Equestrian Sports

When it comes to animals contributing to the human experience, horses top the list. Horses have played important supporting roles throughout human history. They were there with Napoleon when he was defeated at Waterloo. They also accompanied early settlers on the Oregon Trail as they conquered the American West.

Human behavior has changed over the years, and the status of horses has been elevated as a result. We now prize horses for their perception, athletic skills, and emotional intelligence. Equestrian events allow the special relationship between people and horses to shine. Western and English are the most prominently recognized riding styles, which we’ll explore in more detail here.


The Western riding style has its origins in America’s frontier towns. Early settlers used horses to manage cattle herds and to more conveniently traverse rugged trails. Horse were valued for their performance, and ability to handle the many challenges of life in the western territories.

One of the most prominent features of a Western-style horse and rider team is the tack. Western horseback riders use a wide saddle that covers a good deal of the horse’s back. The wide saddle provides the ride with excellent stability. A Western saddle is also made with a horn that protrudes up from the seat. This adds more stability for the rider and is essential for roping cattle.

Another distinctive feature of Western horseback riding is the riding method itself. Riders give directions to the horse by shifting their weight, and by neck reining. Neck reining mean that the horse knows to turn one direction or the other by just a feel of the reins against its neck. Feeling the left reign on the left side of its neck, means turn right, and vice versa. In Western-style riding, the rider holds the reins in one hand, which frees the other hand for handling ropes or other accoutrements.

Western and English horseback riding styles encompass a number of different riding disciplines. Here are some of the most popular Western horseback riding disciplines that one will see at equestrian sports events.

ReiningMan Riding Horse In Western Style Reining Competition

Reining is likely the oldest of the western horseback riding disciplines. It evolved from the everyday activities of cowhands and their work horses. Cattle ranching was an important part of the economy in the American West, and horses that could stop, start, and turn on a dime were highly valued. It was during these types of activities that people first began to really notice the intelligence of horses.

Western horseback riding relies on loosely held reins that fall alongside the horse’s jaw. During this sport, the rider gets the horse to respond to ever so slight signals from the reins and knee movements. The horse moves as if it anticipates the behavior and movements of the cows, but it really is being highly responsive to prompts given to it by its rider. When done right, reining is the equivalent of a friend finishing your sentences.

Cattle ranching took on a more commercial persona over the years, and the light-hearted antics of cowboy and horse almost became extinct. While horses are very perceptive creatures and quick learners, they must be trained to do the stunts that cow hands regularly pull off during their daily chores. As old ranch hands died, the secrets of training horses in the art of reining died with them in many cases. Some knowledge was passed from father to son, which kept the practice alive until it became more widely known and appreciated on the western show circuit.

This sport became an event at shows that paid tribute to the culture of the American West. The informal shows were transformed into first-class events that incorporated well-defined rules for the sport. The National Reining Horse Association is the organization that was largely responsible for taking the sport mainstream.

So, what maneuvers and patterns constitute the sport of reining? During this sport, horses are guided to complete a small circle at a slow pace in both directions and two large circles at a fast clip in both directions. The rider then guides the horse to do a series of flying lead changes, stops, rollbacks, and spins in both directions. When a horse does a spin in competition, it rotates 360 degrees on its hind legs. Rollbacks happen when the horse does a 180-degree turn after a stop. The sliding stop is the highlight of the show in this type of competition, and it occurs when a horse performs a stop after galloping using its hind legs only.

The objective of those maneuvers is to showcase the horse’s precision, style, and speed, and the competition is judged based on those criteria in that order. The rider and horse begin the show with a score of 70, and points are added and subtracted based on the horse’s performance for each maneuver. The highest score for a maneuver is 1.5 and the lowest score is minus 1.5. An average maneuver gets a score of zero.

The American Paint horse, Appaloosa, and Quarter horse are some horse breeds that excel at this sport.

Barrel Racing

Woman Western Rider On Chestnut Horse Performing Barrel RacingIf reining is one of the oldest Western horseback riding sports, barrel racing has to be the most exciting. No competition shows off a horse’s agility more than barrel racing, and this horseback riding discipline is a mainstay event at most rodeos and western horse shows.

During barrel racing, three barrels are placed in an arena in a triangle pattern. The first two barrels are 20 yards from the starting line and 30 yards from each other. The third barrel makes up the apex of the triangle and is 35 yards from both the first and second barrels. The rider and horse circle the 55-gallon barrels at top speeds in a cloverleaf pattern. After completing the circuit around the three barrels, the rider prompts the horse to gallop full speed straight to the finish line, which is also the race’s starting line.

In barrel racing, the horse that crosses the finish line fastest is not always the winner. Speed is an asset, but horses that master barrel racing must also exhibit a superior level of control. While touching a barrel during the race draws no penalty, taking over a minute to complete the race disqualifies the rider. Other actions that result in a “no time” score during a barrel race include failing to follow the cloverleaf pattern, falling off of the horse after the start of the race, and riding out of turn or in the wrong starting position. To be competitive, the rider and horse must circle the barrels tightly enough to get a good time but not so tight that they knock over the barrels. A knocked-over barrel equates to a five-second penalty, which all but guarantees that the pair won’t win the first-place prize at the race.

To be successful at barrel racing, the rider and horse must undergo extensive training. Each race lasts an average of 15 to 30 seconds, but many horses train for months to build up the speed and muscular strength to compete with other barrel racing horses. As the horse undergoes muscle conditioning drills, the trainer will also evaluate its gait and approach to the barrels. He or she will work with the rider to suggest riding style adaptations that get the most out of the horse’s speed and agility.

Trail Riding

When one thinks of the solitary cowboy making his way across a sparsely populated western territory, trail riding is what comes to mind. Trail riding can be as challenging or leisurely as the trail that one chooses. Well-kept, manicured trails offer a predictable riding experience that’s a fun way to start the day. Other paths are full of obstacles such as rocky creek beds, steep hills, and fallen tree limbs. This sport can be more challenging based on the season as well.

Tack is a priority for trail riding. Riders want a wide, comfortable saddle that helps them to enjoy riding for hours at a time. These types of saddles are good for the rider and the horse as it distributes the rider’s weight better. A great set-up includes a saddle that has a shorter horn and that includes ties to accommodate accessories such as canteens and a bedroll.

Trail riding horses are developed more from natural instincts and experience than from intense training. Good trail horses are intelligent and sure-footed. They practice excellent attention to detail and are able to evaluate a terrain and get itself and the rider safely through obstacles. These horses are aware of other wildlife as well as inanimate objects on trails. They don’t become overly excited or lose their composure when they encounter squirrels, rabbits, or bears on the trail.

While Western trail riding isn’t an Olympic equestrian event, it is a widely recognized Western horseback riding sport. Trail riding can take place in informal groups of two or three riders. Groups such as the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, the National Competitive Trail Horse Association, and the American Trail Trail-Horsemen’s Association also organize trail riding competitions all over the country.


English horseback riding got its start on European battlefields. When warriors were engaged in battle, they practiced and displayed their skills during medieval jousting competitions. As society became more civilized, noblemen exchanged their lances and shields for fox hunting gear.

The differences in tack between Western and English horseback riding are immediately noticeable. While Western saddles are heavy and cover a wider footprint on the horse’s back, English saddles are smaller and lighter weight. They are specifically designed to give the horse and rider flexibility of movement during a hunt or sporting event.

English horseback riders also lead their horses differently than Western horseback riders. With English horseback riding, the rider holds the reins in both hands, with a more direct connection to the bit in the horse’s mouth. This creates a channel for constant and nuanced communication between rider and horse.

When asked to choose the more difficult riding style to learn, experts nearly always answer in favor of English horseback riding. The large Western saddle makes riding easier for even first-time riders. The smaller English saddles require riders to exercise balance and good posture just to stay atop the horse as it moves through the gaits.

The English horseback riding style has birthed many riding disciplines and several of them are equestrian sports in the Olympics. Let’s explore some of the most popular English horseback riding sports.


Woman Dressage Rider On A Horse Warming Up Before CompetitionDressage is a form of English horseback riding that involves the performance of a series of choreographed movements that show off the horse’s strength and elegance. While the English get most of the credit for elevating the sport, dressage has its origins in Ancient Greece. Xenophon, a Greek soldier, wrote about early forms of the sport in his book, On Horsemanship.

During modern events, the rider gives the horse subtle cues, and the horse performs the movement seamlessly. Ancient Greece gave society the Olympics as well, and dressage happens to be an Olympic equestrian sport with wide appeal.

Most people agree that this sport is the closest thing to a horse dancing ballet. There are different levels, depending on the skill of the rider and horse, and each level has required movements that the pair must perform.

The piaffe is one such movement at the top level of the sport. In simple terms, the horse is directed to trot in place. However, this requires not only hours of training, but the horse must be in optimal physical condition to balance itself, weight onto its hind end, and rhythmically lift its feet up and down on the spot.

The half pass is another intricate move that the horse will do at a trot, or canter. During this movement, the horse will cross its legs to step sideways and forward to travel along a diagonal line.

Competitions are judged based on the horse’s ability to execute the movements effortlessly, accurately, and in sync with the rider. The arena is marked with different letters, and the horse must perform different movements and gaits within those marked locations.

Movements are graded on a scale from one to 10. For example, a score or 6 means the movement was “satisfactory”, 8 is “good”, 10 is “excellent” Scores for each movement are added together and turned into a percentage. A final score of 65% would mean all movements were judged to be satisfactory or “fairly good”. Judging in dressage is notoriously tough, and high marks have to be earned though endless hours of training.

Show Jumping

Where dressage is the “ballet” of equestrian events, jumping is what gets the adrenaline pumping. Jumping events include a group of obstacles that horse and rider must clear in order to complete the course. Each horse and rider pair wants to jump the hurdles as cleanly as possible since the pair that finishes fastest with the cleanest run wins the competition.

Despite a horse’s natural athletic abilities, it still has to be trained to jump. To be successful at show jumping, a horse and rider pair must possess speed, precision, and control throughout the event.

What does a typical show jumping course look like? A show jumping course usually has a set of vertical obstacles, commonly referred to as “fences” that vary in height and position. The course design compels horse and rider to make turns in different directions to get them to the next jump. This often includes performing double and triple combination moves.

Faults are accumulated when horse and rider fail to clear an obstacle without knocking it down, when they exceed the allotted time for the jumps, and when the horse refuses to jump an obstacle. Multiple refusals to jump can get the pair eliminated from the competition.


Eventing is one of the most challenging English horseback riding sports. The sport tests the horse’s strength, skills, and stamina. Eventing takes place in three phases, which are dressage, cross-country riding, and show jumping. Eventing can be performed at different skill levels.

Here are the eventing levels that are recognized by the United States Eventing Association.

  • Beginner novice levelWoman On Horse Riding Cross Country Competition Jumping Logs
  • Novice level
  • Training level
  • Preliminary level
  • Intermediate level
  •  Advanced level

Trainers prepare riders and horses for eventing competitions by practicing dressage and show jumping maneuvers at the appropriate levels. They also put horses through physical conditioning drills to increase their stamina for the cross-country portion of the competition.

To get a better idea of what to expect during an eventing competition, a rider will often participate in combined tests. This type of competition includes elements of dressage and show jumping maneuvers, which are held at different skill levels. The scores in a combined test are calculated in the same manner as other dressage and show jumping events.


Whether an equestrian specializes in the Western or English riding style, they all have one thing in common, a love for horses. The special partnership between horse and rider makes an equestrian event more than just a sport.