Equestrian Disciplines Explained

By Alyssa Mammano

The most exquisite custom equestrian properties boast specialized outbuildings and equipment intended to train elite riders and their horses in preparation for competition. With Dressage rings and Jumping obstacles at hand, equestrians of the upper echelon have the luxury of boarding and training with their horses from the comforts of their own properties. Top equestrians are able to oversee the diet, exercise, health and discipline of their champion horses around the clock. The convenience of having a property tailored to equestrian housing and training allows the athletes to focus on technique and perfecting their craft. Practicing consistently within structures designed specifically for each discipline gives these fortuitous teams a leg up on the competition.

Quite certainly the largest international equestrian event in existence, the FEI World Equestrian Games™ coincide with the Olympic events every four years, with the most recent event held during the latter part of 2018. While the Olympics showcase three major disciplines including Dressage, Eventing and Jumping, World-Champion caliber competitors gather at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ to compete in eight different disciplines. Individuals and teams at this event are judged in Dressage, Para-Equestrian Dressage, Eventing, Jumping, Driving, Endurance, Vaulting and Reining. Horses and riders are both judged separately for performance and style, with combined totals added to each competitor’s team. The world of equestrian competition may be obscure to some, so here we introduce the eight disciplines included in the Equestrian World Championships.


French for “training,” the Dressage discipline is an expression of the relationship between horse and athlete and is often compared to ballet. The demonstration is scored on this strong connection, in addition to power and composition. Elements of the Dressage section include passage, which is an energetic trot; piaffe, or slower trot in place; pirouette, which is a circular rotation; and flying changes, which occur when all four of the horse’s legs change leads in synchrony.


Conducted under the same basic parameters as the Dressage designation, Para-Dressage is the only equestrian discipline that is included in the Paralympic Games. Competitors of different functional abilities are divided into grades to compete against each other in movements and paces dependent on their abilities. This is a highly emotional, beautiful event to watch as it truly showcases the connection horses can have with their riders.


The “triathlon” discipline of equestrian competition, Eventing combines Dressage, Endurance and Jumping using the same horse for all three performances. Taking place over three days, Eventing is a true test of a horse’s endurance and a rider’s athleticism. The goal is for horsemanship to be strong enough that the horse can be controlled during Dressage, fit enough to go the distance during Endurance and still have energy for Jumping.


Jumping is possibly the most exciting event for spectators to watch, as it is the ultimate test of technicality. Riders lead their horses through a course of 10-13 jumps over bars that can be easily knocked down if they are hit. The obstacles range from five feet to five feet and four inches and are laid out in a challenging pattern. The team will also jump over water obstacles up to 13 feet and one inch wide. Penalties are incurred when obstacles are knocked down, refused or if the horse does not manage the course fast enough.


This discipline entails its namesake: driving. In the Driving event, three drivers navigate a carriage led by four horses. The combination begins with a Dressage event in a 330×130-foot rectangle where they perform circles, gait transitions and halts. Then, the marathon takes place in an enclosed track with natural and artificial obstacles. Finally, the team maneuvers through the cones course with balls balancing on top of each cone. If a ball falls from its cone, the team is penalized.


The Endurance discipline tests the stamina of both horse and rider throughout a 100-mile race against the clock. Riders are tested with varying terrain and must maintain the proper pace to ensure the safety of their horses. Checkpoints at every 25th mile protect the health of both rider and horse. Veterinarians provide a variety of maintenance checks and if the horse is lame, is suffering from any metabolic ailments or if its heart rate is too high, it is removed from the race.


Vaulting interestingly combines the sport of gymnastics with equestrian horseback riding. While the horse canters in a steady circle, gymnasts in leotards perform feats of strength, flexibility and balance upon horseback. Vaulting is executed in teams, individually and freestyle and is judged by both the smoothness of the performer’s movements as well as the consistency of the horse’s canter. Perhaps one of the more obscure equestrian events, it is certainly one of the most entertaining to watch.


Of western descent, Reining measures the athletic ability of horses in cattle-wrangling scenarios. Judged in an arena, the discipline encompasses spins, slides, cantering and flying lead changes. Wranglers will lead their horses in a fast canter to a quick stop, where the horse must slide with their hind legs and quickly change directions. Riders in this discipline wear western-style attire including cowboy boots and hats.