The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are officially underway, and that means that millions of people around the world are about to get weirdly invested in sports they had previously never heard of. I, personally, love learning about new sports and then forgetting everything I learned immediately after the Olympics end.
However, some sports are a lot easier to understand than others. I, for example, am an equestrian, and during the Olympics, I often find myself explaining how the sport works to my friends, because nobody can figure it out.
Equestrian sports aren’t the most entertaining sports to watch, but they do get more fun if you know how they work and what to look for. Here’s my best attempt at explaining what to watch for in equestrian competitions.
Equestrian is both the only Olympic sport that involves animals, and the only one in which men and women compete against each other. There are many different disciplines that fit under the umbrella of “equestrian sports,” but there are three main sports that you’ll see at the Olympics: Showjumping, Dressage, and Cross-Country.
You may also hear the word “Eventing,” which is a triathlon involving all three of the aforementioned disciplines. Cross-Country is only done as part of the Eventing competition. Showjumping and Dressage are included both in the Eventing competition, and as separate competitions. In general, you will see a much higher skill level in the non-Eventing competitions, because the horses and riders are much more specialized in the particular discipline in which they are competing.
How it works: Showjumping is very simple. The goal is to clear as many fences as possible in as little time as possible.
You have to jump all the fences in a specific order, within a specific time frame. If your horse knocks over or refuses to jump a fence, you get four faults. If you go over the allotted time, you receive one fault per second over the time. If multiple riders manage a clear round – meaning, they stay within the allotted time and don’t knock over or refuse any fences – then they all advance to a “jump-off,” which is a bonus round. Everyone who makes it to the jump-off goes over the course a second time, and the fastest time wins (penalties for knocking over fences mean extra time added to your score).
The sport requires extremely fast thinking and a good strategy. The fences in these courses are absurdly high, and not very wide, meaning that the horses have to jump almost straight up. This is really difficult for horses to do. The horse needs to be well-balanced, pointing straight at the jump and taking off at exactly the right distance, and it’s up to the rider to make that happen. If you approach a jump at a bad angle, or don’t give your horse enough space to take off, your horse will likely refuse the jump – or try to jump it and fail. This sport is all about angles and timing. Cutting corners could cut down on your time, but it makes it a lot more likely that you’ll mess up one of the jumps.
Entertainment value: High.
What to watch for: Remember what I said about showjumping being all about angles and timing? Approaching the jump in the right way? Let me elaborate on that.
The key to watching showjumping is to look at how the horse and rider approach each jump. For example, let’s say the course has what’s called a combination. This means that there are at least two jumps that need to be jumped one right after the other.
Let’s say that the jumps are two strides apart. This means that the average horse will land, take two steps (or strides), and then take off.
The problem is that not every horse takes the same size steps.
Let’s say I’m about to do this combination, and I’m on a smaller horse. I know that my horse is not tall enough to make this combination in two strides. For my horse, there are, in fact, two and a half strides between these two jumps.
This poses a problem for me. If my horse lands, then takes two normal sized strides, it will still be a half stride away from the next jump. This means that the horse can do one of two things. It can take a tiny half-step, which will throw my weight forward and halt the horse’s momentum. Imagine you’re trying to jump over something and you stop right in front of it before you take off. You’re going to have a lot of trouble jumping that obstacle now that you’ve lost all your momentum. It’s basically the same for a horse. The other option is to take off early, doing a massive jump, but that’s also a problem, because then your horse is jumping forward instead of up, and you’re not going to be able to clear a really big fence.
Basically, you need to avoid those half-steps.
The solution? Well, once again, I have two options. Option one is to push my horse forward and try to do the combination in two massive strides. This is risky, because my horse will have to stretch out a lot and might have trouble getting its legs under it for that second jump, but it’s still better than a half-step. Option two is to sit back after the first jump and try to slow my horse down, so that it takes three small strides instead of two big ones. Again, it’s a risk, because my horse might not manage to squeeze that extra step in, and because I’m slowing its momentum, but it’s still preferable to a half-step.
Riders have to make decisions like this one at every jump. Most of them will be counting their horse’s strides under their breath the entire time they’re doing the course. They all get the chance to walk around the course before the competition starts, so they always attack the course with a game plan – knowing exactly where to turn and how many strides to take in between each combination. The sport is already very intense, but it gets even more intense if you know how to evaluate a rider’s approach to a jump.
How it works: I’d say that dressage is most comparable to ballet, but for horses. Each competitor has to perform a series of very difficult maneuvers in a specific order, showcasing their horse’s athleticism, and the rider’s control over the animal. Everyone does the same routine – which is called the “dressage test” – and is scored by a panel of judges based on how well they perform each element of the test.
There is also a separate type of dressage called “freestyle.” In this one, each horse and rider pair puts together a unique routine set to music.
Entertainment value: Low for traditional dressage, but the freestyle is kind of fun.
What to watch for: Dressage is probably the least watchable of all the equestrian sports. However, something that a lot of non-equestrians don’t realize is that these horse and rider pairs may have never practiced the dressage test together before the competition.
You can’t practice a dressage test in its entirety before a competition, because if your horse gets too familiar with the test, it’s going to start anticipating each element, which means that it will start cutting corners, or half-assing moves, or speeding up or slowing down too quickly. The horse won’t be listening to the rider enough, because it thinks it knows what it’s doing, and as a result it won’t be able to do the test properly.
In dressage, the horse has no idea what it’s supposed to do next – the rider is in complete control. The horse and rider will have practiced each element individually, and done other dressage tests as practice, but they’ve probably only done this specific one together a few times. The rider memorized the test by practicing it on foot, without a horse. You’ll notice that a dressage horse rounds its neck and back, putting a lot of weight in the bit (a metal bar resting in the horse’s mouth, connected to the reins). Its movements are controlled, deliberate, and very well-balanced, because it’s completely reliant on the rider, waiting for the rider’s signal before doing anything.
Part of the goal of dressage, though, is to make it look like the opposite is true. The rider is supposed to be completely still, basically a statue on top of the horse, while the horse performs all of these complicated maneuvers. The rider is communicating through extremely subtle changes in the placement of their hands, the pressure they’re putting on the horse’s side with their legs, and even the way their weight is distributed in the saddle (no, vocal commands are not used). It takes years to perfect these moves even just as a rider. I have a decent background in dressage, but if you put me on one of these Olympic horses and asked me to complete an Olympic dressage test, I’d be completely lost.
How it works: This one is even simpler than show jumping. It’s held out in big fields with lots of hills, with natural-looking jumps – logs, ditches, hedges, puddles, etc. These jumps aren’t as tall as the ones in showjumping, but they’re often much wider, and very weirdly shaped. They also don’t fall apart, so the horse either jumps the obstacle or it doesn’t. The goal is to clear all the jumps in the correct order as quickly as possible. The fastest time wins.
This is the most dangerous of all the equestrian sports in the Olympics, and probably the only one that requires a trigger warning for potentially horrific accidents. It takes endurance, athleticism, a fearless horse, and total disregard for one’s safety. There’s a reason riders are required to wear safety vests. The course is also so big that you have multiple riders going at once.
Riders identify jumps by the flags on each side of them – the hite flag has to be on your left, and the right flag is on your right. It doesn’t matter how you clear the obstacle, as long as you’re in between the flags, going in the correct direction.
Entertainment value: Depends. It’s exhilarating for the first few rounds, and then everyone is doing the same thing.
Danger level: High.
What to watch for: You won’t get fancy combinations in this one, but you will get incredibly weird jumps, and as the competition continues, you’ll figure out which ones pose the biggest challenges. There really isn’t much more to it. It’s a very simple sport.
Equestrian sports at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics begin on Saturday, July 24th. You can view the full schedule here.