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The word “Dressage” is French for “training”. It is considered the classical foundation for all Equestrian training. Dressage tests the ability of horse and rider to display both athletic prowess and supreme elegance. It is often compared to ballet. Dressage requires precision, technical excellence and harmony between horse and rider.

The Basics:

In modern eventing Dressage competitions, the horse and rider perform a set series of movements known as a Dressage “test”.


The tests are performed in a 60m x 20m arena before a panel of seven judges, who award marks out of 10 for individual movements and for the overall routine.

Dressage fills the first two days of competition in eventing. Each horse and rider performs a dressage test in front of a panel of judges. The judges’ scores are converted into penalty points, which are carried forward to the next stage of the competition, the cross-country.

cross country

The Cross country phase of eventing  is an endurance test. The object of the endurance test is to prove the speed, endurance and jumping ability of the true cross-country horse. At the same time, it demonstrates the rider’s knowledge of pace and the use of this horse across country.

The cross-country test occurs on day three of the competition, and is where combinations must gallop (at a speed of 570 metres per minute) and jump up to 45 fixed fences on a course between 5,700m and 6,270m long. Every horse and rider combination accrues points for jumping errors and time penalties, which are added to any penalty points awarded during the dressage test to give a cumulative score.

The cross-country phase is the phase that appeals most to spectators and riders alike. It is the ultimate challenge to prepare a horse for this rigorous test. Unlike other sports, where only the human will and body are pitted against the clock, in eventing, two minds and bodies have to work as one.

Because the lowest score wins, each combination of horse and rider seeks to complete the cross-country with as few penalties as possible. If larger faults occur, such as multiple refusals, the horse will be eliminated (E) from competition and will not be allowed to finish the course. Riders may also choose to retire (R) on course if their horse is having a poor run. This prevents the rider from continuing the competition, but is often a good choice if the horse is physically or mentally overfaced by the challenges. Mandatory Retirement (MR) occurs if the horse falls, even if he is not noticeably injured, to help protect the horse’s welfare. Withdrawing (W) only occurs if the horse is taken out of competition when he is not on course. A rider may be disqualified (DQ) if they endanger their mount or other people on course.

penalties in cross country

Disobediences from the horse:

  • First refusal or crossing tracks (circling) in front of an obstacle: 20 penalties per obstacle

  • 2nd refusal or crossed tracks at the same obstacle: 40 additional penalties

  • 3rd refusal or crossed tracks at the same obstacle (an “obstacle” includes all its elements): elimination

  • 4th cumulative refusal or crossed tracks on the entire course: elimination.


Errors on course:

  • Jumping obstacles in the wrong order (#5 before #4, or element B before A): elimination

  • Jumping a fence in a direction which is not flagged: elimination

  • Omission of a jump or compulsory passage: elimination

  • Note: the only time a competitor may jump an obstacle twice in a row is if a refusal occurs at a second element (B) and the rider can not approach “B” without re-jumping “A” (a bounce, for example)

  • Note: the horse is only allowed to jump from a standstill if the obstacle’s height is no higher than 30 cm (for example, banks and ditches). Jumping any other obstacles from a standstill (a “prolonged halt”) counts as a refusal.

  • Note: horses are allowed to step sideways, but any step back is considered a refusal.


  • Fall of Rider: Elimination

  • Fall of horse (quarters and shoulder touches ground): Mandatory retirement

  • Note: riders may dismount at anytime on course without penalty, but the dismount must not be related to an obstacle

Time faults:

  • Every second commenced above the optimum time, rounded up to the nearest second: 0.4 penalties/sec

  • Exceeding the allowed time (2× the optimum time): elimination

  • In the United States, going too fast for the level will result in “Speed Faults”: 0.4 penalties/sec for every second under the Speed fault time

  • Trying to increase one’s time, or “willfull delay,” to avoid speed faults (circling, serpentining, walking, or halting between the final fence and the finish): 20 penalties

Other reasons for elimination:

  • Rider without headgear or a fastened harness strap

  • Improper saddlery (for example, riding with a running martingaleand no rein stops)

  • Overtaking another rider on course in a dangerous manner (for example, jumping a fence at the same time as the other rider)

  • Willful obstruction of an overtaking competitor

  • Failure to stop on course when signalled

  • Horses head and front shoulder outside of the flags

  • In lower level cross country competitions, failure to wear medical armband (at discretion of Ground Jury)

show jumping 

The eventing competition gets a grandstand finish on day four with the jumping tests (widely known as ‘show jumping’).

Here the horses and riders must negotiate a course of show jumps in an arena. The jumps are designed so that the rails will fall down if knocked. Penalties are awarded for jumping errors and time penalties.

The Jumping competition requires horse and rider to navigate a course of jumps that fall if knocked, demanding precision, speed and perfect technique.

At 4-star level eventing, the show jumps are a maximum of 1.30m in height, considerably smaller than in pure “jumping” events where jumps are 1.60m. Considering horses are required to gallop at high speed over fixed obstacles for close to 7kms the previous day, this element of the competition is still regarded to be highly difficult.

Penalties from this final phase are added to their previous dressage and cross-country scores to determine the overall rankings.

Quick Reference:

Clear round: A round without any faults.

Fault: Penalty points awarded for making a mistake: for instance, knocking down a jump or exceeding the allotted time. Four penalty points are allocated when a rail is knocked down

Refusal: When a horse stops at a jump, incurring faults.

Star ratings:

CCI: International eventing competition

CSI: International jumping competition

CDI: International dressage competition

The number of stars that appear after the class name indicates the level of the class. The higher the number, the greater the difficulty.


It takes a very special horse to excel in all three phases of eventing. It takes a minimum of 4-5 years to get a horse to the Olympic level. On average 4-star horses range in age from 10-18 years. Thoroughbreds have been very successful in eventing due to their ability to gallop, their athleticism and their bravery. A warmblood/throughbred cross is also very popular for eventing.

As an additional attraction, eventing is the only high-risk Olympic sport that permits men and women to compete as equals. There are no separate divisions for either rider or horse. Some of the top riders in the world today are women from many nations.

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