Spectators Guide to Horse Trials Part 1

Welcome to the sport of Horse Trials. We hope that this guide will help you to understand the various aspects of the sport and increase your enjoyment.

The sport of Horse Trials is complex embracing as it does so many different disciplines, each with its own specific objective. Put these together to create an overall test of horsemanship – and it is little wonder that those not directly involved find it all a bit baffling!

The sport as we know it has come a long way since the days of “the Military” – a competition for army chargers. The perfect cavalry horse was expected to be relaxed and obedient on parade, to be responsive to his rider during battle, to be fit enough to travel across all types of terrain, sometimes at speed, and to be able to jump any obstacle in his path. After such strenuous activity horses had to be fit and ready to carry out further duties the following dasy. Soundness and courage were essential – and so it is in modem day Horse Trials.

Horse Trials offers you, the spectator, so much – the elegance of Dressage, the excitement of Cross- Country and the entertainment of Show Jumping.

Each Horse Trials is made up of three different tests: Dressage, Cross Country and Show Jumping, the scores from each test combining to produce an overall total – rather like a pentathlon in Athletics. In equestrian sport men and women compete on equal terms. As it is the horses that are graded, not the riders, you will often see well known riders competing to bring on their less experienced horses at Novice Events. Imagine going to a local cricket match and being able to watch Ian Botham or David Gower playing!

Spectator’s Guide to Horse Trials Part 2


Dressage, often described as ballet with horses, can be a mystery to people who spectate at Horse Trials. Perhaps the sport that compares closest is Ice -Skating’s Compulsory Figures. It is always the first phase in a Horse Trial and its purpose is to judge a horse’s ability to perform a number of set movements (a test) within a marked out arena. The letters round the arena indicate where movements should start and finish – accurate riding can often earn a rider those vital extra marks.

Each movement has a maximum score of 10. A competitor generally needs to be scoring a minimum of 6-7 out of 10 for each movement to have any chance of being amongst the leaders after the dressage phase. They are being judged on freedom and regularity of paces, willingness, accuracy, attention and obedience.

Show Jumping

This phase of Horse Trials is designed to test the ability of horse and rider to jump coloured obstacles which, unlike cross-country fences, can be knocked down. A horse, which is trained to gallop across country jumping fixed obstacles, can be careless over light poles. The height of the fences is low in comparison to “pure” Show Jumping such as those held at Wembley or Hickstead because this phase of a Horse Trial is only part of an overall test.

At Horse Trials there are 4 penalties for knocking a fence down with 4 penalties for the first refusal and 8 for the second A third refusal incurs elimination.

Cross Country

All Horse Trials ‘include a Cross Country test over a course of fixed obstacles ranging in height from 3’6″ – 3’9″ and in number from 16 – 24 depending on the level. All courses normally include a variety of fences of varying severity including water and ditches and have to be completed clear and in an optimum time if penalties are not to be incurred. Horses and riders compete individually starting at 2 to 3 minute intervals. Fitness of both horse and rider is of paramount importance and the welfare of the horse is ensured by the attendance of qualified veterinary surgeons.

Most events run a range of classes to suit differing grades of horses. The Pre-Novice is designed as a relaxed introduction to the Sport. Competent combinations of horse and rider can opt to start competing at Novice level – designed to encourage the less experienced. At Intermediate level, horse and rider really start to progress, jumping fences which are not just bigger but which ask more questions in terms of take off and landing demanding a bolder, more accurate approach.

Spectator’s Guide to Horse Trials Part 3

Horse Trials are scored in penalties – so the competitor with the lowest score wins as in Golf. In the dressage phase, the penalty score is arrived at by adding up all the good marks awarded, subtracting them from the maximum possible and then reducing them by the application of a coefficient. This is done to prevent the dressage from exerting an undue influence on the competition as a whole. The ideal ratio is 3: 12: 1 – Dressage: Cross-Country: Show Jumping.

In the Cross Country and Show Jumping, penalties are awarded for exceeding the optimum time or for incurring jumping penalties. There are no bonus points available for completing any phase inside the optimum time – the really skilful rider brings his horse home as close to the optimum as possible so as to conserve energy and ensure he remains fit to “fight another day”.

Horse Trials (also known as Eventing) is the most all round test of both horse and rider demanding fitness, discipline and courage. A top Event Horse and Rider must excel in all three phases and not just be a specialist in one.

We hope you enjoy your day and if you have any further queries do please come to the Secretary’s Tent where we will be pleased to help you if we can!