Equestrian events are among the most regal and the most visually striking competitions staged in the world of sport. Equestrian is the only Olympic sport where a human is partnered with an animal; aside from sailing, equestrian is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete on an equal footing in the same arena.
Equestrian has been a part of the Olympic Games since 1900. The inclusion of equestrian competitions was inspired by the ancient chariot races of Greek and Roman times. Equestrian is a sport associated with wealth. When the cost of quality horses, their ongoing care, training, and travel expenses are calculated, the significant financial outlay required to participate in equestrian events reduces the accessibility of these sports.
The International Federation of Equestrian Sports, FEI, is the body recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the governing authority in these sports. The FEI governs eight distinct equestrian competitions—jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, reining, vaulting, and para-equestrian. The best known of the equestrian disciplines, by virtue of the structure of Olympic competition, are dressage and jumping.
Dressage, a French expression for "training" is a competition that takes place entirely within a designated show ring. The horse and rider endeavor to demonstrate to a panel of judges the degree of training that the horse has achieved, coupled with the extent of obedience and control that the rider is able to maintain over the horse. The dressage is sometimes compared to a form of dance in which the
The jumping competition, often referred to as show jumping, is a physically demanding aspect of the equestrian sport. The horse must be directed by the rider over a course located within an outdoor arena. The course is identical for all competitors, with a fixed length and predetermined obstacles of varying heights and dimensions, all of which must be completed within a set time. The horse and rider are subject to penalty faults for either dislodging an obstacle or if they fail to compete the course within the prescribed limit.
The three-day event, also known by the short form "eventing" is the third of the Olympic equestrian competitions. It is contested by horse/rider teams, with no substitution of either a horse or a rider once the event begins. The three-day event is composed of a dressage competition, a cross-country race, and a jumping competition conducted on successive days. Unlike the enclosed and controlled atmosphere of the dressage and jumping arenas, the cross-country event is a series of outdoor races that culminate in an open field gallop conducted over a race course that includes a series of jumps built for the natural terrain, where the riders must cover a distance of approximately 6,200 yd (5,700 m) in length. The cross-country course also includes a water obstacle that requires the horse to be virtually immersed in the water. The demands on the horse in this event are significant, and it is as much a test of the ability of the horse to recover between the competition each day, as it is a challenge for the rider to direct their attention to three entirely different types of competition in sequence.
General musculoskeletal fitness is important for an equestrian competitor. The events take place over a number of hours at a given time, and well-developed aerobic fitness assists riders in preventing fatigue. Excess weight on a rider is undesirable, given the nature of all equestrian events. An important feature of equestrian success is a rider's ability to exert strong emotional self-control, so as to maintain focus, especially when faced with the need to make instantaneous decisions involving the manipulation of an animal that may weigh over 1,500 lb (700 kg). Given the required mental element of equestrian, and the importance of rider experience, many riders are able to successfully compete past the age of 40 years.
No one breed of horse is used in Olympic or international equestrian events. In the history of the Olympic equestrian competition, successful horses have ranged from those that are the product of a carefully developed equine bloodline, to animals that were salvaged from a variety of circumstances because a horse fancier observed features or characteristics that were likely to render them suitable for the rigors of equestrian. An equestrian team requires a significant support group, including groomers, trainers, veterinarian support, as well as coaching for the riders.