in case of emergency. Competitors also wear pinny numbers to identify themselves on the course.

Eventing Horses

Cross-training in different disciplines can help make any horse a well-rounded athlete. Horses of any breed can participate in low-level eventing competitions, but only some horses have the athletic ability to thrive at the sport’s top level.

Eventing horses at all levels need good care and training to fulfill their potential. Upper-level equine athletes need exceptional management to maintain the fitness required for three-day competitions.

Eventing Horse Breeds

Warmblood horse breeds dominate most international horse sports. Some of these breeds have breeding directions that aim to produce successful eventing horses for the sport’s top level.

The World Breeding Federation of Sport Horses, or WBFSH, ranks studbooks based on the FEI rankings of the top six horses from each studbook in dressage, jumping, and eventing.

2024 WBFSH Studbooks Rankings for Eventing:

The WBFSH rankings only include member studbooks. However, not all horse breeds that excel in eventing belong to sport horse registries.

Although not included in the WBFSH, Thoroughbreds are one of the most popular breeds at all levels of eventing. Many of the top-ranked warmblood horses have significant Thoroughbred blood.

Connemara Ponies and Connemara crosses are popular amateur event horses for youth and smaller riders.

Managing Eventing Horses

Competitive event horses have intense lifestyles, participating in multi-day competitions and consistently training to maintain their fitness. But even top eventing horses still need time to be horses.

Maximizing your horse’s turnout time can help decrease stress and increase willingness to perform. Free exercise on varied terrain during turnout supports fitness and musculoskeletal strength in event horses. [7]

Regular farrier care and veterinary maintenance are vital for keeping event horses sound. Your veterinarian can also help you develop routines to follow before and after exercise to care for your horse’s legs and muscles.

Work with a qualified team of professionals you trust and stay proactive to help your eventing horses feel and perform at their best.

Feeding Eventing Horses

Galloping on cross-country courses and competing for multiple days in a row requires significant amounts of energy.

Event horses and other performance horses also have higher protein requirements to support muscle function and development. However, energy and protein aren’t the only considerations when feeding event horses.

Stress from training, travel, and competition can increase the risk of digestive problems in event horses. A balanced, forage-based diet supports digestive health while meeting your horse’s nutritional needs.

The best diet for your event horse depends on his breed, age, competition schedule, training program, and health history.

Want to know if your event horse’s diet is missing anything? Submit your horse’s diet for a free evaluation and consult with our expert equine nutritionists to develop the best feeding plan to conquer your next cross-country course.

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References

  1. De Haan, D. and Dumbell, L.C. Equestrian Sport at the Olympic Games from 1900 to 1948. International Journal of Historic Sport.
  2. Federation Equestre Internationale. 2024 FEI Eventing Rules. 2024.
  3. United States Equestrian Federation. 2024 USEF Eventing Rulebook. 2024.
  4. Cameron-Whytock, H. et al. Towards a safer sport: Risk factors for cross-country horse falls at British Eventing competition. Equine Vet Journal. 2023.
  5. Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). FEI eventing risk management programme statistics 2010-2021. 2022.
  6. Zuckerman, S. et al. Functional and Structural Traumatic Brain Injury in Equestrian Sports: A Review of the Literature. World Neurosurgery. 2015.
  7. Werhahn, H. et al. Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls (II): Effects of Free Exercise on the Behavior in the Stable, the Behavior during Training, and the Degree of Stress. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2012.