Dressage Diva does disciplines

By Georgina Roberts


FEI definition: eventing

“A formidable combination of cross-country, jumping and dressage. Eventing is often known as the triathlon of the equestrian world. A truly complete sport that tests both the horse and rider in all aspects of horsemanship, and one of the three Olympic disciplines.”

Unofficial definition: eventing
“Eventing is for people who realise one discipline isn’t hard enough, and know that showjumpers need heroes too.”


It started innocently enough at the Gauteng Eventing Awards party last year. Despite being a devoted dressage diva, I had landed up coaching some eventing pupils, and they had invited me along to this auspicious occasion where I was greeted by a hobby-horse cross-country race. Note: there were adult men competing in this event, decked in hula skirts and coconut bras, keeping in with the Hawaiian theme. I felt like I was home. There was camaraderie, laughing, eating, drinking and general goodwill. I passed a flippant comment that maybe I should come eventing … don’t ever joke with crazy people. Before I knew it, I had been offered a horse by a top coach and rider’s representative.

I have to point out that this is the inherent generosity of the eventing crowd. While every sport (and discipline) does have politics at play, these folk seem to operate from a general base of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. They were beyond excited that I was willing to do this, and I was amazed by the attitude of the DA (discipline association) in general. Registration was a friendly and painless process, show entries were surprisingly affordable for what was effectively three classes, and people were more than willing to answer questions and help me make things happen, even though they didn’t know me. And so this article was born – A Dummies Guide To Eventing and Why You Should Totally Try It.

What is eventing?

Eventing is a single discipline incorporating dressage, cross-country and showjumping for one horse and rider combination for one overall mark. It originated as a military discipline, which is a pretty good gauge of what is coming next, because these riders are the Navy Seals of equestrianism. But a nicer bunch of lunatics you would be hard-pressed to find in a sport that British Eventing describes as “The ultimate equestrian challenge”.

The dressage was originally designed to demonstrate the horse’s ability to perform on the parade ground, where elegance and obedience were key. Cross-country began as a test of stamina, courage and bravery over difficult terrain, important for a charger on long marches or if the horse was asked to carry a dispatch across country. The showjumping phase sought to prove the horse’s continuing soundness and fitness after the difficult cross-country day.

The combination’s mark is calculated on penalties, so the lowest score wins. The dressage tests are relatively friendly, with more emphasis being placed on obedience, submission and accuracy, and the mark is a reversed percentage of the final result. The country is the most heavily weighted phase, meaning that a stop in the country would effectively knock you out of contention for a prize with the 20 penalties it brings you, as opposed to five penalties for a stop in the showjumping (but seriously, if your horse stops at a showjump after seeing the cross-country fences, then you need to ask him some life questions). After all of this the horse should still have enough stamina and be careful enough to jump a clear showjumping round on the third day, and in an ideal world you should be finishing on your dressage score, having incurred no penalties in the country or the jumping.

Let’s talk about the country …

Dressage and showjumping will be covered in their relative discipline features, so let’s get to the exciting stuff! All you really need to know about those phases is that turnout and technical rules still apply as they would for normal shows.
The cross-country course requires enough room over just about any terrain for competitors to jump anywhere from around 18 to 26 ‘natural’ obstacles. I say ‘natural’ because naturally horses would go around these, obviously, but they are basically big solid things that involve holes in the ground, water, ski slopes on either end, and the occasional sheer precipice. Just when you are getting used to the rustic look, the course builder will throw in a giant white house or bright red plastic bags so that you and your horse need to renegotiate the terms of your relationship.

But how dangerous is it really?

Let’s be honest, the equestrian sport is just tricky, whatever discipline you do. Walking on a long rein can be hazardous for your health if your horse decides he is Sea Cottage reincarnated. But there have been HUGE developments in eventing over the past decade to minimise these risks, from improving the safety standard of helmets worn, to the development of the air jacket which inflates and protects the rider’s neck and torso in the event of a fall. There has even been the creation of the ‘frangible pin’ in cross-country jumps – this means that even though the fences are solid, the poles give way under a certain amount of pressure, almost eliminating falls of the horse.

The vettings at high levels are incredibly tight, and if there is any doubt about the welfare or ability of the horse, there is immediate intervention. And besides the fact that you really need to earn your right to proceed to the next grade, the riders seem to be very educated horsemen and see the value in establishing things at a lower grade before going up. Regulations have also changed when it comes to falls – originally horses were allowed two falls and riders three before elimination! That sounds like an effort in perseverance, but now a first fall for either is automatic elimination and even at small local shows there are always paramedics and an ambulance on site to ensure that riders are not being macho when they are concussed. Although, to quote the paramedics, it’s hard to know if any equestrian has a brain injury because that would require a brain.

It is really impressive to note that after extensive studies there is an FEI white paper revealing that the event horses are the soundest FEI athletes! They put this down to cross-training, varied working surfaces, and superb fitness. Seeing as most injuries are fatigue-related, this makes a lot of sense, and as a human athlete it makes total sense to mix cardio and weights for the ideal bikini body – my dressage horses are going to have to follow suit!

To find out if our dressage diva survives her first ever show buy our next issue HQ137. The full text of this article appears in HQ136 – get yourself a copy to read more! Visit www.coolmags.co.za to buy your digital copy, or order a copy delivered to your door. 

Dressage Diva does disciplines

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