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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A young rider at a horse show in Australia.
A young rider at a horse show in Australia.

Equestrianism refers to the skill of riding or driving horses. This broad description includes both use of horses for practical, working purposes as well as recreational activities and competitive sports.

Overview of equestrian activities

Horses are trained and ridden for practical working purposes such as in police work or for controlling herd animals on a ranch. They are also used in competitive sports such as dressage, endurance racing, eventing, horseball, reining, show jumping, tent pegging, vaulting, polo, horse racing, puissance and rodeo. Other popular forms of competition are grouped together at horse shows, where horse perform in a wide variety of disciplines. Horses (and other equids such as mules and donkeys) are used for non-competitive recreational riding such as fox hunting, trail riding or hacking. There is public access to horse trails in almost every part of the world; many parks, ranches, and barns offer both guided and independent trail riding. Horses are also ridden for therapeutic purposes, both in specialized paraequestrian competition as well as non-competitive riding to improve human health and emotional development.

Horses are also driven in harness in racing, exhibition, and competitive show events. In some parts of the world, they are still used for practical purposes such as farming. For more information on the uses of horses in harness and driving, see harness racing and carriage driving.

History of equestrianism

Main article: Domestication of the horse
Main article: War horse

Though there is controversy over the exact date horses were first ridden, the best estimate is that horses first carried riders approximately 5000 years ago. The earliest archeological evidence of horses being ridden was in the military: chariot warfare in ancient times was followed by the use of war horses as light and heavy cavalry. However, horses were also ridden for everyday transport, and to carry messages in both war and peacetime. The horse and horseback riding played important roles throughout history and all over the world.

Horse racing

Main article: Horse racing

Humans appear to have long expressed a desire to know which horse (or horses) were the fastest, and thus horse racing has ancient roots. Gambling on horse races appears to go hand-in hand with racing and has a long history as well. Thoroughbreds have the pre-eminent reputation as a racing breed, but other breeds also race.

Types of horse racing that usually allow gambling

Under saddle:

  • Horse racing. Thoroughbred horse racing is the most popular form worldwide. In the UK, it is known as flat racing and is governed by the Jockey Club in the United Kingdom. In the USA, horse racing is governed by the Jockey Club of North America)
  • Steeplechasing involves racing on a track where the horses also jump over obstacles. It is most common in the UK, where it is also called National Hunt racing.
  • American Quarter Horse racing--races over distances of approximately a quarter-mile. Seen mostly in the United States, sanctioned by the American Quarter Horse Association.
  • Arabian horses, Akhal-Teke, Appaloosas, American Paint Horses and other light breeds are also raced worldwide.

In harness:

  • Standardbred horses race in harness with a sulky or racing bike.
  • The United States Trotting Association organizes harness racing in the United States (the horses may trot or pace).
  • Harness racing is also found throughout Europe, New Zealand and Australia.

Races without gambling

  • Endurance riding, a sport in which the Arabian horse dominates at the top levels, has become very popular in the United States and in Europe. The Federation Equestre International (FEI) governs international races, and the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) organizes the sport in North America. Endurance races take place over a given, measured distance and the horses have an even start. Races begin at 20 miles and peak at 100 miles. especially the Tevis Cup.
  • Ride and Tie (in North America, organized by Ride and Tie Association). Ride and Tie involves three equal partners: two humans and one horse. The humans alternately run and ride.

Olympic disciplines

The following forms of competition are recognized worldwide and are a part of the equestrian events at the Olympic Games:

  • Dressage ("training" in French) involves the progressive training of the horse to a high level of impulsion, collection, and obedience. Competitive dressage has the goal of showing the horse carrying out, on request, the natural movements that it performs without thinking while running loose. One dressage master has defined it as "returning the freedom of the horse while carrying the rider."
  • Show jumping comprises a timed event judged on the ability of the horse and rider to jump over a series of obstacles, in a given order and with the fewest refusals or knockdowns of portions of the obstacles. At the Grand Prix level fences may reach a height of as much as 6 feet. Puissance classes involve the largest fences of all, sometimes exceeding 7 feet.
  • Eventing, also called combined training, horse trials, "three-day event," "the Military," or "the complete test," puts together the obedience of dressage with the athletic ability of show jumping, the fitness demands of an endurance phase (also known as "roads and tracks") and the "cross-country" jumping phase. In the last-named, the horses jump over fixed obstacles, unlike show jumping, where the majority of the obstacles will fall down or apart if hit by the horse. In British Eventing, there was also the 'Steeple Chase' Phase, which is now excluded from most major competitions to bring them in line with the Olympic standard.

New events added to the Olympic disciplines in recent years include reining, equestrian vaulting, and paralympic competition. Endurance riding has also been recognized internationally by the FEI, though it is not yet an Olympic competition per se.

Haute Ecole

Main article: Classical dressage

The haute ecole (F. "high school"), an advanced component of Classical dressage, is a highly refined set of skills seldom used in competition but often seen in demonstration performances.

Leading haute ecole demonstration teams include:

  • The Cadre Noir in Saumur, France.
  • The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria.
  • Website The "World Famous" Lipizzaner Stallions in the USA
  • The South African Lipizzaners

Horse Shows

Main article: Horse show

Horse shows are held throughout the world with a tremendous variety of possible events, equipment, attire and judging standards used. However, most forms of horse show competition can be broken into the following broad categories:

  • Equitation, sometimes called seat and hands or horsemanship, refers to events where the rider is judged on form, style and ability.
  • Pleasure, flat, or under saddle classes feature horses who are ridden on flat ground and judged on manners, performance, and quality.
  • Halter, in-hand breeding, or conformation classes, where the horse is led by a handler on the ground and judged on conformation and suitability as a breeding animal.
  • Harness classes, where the horse is driven rather than ridden, but still judged on manners, performance and quality.
  • Jumping or Over Fences refers broadly to classes including both show jumping and show hunter, where horses and riders must jump obstacles.


"English" disciplines in the United States

In addition to the classical Olympic events, the following forms of English riding competition are also seen in the USA:

  • Hunt seat or Hunter classes judge the movement and the form of horses suitable for work over fences, known as show hunters. A typical hunter division would include classes over fences as well as "Hunter under Saddle" or "flat" classes (sometimes called "hack" classes), in which the horse is judged on its performance, manners and movement without having to jump. Hunters have a long, flat-kneed trot, sometimes called "daisy cutter" movement, a phrase suggesting a good hunter could slice daisies in a field when it reaches its stride out. The over fences classes in Hunter competition are judged on the form of the horse, its manners and the smoothness of the course. A horse with good jumping form snaps its knees up and jumps with a good bascule. It should also be able to canter or gallop with control while having a stride long enough to make a proper number of strides over a given distance between fences.
  • Saddle seat (sometimes called "Park" riding), a primarily American discipline, was created to show to best advantage the extravagantly animated movement of high-stepping and gaited breeds such as the American Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walker. Some Arabians and Morgans are also shown saddle seat in the United States. The main difference between English riding and the other types is the practice of what is called 'posting'. Posting means raising your body off of the saddle in motion with the horses' stride.


"Western" riding

Main article: Western riding

Western riding evolved from the cattle-working and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors, and both equipment and riding style evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy in the American West.

Western equipment looks considerably different from that used in "English" disciplines. The most noticeable equipment difference is in the saddle, which has a heavy and substantial tree. The western saddle features a prominent pomnel surmounted by a horn (a big knob for snubbing the lasso after roping an animal), a deep seat and a high cantle. Depending on the local geography, tapaderos ("taps") cover the front of the stirrups to prevent brush from catching in the stirrups. The cowboy's boots, which have pointed toes, higher heels than a traditional boot slightly sloped under the foot, are designed to prevent the rider's foot from slipping through the stirrup during a fall, preventing the rider being dragged.

To allow for communication with the horse, even with a loose rein, the bridle also evolved. The biggest difference between "English" and "Western" bridles is the bit. Most "Western" horses are expected to eventually perform in a curb bit with a single pair of reins that has somewhat longer and looser shanks than the curb of an English Weymouth bridle or a pelham bit. Two styles of Western reins developed: The long split reins of the Texas tradition, which are completely separated, or the closed-end "Romal" reins of the California tradition, which have a long single attachment on the ends that can be used as a quirt.

Though the differences in equipment appear dramatic, fewer differences between "English" and Western riding exist than most people think. Both styles require riders to have a solid seat, with the hips and shoulders balanced over the feet, with hands independent of the seat so as to avoid jerking the horse in the mouth and interfering with its performance.

The clothing of the Western rider differs from that of the dressage or "English" rider. Practical Western attire consists of a long-sleeved work shirt, denim jeans, boots, and a wide-brimmed hat. Usually a rider wears protective leather leggings called "chaps" (pronounced with a soft "s" sound--from the Spanish chaparajos) to help the rider stick to the saddle and to protect the legs when riding through brush. Clean, well-fitting work clothing is the usual outfit seen in rodeo, cutting and reining competitions, especially for men, though sometimes in brighter colors or finer fabrics.

Other events may use flashier equipment. Unlike the English traditions where clothing and tack is quiet and unobtrusive, Western show equipment is intended to draw attention. Saddles, bits and bridles are frequently ornamented with substantial amounts of silver. The rider's shirt is often replaced with a jacket, and women's clothing in particular may feature vivid colors and even, depending on current fads, rhinestones or sequins.


Main article: Rodeo

Rodeo events include the following forms of competition:

Timed events

  • Barrel racing and pole bending - the timed speed and agility events seen in rodeo as well as gymkhana or O-Mok-See competition. Both men and women compete in speed events at gymkhanas or O-Mok-Sees; however, at rodeos, barrel racing is an exclusively women's sport. In a barrel race, horse and rider gallop around a cloverleaf pattern of barrels, making agile turns without knocking the barrels over. In pole bending, horse and rider run the length of a line of six upright poles, turn sharply and weave through the poles, turn again and weave back, then return to the start.
  • Steer wrestling - Also known as "Bulldogging," this is a rodeo event where the rider jumps off his horse onto a steer and 'wrestles' it to the ground by grabbing it by the horns. This is probably the single most physically dangerous event in rodeo for the cowboy, who runs a high risk of jumping off a running horse head first and missing the steer, or of having the thrown steer land on top of him, sometimes horns first.
  • Goat tying - usually an event for women or pre-teen girls and boys, a goat is staked out while a mounted rider runs to the goat, dismounts, grabs the goat, throws it to the ground and ties it in the same manner as a calf. This event was designed to teach smaller or younger riders the basics of calf roping without the more complex need to also lasso the animal.


Roping encompasses a number of timed events that are based on the real-life tasks of a working cowboy, who often had to capture calves and adult cattle for branding, medical treatment and other purposes. A lasso or lariat is thrown over the head of a calf or the horns of adult cattle, and the animal is secured in a fashion dictated by its size and age.

  • Calf Roping - A calf is roped around the neck, the horse stops and sets back on the rope while the cowboy dismounts, runs to the calf, throws it to the ground and ties three feet together. (If the horse throws the calf, the cowboy must lose time waiting for the calf to get back to its feet so that the cowboy can do the work. The job of the horse is to hold the calf steady on the rope) This activity is still practiced on modern working ranches for branding, medical treatment, and so on.
  • Team roping, also called "heading and heeling," is the only rodeo event where men and women riders compete together. Two people capture and restrain a full-grown steer. One horse and rider, the "header," lassos a running steer's horns, while the other horse and rider, the "heeler," lassos the steer's two hind legs. Once the animal is captured, the riders face each other and lightly pull the steer between them, so that it loses its balance, thus in the real world allowing restraint for treatment.
  • Breakaway roping - an easier form of calf roping where a very short lariat is used, tied lightly to the saddle horn with string and a flag. When the calf is roped, the horse stops, allowing the calf to run on, flagging the end of time when the string and flag breaks from the saddle. In the United States, this event is primarily for women of all ages and boys under 12, while in some nations where traditional calf roping is frowned upon, riders of both genders compete.


"Rough Stock" competition

In spite of popular myth, most modern "broncs" are not in fact wild horses, but are more commonly spoiled riding horses or horses bred specifically as bucking stock, many of whom were rescued from a fate as horsemeat. Most rodeo broncs enjoy good food, regular veterinary care and get to work, at most, 10 seconds a day.

  • Bronc riding - there are two divisions in rodeo, bareback bronc riding, where the rider is only allowed to hang onto a bucking horse with a surcingle, and saddle bronc riding, where the rider is allowed a specialized western saddle without a horn (for safety) and may hand onto a heavy lead rope attached to a halter on the horse.
  • Bull Riding - though technically not an equestrian event, as the cowboys ride full-grown bulls instead of horses, skills similar to bareback bronc riding are required.

Other horse sports

  • Bullfighting (rejoneo)
  • Campdrafting
  • Carriage driving, traditionally two or four wheeled carriages pulled by a single horse, or a tandem or four-in-hand team of horses. Some contemporary driving competitions are based on traversing obstacles at speed (such as Combined driving). Pleasure competitions are judged on the turnout/neatness or suitability of horse and carriage.
  • Charreada, the highest form of Mexican horsemanship based on a mixture of Spanish and Native traditions.
  • Chilean rodeo
  • Combined driving
  • Competitive Trail Riding, These compeitions are held across terrain similar to Endurance, but are shorter in length (20 - 30 miles, depending on class) and conducted at a slower pace. The point is not to see who gets to the finish line first. Instead, each competitor starts out with 100 points and one is graded on everything including one's campsite and the way the horse is tied to the trailer. Horsemanship is how the horse is handled and presented to the judge and vet after arrival and after the day's ride. The human participant is graded on horsemanship on the trail while the horse is graded on performance, manners, etc. The are two "pulse and respiration" stops where the horse's recovery ability is checked. The judges also set up obstacles along the trail and the horse and rider are graded on how well they perform as a team. The whole point is the partnership between the horse and rider.
  • Cross Country Jumping, a jumping course that contains logs, and natural obstacles mostly. The common clothes worn are usually brighter colors and less conservative.
  • Dressage
  • Endurance riding, a competition usually of 50 to 100 miles or more, over mountainous or other natural terrain, with scheduled stops to take the horses' vital signs, check soundness, and verify that the horse is fit to continue. The first horse to finish and be confirmed by the veterinarian as fit to continue is the winner. Additional awards are usually given to the best-conditioned horses who finish in the top 10.
  • Vaulting (gymnastics and dance on horseback)
  • Fox hunting
  • Gymkhana also known as O-Mok-See
  • Horse hacking
  • Horse show
  • Hunter Pacing or Competitive Trail Riding, sports where a horse and rider team travel a trail at speeds based the ideal conditions for the horse, with competitors seeking to ride closest to that perfect time. Hunter paces are usually held in a series. Hunter paces are usually a few miles long and covered mostly at a canter or gallop. Competitive Trail Rides are usually up to 30 miles, often over mountainous terrain, using all gaits, but especially the trot. The horsemanship and management skills of the rider are also considered in the scoring, and periodic stops are required for veterinarians to check the vital signs and overall soundness of the horses.
  • Jousting
  • Le Trec, orienteering on horseback - consists of three stages covering orienteering, negotiation of obstacles and control of paces.
  • Mounted Games, a sport where games are played in a relay-style with two to five members per team at very high speed
  • Polo, a team game played on horseback, involves riders using a long-handled mallet to drive a ball on the ground into the opposing team's goal while the opposing team defends their goal.
  • Polocrosse
  • Rapa das bestas
  • Reining
  • Rodeo
  • Show Jumping
  • Skill at arms - competition testing skills using lances, swords and completion of obstacles such as jumps.
  • Steeplechase
  • Tent pegging
  • 3-Day Eventing- a competition where you are judged on your total score from a day of dressage, stadium jumping and cross country
  • Trail Riding, The art and sport of riding any breed horse, any style across the land. It is important for trail riders to know which areas are safe and which allow horses to cross.

Criticism of horses in sport

Most horse owners are interested in the well being and welfare of horses. Some are allied with various animal welfare organizations that try to end genuine abuse of horses. Almost all competitive events have well-established rules and regulations to prevent abuse of animals and to encourage ethical behavior. Most high-intensity sports like show jumping, endurance riding, eventing, rodeo, and horse racing are closely monitored by veterinarians to prevent and treat injuries. On the other hand, there are genuine abuses of horses that do occur. Some people, often motivated by profit or a desire to win at all costs, may inflict pain, overwork, injure, neglect, starve, or drug horses in ways that harm the animal's physical health and mental well-being.

Orgainzed groups dedicated to protecting all animals, such as the Humane Society of the United States, and animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, target some horse sports with claims of animal cruelty. Horse racing and rodeo are most commonly targeted both because of their visibility to the non-horse-oriented public and because these are sports where it is sometimes difficult for people who do not know much about horses to differentiate between pushing equines to perform to their peak and actual abuse.

One problem is a disagreement about terms like abuse. While some individuals consider even fairly drastic discipline of horses as non-abusive, others consider abuse to be anything done against the will of the animal in question. Some people consider poor living conditions abusive, others think riding itself is abusive. There is not a consensus on the issue.

Further, the perspective of the individuals holding various viewpoints is sometimes quite different. For example, horse professionals claim they know better what is best for horses than people who live horseless lives, easily influenced by propaganda. On the other hand, other individuals claim that many horse professionals are biased because of motivation for personal gain.

However, many people take a middle ground, primarily concerned that certain sports or training techniques may unnecessarily cause pain or injuries to horse athletes, just as they do for human athletes. Some people who advocate use of horses in equestrian activities point out that horses in the wild have a shorter average life expectancy and are injured more often and more severely than those used in sport.

Some behaviors and activities are widely condemned as abusive by people within the horse industry. Use of many performance-enhancing drugs is prohibited in most competitions, and organizations that sanction various events spend a great deal of money testing horses for illegal drugs. Some other training or showing practices are so widely condemned that they have been made illegal. The most well-known is soring, a practice of applying a caustic ointment just above the hooves of a Tennessee Walking Horse to make it pick up its feet higher. However, in spite of a federal law in the United States prohibiting this practice and routine inspections of horse shows by inspectors from the United States Department of Agriculture, the practice is still widespread and difficult to eliminate.

Some events themselves are also considered so abusive that they are banned in many countries. Among these are horse-tripping, a sport where riders chase and rope a loose-running horse by its front legs, throwing it to the ground.

Other events frequently targeted as abusive are more open to debate. Animal rights activists claim rodeos are cruel to animals and turn a blind eye to minor injuries which do not impair performance. Rodeo competitors, on the other hand, deny claims of cruelty, pointing out that an abused or injured animal is not useful and thus less profitable than a happy, healthy one. Rodeo sanctioning organizations argue that they continually work to improve animal health and rider safety. Animal living conditions vary, but many rodeo stock live in a natural setting on open range during the off-season and often live in healthier, more natural surroundings than many more pampered animals.

Horse racing is also seen as cruel by some people, particularly when animals are injured while racing. Racing came under renewed scrutiny following injury to the racehorse Barbaro, who broke his hind leg during the 2006 Preakness Stakes. However, race horse trainers point out that horses who are abused will not perform at their peak ability. Furthermore, racing itself is conscious of the need to continually work to improve safety for both horses and jockeys and has made many improvements that have reduced or eliminated past abuses. Racehorses also live lives with excellent food, the best veterinary care available, and plenty of exercise. The screening process for banned drugs is the most rigorous in the industry, and many retired racehorses have a satisfying future off the track as either breeding animals or pleasure horses.

See also

  • Western riding
  • English riding
  • Dressage
  • Classical dressage
  • Domestication of the horse
  • Horses in warfare
  • Horse show
  • Equestrian at the Summer Olympics
  • United States Equestrian Federation
  • FEI
  • Horse training
  • Horse behavior

External links

  • International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) official homepage
  • United States Equestrian Federation USEF Official web site
  • United States Dressage Federation
  • American Endurance Ride Conference
  • Ride and Tie Association
  • The American Vaulting Association - Equestrian Vaulting
  • The North American Trail Ride Conference - Competitive Trail Riding
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