Three-day eventing is known as the triathlon of the equestrian world, and with good reason. At an eventing competition, horses and riders participate in three phases: dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping. Originally patterned after the training and testing of military chargers, three-day eventing is the ultimate test of athleticism, fitness, courage and skill for horse and rider.
The first phase of the competition consists of dressage, which displays the quality of communication between horse and rider. Every dressage test consists of a series of required, or compulsory, movements, such as walking on a loose rein, leg yields, flying and simple changes, half-passes, working trot, working canter and more. Eventing dressage levels range nationally from Beginner Novice (easiest) to Advanced (most difficult), while international levels go from 1* through 5*. The higher levels require more complex movements, such as pirouettes. Judges score the dressage test by assessing each required movement. As they score, they look for precision and smoothness of movement, suppleness and complete obedience.
The second phase of the competition is one of the most exciting and most challenging: cross-country jumping. In cross-country, the horse and rider must navigate a course of jumps across open terrain, often at a full gallop. The goal is to finish the course on time and with as few penalties as possible. Penalties consist of jumping errors, such as refusals or falls, or by exceeding the maximum time allowed for the course. Cross-country jumping tests the athleticism, fitness and courage of horse and rider.
The final phase of the competition is show-jumping. In eventing show jumping, the horse and rider’s goal is to finish the course within an optimum time frame with the fewest number of penalties. Unlike cross-country jumping, show jumps are usually made up of lightweight rails that can be easily knocked down. If one rail falls, the resultant penalty can be a game changer – so it’s not unusual for the crowd to hold its collective breath each time a new horse and rider enters the course.
Because it consists of three different phases, three-day eventing requires different gear and tack for each phase. It’s not uncommon for riders to change saddles or bridles from day to day, in addition to changing the horse’s type of leg protection. Let’s look at some of the tack and gear required for three-day eventing.
Even the most skilled rider on the most trustworthy horse can fall sometimes, and that’s why a properly fitted and certified horseback riding helmet should be an essential piece of equipment for every eventer. As recently as 2020, dressage riders wore top hats as a matter of tradition, but in late 2019, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) officially ruled that dressage riders must always wear protective headgear. This rule became effective as of January 1, 2021. Per the United States Equestrian Federation, all riders must wear ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials)/SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) certified helmets at all times while mounted.
A rider’s clothing will vary from phase to phase. In dressage, riders typically wear short show coats in conservative colors, show shirts, stock ties, show breeches and dressage boots. Gloves are required in eventing dressage and will protect your hands from blisters or chafing. In cross-country jumping, riders often wear breeches and tall boots with long-sleeved or polo shirts and a safety vest as well as a helmet. Inflatable vests are designed to inflate with air in the event of a fall, which can be especially helpful on the cross-country course. In show jumping, riders typically wear short black show coats over white show shirts with chokers or stock ties, with white or light-colored breeches and tall black boots. Female riders often choose to pin long hair into buns and use hair nets to secure them.
FOR THE HORSE
Tack and gear choices vary from horse to horse and rider to rider, as well as from level to level. Lower-level dressage riders often compete in just one saddle, while those competing at higher levels may choose to change saddles between each phase. Dressage saddles typically have deeper seats with cushioning in the knee rolls, while jumping saddles may have extra-forward flaps to help assist a rider with getting into proper jumping form. Saddle pads can likewise vary depending on the fit of the saddle and the preference of the horse and rider. Many eventers also prefer to use two bridles: one for dressage and one for jumping.
Leg protection for eventers is essential for the cross-country and show-jumping phases. In cross-country, the obstacles are typically fixed, which means they don’t give or fall easily if a horse raps a knee or fetlock on the jump. There are a variety of boots available on the market for eventers. Bell boots help protect the horse’s hooves, especially if the horse is prone to overreach and clip its front feet with its hind feet. Splint boots, or brushing boots, help prevent the horse from brushing its legs together and protect the splint bones. Specially designed for jumping, open front boots consist of a hard shell that helps protect the inside and back of the horse’s leg, where the tendons are located. Soft polo wraps are useful for offering support and protection to the limbs. In the dressage phase of the eventing competition, it’s important to note that polo wraps, leg protection and boots are illegal.
Three-day eventing is an intense and demanding sport, but it’s also one of the most rewarding disciplines in the horse industry. If you want to learn more about preparing for eventing, check out FitEquine’s newest course with eventer Lauren Nicholson – coming soon!