Equestrianism relates to the riding of horses. This broad description includes both riding horses for practical purposes such as in police work or for controlling herd animals on a ranch, as well as recreational and sporting aspects such as horse riding sports, dressage, show jumping, eventing, vaulting and polo. Other horse riding sports include horse-racing, hunting, fox hunting, rodeo, barrel racing, pole bending, flag racing, western and hunter pleasure, western and hunt-seat equitation, trail class, showmanship, horsemanship, reining, roping (heading and heeling), park, English pleasure, country English pleasure, saddle seat equitation, endurance racing, jousting and cavalry. Often, horses are used for casual or rigorous recreational riding (also called trail riding or hacking). 


Recreational riders often hunt, pack, and camp using horses, mules, and donkeys. There is public access to horse trails in almost every part of the world; and many parks, ranches, and barns offer guided and independent trail riding.




Gymkhana Melbourne



In former times equestrianism was closely associated with the military: medieval knights were equestrians, as were their military successors, the cavalry. However, the horse and horseback riding have had an important part in all times and places, from the times of the Roman empire, to medieval knights, to genghis khan and his armies, to the streets of London, to the farms and frontiers of the United States, to the luxury barns and fast-paced horse show world of today.


Horses are used in various sport disciplines, such as horse-racing, dressage and Show jumping.



Horse racing


Humans have always had a desire to know which horse (or horses) could move the fastest, horse-racing has ancient roots. Today, several categories of racing exist:



Races subject to formal gambling


Under saddle:


  1. Thoroughbred flat racing; (under the aegis of the Jockey Club in the United Kingdom and the Jockey Club of North America)

  2. Thoroughbred National Hunt racing or steeplechasing in the UK

  3. Quarter Horse Racing--mostly in the United States, and sanctioned there by the American Quarter Horse Association.

  4. Appaloosa Horse Racing

  5. Arabian Horse Racing


In harness:


  1. The United States Trotting Association organizes harness Racing in the United States (although the horses may also pace)

  2. Harness Racing in Europe, New Zealand and Australia



Amateur races without gambling


  1. Endurance riding, a sport in which the Arabian dominates at the top level, has become very popular in the United States and in Europe. The American Endurance Ride Conference 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. Note especially the Tevis Cup.

  2. 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.


Thoroughbreds have a pre-eminent reputation as a racing breed, but Arabians, Quarter Horses, and Appaloosas also race on the flat in the United States. Quarter Horses traditionally raced for a quarter mile, hence the name. Steeplechasing involves racing on a track where the horses also jump over obstacles. It occurs most commonly in the United Kingdom. Standardbred trotters and pacers race in harness with a sulky or racing bike. In France they also race under saddle.



Show Sports


The traditional competitions of Europe


The three following count as Olympic disciplines:


  • 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.

  • Eventing, combined training, horse trials, "the Military," or "the complete test" as its French name translates, puts together the obedience of dressage with the athletic ability of show jumping, the fitness demands of a long endurance phase (a.k.a. "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.



Baltic Cup  Shannon Mejnert - Sandy



Found in the United States


  • Huntseat classes these days judge the movement and the form of the horse over fences. A typical hunter division would include a flat class, or hack class, in which the horse is judged on its movement. A typical "hack winner" would be known for its flat kneed trot and "daisy cutter" movement, a phrase coined since a good hunter could slice daisies in a field when it flicks its toes out. The over fences portion of the class is judged on the form of the horse 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 slowly but have a step large enough to make it down the lines.

  • Saddleseat (also known as Park or English Pleasure riding), a uniquely American discipline, developed to show to best advantage the extravagantly animated movement of high-stepping gaited breeds such as the American Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walker. Riders also commonly show Arabians and Morgans saddleseat in the United States.

  • Equitation refers to those classes where the position of the rider is judged rather than the form or movement of the horse.


Western riding


Dressage, jumping and cross-country offer forms of what Americans refer to as 'English riding' (although the United States has a strong following of riders in those disciplines). Western riding evolved stylistically from traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and its skills stem from the working needs of the cowboy in the American West. A main differentiating factor comes from the need of the cowboy to rope cattle with a lariat (or lasso). The cowboy must control the horse with one hand and use the lariat with the other hand. That means that horses must learn to neck rein, that is, to respond to light pressure of the slack rein against the horse's neck. Once the cowboy has twirled the lariat and thrown its loop over a cow's head, he must snub the rope to the horn of his saddle. For roping calves, the horse learns to pull back against the calf, which falls to the ground, while the cowboy dismounts and ties the calf's feet together so that he can brand it, treat it for disease, and so on. Working with half-wild cattle, frequently in terrain where one cannot see what lurks behind the next bush, means the ever-present very great danger of becoming unseated in an accident miles from home and friends.


These multiple work needs mean that cowboys require different tack, most notably a curb bit (usually with longer bars than an English equitation curb or pelham bit would have) which works by leverage, long split reins (the ends of which can serve as an impromptu quirt) and a special kind of saddle. The Western saddle has a very much more substantial frame (traditionally made of wood) to absorb the shock of roping, a prominent pommel surmounted by a horn (a big knob for snubbing the lasso after roping an animal), and, frequently, tapaderos ("taps") covering the front of the stirrups to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup in an accident and resulting in a frightened horse dragging him behind it. The cowboy's boots, which have high heels of an uncommon shape, also feature a specific design to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup.


Technically, fewer differences between 'English' and Western riding exist than most people think.


The outfit of the competition Western rider differs from that of the dressage or 'English' rider. In dressage all riders wear the same to prevent distraction from the riding itself. But show -- in the form of outfit (and silver ornaments on saddle and tack) -- forms part of Western riding. The riders must wear cowboy boots, jeans, a shirt with long sleeves, and a cowboy hat. Riders can choose any color, and optionally accoutrements such as chaps, bolo ties, belt buckles, and (shiny) spurs.



Competitions exist in the following forms:


  • Western pleasure - the rider must show the horse in walk, jog (a slow, controlled trot), trot and lope (a slow, controlled canter). The horse must remain under control, with the rider directing minimal force through the reins and otherwise using minimal interference.

  • Reining - considered by some the "dressage" of the western riding world, reining requires horse and rider to perform a precise pattern consisting of canter circles, rapid "spins" (a particularly athletic turn on the haunches), and the sliding stop (executed from a full gallop).

  • Cutting: more than any other, this event highlights the "cow sense" prized in stock breeds such as the Quarter horse. The horse and rider select and separate a calf out of a small group. The calf then tries to return to its herdmates; the rider loosens the reins and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the calf separated, a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. A jury awards points to the cutter.

  • Team penning: a popular timed event in which a team of 3 riders must select 3 to 5 marked steers out of a herd and drive them into a small pen. The catch: the riders cannot close the gate to the pen till they have corralled all the cattle (and only the intended cattle) inside.

  • Trail class: in this event, the rider has to maneuver the horse through an obstacle course in a ring. Speed is not important, but total control of the horse is. The horses have to move sideways, make 90 degree turns while moving backwards, a fence has to be opened and/or closed while mounted, and more such maneuvers relevant to everyday ranch or trail riding tasks are demonstrated.

  • Barrel racing and pole bending: the timed speed/agility events of rodeo. 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 gallop the length of a line of six upright poles, turn sharply and weave through the poles, turn again and weave back, and gallop back to the start.

  • Halter class: here the horse is shown with only a halter and without a rider, but with a handler controlling the horse from the ground using a leadrope. The standard position of the handler is on the left side with the shoulder near the horse's eye. The horse is taken through a short pattern where the horse and handler must demonstrate control during walk, jog and turns. In regular halter class, judges will put emphasis on the performance and build of the horse when awarding points, in 'showmanship at halter' the performance of the handler and horse are both judged equally. Clothing of the handler and the halters tend to be more flashy in this discipline. Halter class is particularly popular with younger riders who do not yet have the skill or confidence to partake in other forms.

  • Steer wrestling: Europe does not allow this activity because of animal welfare concerns, but it occurs in the USA and Canada, usually at rodeo events. While riding, the rider jumps off his horse onto a steer and 'wrestles' it to the ground.

  • Roping: also banned in Europe. In calf roping, the rider has to catch a running calf by the neck with a lasso, stop the animal in its tracks, rapidy dismount the horse and immobilize the calf by tying three of its legs together. In team roping, one horse and rider lassos a running steer's horns, while another horse and rider lassos the steer's two hind legs.

  • Bronc riding (riding a bucking "wild" horse for a timed duration) counts as a separate event, not considered part of Western riding as such. It consists of bareback bronc riding and of saddle bronc riding.



Haute école

The haute école ("high school") is a highly refined set of horseback skills.

Leading haute école démonstration teams include:


Other horse sports

  • Bullfighting (rejoneo)

  • Tent pegging

  • Driving, traditionally a buggy, carraige or wagon pulled by a single horse or tandem (team of horses). Some contemporary driving competitions are based on traversing obstacles at speed. Pleasure competitions are judged on the turnout/neatness of horse and buggy.

  • Charreada, the highest form of Mexican horsemanship based on a mixture of Spanish and Native traditions.

  • Fox hunting

  • Horse hacking

  • Horse show

  • Jousting

  • Hunter Pacing, a sport where a trained rider rides a trail at speeds based on its condition and then people compete to ride closest to that perfect time. Hunter paces are usually held in a series. Hunter paces are usually a few miles long.

  • 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.

  • Rapa das bestas

  • Reining

  • Rodeo

  • Dressage

  • Le Trec, orienteering on horseback - consists of three stages covering orienteering, negotiation of obstacles and control of paces.

  • Show Jumping

  • 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. Competitive trail riding involves riding over long distances with scheduled stops to take the horses' vital signs.

  • Cross Country Jumping, a jumping course that contains logs, and natural obstacles mostly. The common clothes worn are usually brighter colors and less conservative.

  • 3-Day Eventing- a competition where you are judged on your total score from a day of dressage, stadium jumping and cross country

  • Polocrosse

  • Campdrafting

  • Vaulting (gymnastics and dance on horseback)

  • Steeplechase

  • Gymkhana


The Chiddingly Horse Show and Gymkhana is now in its 54th Year.  A Gymkhana (derived from the Urdu word for "racket court") is an Indian term for a place where sporting events take place and refers to any of various meets at which contests are held to test the skill of the competitors, such as in the sports of equestrianship, gymnastics, or sports car racing.

In the United Kingdom, the term gymkhana now almost always refers to an equestrian event, often with the emphasis on children's participation (such as those organised by the Pony Club), although in the past the word was sometimes used for motorsport events.


In equestrian competitions, gymkhana classes are timed speed events such as barrel racing, keyhole, keg race (also know as "down and back"), and pole bending.  The Chiddingly event includes: Jumping, Showing, Novice Corner & Gymkhana Events, Working Hunter, Mountain & Moorland, Handy Pony, Clear Round, Fancy Dress, Pleasure Driving and Cones Driving



Criticism of horses in sport


Most animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which advocate against animal ownership, target wilder horse "sports", with claims of animal cruelty. Horse racing and rodeo are more easily targeted because of their extensive use of animals in sport. It is difficult for people to differentiate between normal equine abilities and actual abuse.


One problem is a disagreement about terms like abuse. Animal rights activists have a strict idea of what animal abuse is, and prefer nothing is done against the will of the animal in question.


Many people are less concerned with the free will of horses, and are worried that sports may cause injuries to horse athletes, just as they do for human athletes. Those in favor of using horses in sport point out that horses in nature are injured much more often and more severely than those in sport. This brings a dilemma: If a horse gets an injury while competing, is this immoral? If a horse slips in its pasture while playing, is this OK? Animal rights activists believe that the injury in a pasture is self inflicted and natural, where as injuries from sport are forced upon horses by humans, and an unnecessary part of the horse's life, making injury from sport immoral.


Rodeos claim that an injured horse is less profitable than a healthy horse. Activists claim rodeos turn a blind eye to minor injuries which do not impair performance. They also cite psychological harm, poor living conditions, forced breeding, and the killing of unprofitable horses as forms of abuse. Many horse owners that compete in sports, however, do not force-breed, kill unprofitable horses, or have poor living conditions for their horses. Contradictory evidence is often provided by opposing sides, which may lead one to believe that while select few horse breeders can be considered inhumane, the majority are not. Sports like rodeo and racing are closely monitored by veterinarians to prevent and treat injuries if they occur. Animal living conditions vary, but many rodeo stock live on open ranches when not working on the weekend. Horse professionals claim they know better what is best for horses than rights activists that live horseless lives and are easily influenced by propaganda. Rights activists claim that horse professionals are biased on the matter of what is best for horses for their own personal gains.


Many horse owners are interested in the well being and welfare of horses, and are allied with animal rights advocates and animal welfare advocates in believing that genuine abuse of horses should end.





International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) official homepage


E-Equestrian Horse Forum Equestrian Community dedicated to all aspects of riding disciplines and horsemanship

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