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Everything you need to know about eventing at the Olympics


  • What is eventing?

    Eventing is one of three equestrian sports included in the Olympic Games. In eventing, horses and riders take part in three different phases of the competition – the dressage, cross-country and showjumping. Their scores from all three phases are combined to determine the overall placings.

    What do horses and riders have to do?

    The dressage is always the first phase in eventing. Each horse and rider pair enter the arena in turn and perform a set routine of movements, which are marked by a judge or judges – at smaller competitions there is just one judge, while at larger events and the Olympics there are three judges. The dressage at the Olympics will be spread over two days because there are too many pairs for all to be judged in one day.

    The order of the showjumping and cross-country varies at different competitions, but in eventing at the Olympics the cross-country is the second phase and all horses and riders perform on this day, which follows the second dressage day.

    Each horse and rider pair go round the cross-country course separately, in canter or gallop, jumping solid obstacles. These will include features such as water, ditches and steps up and down and also technical tests such as jumping narrow fences and fences at an angle. There will be a number of combination fences where the different jumps are close together and there are not many strides between them. The striding may be set to be difficult so the horse needs to take particularly long or short strides to successfully clear the obstacles. The cross-country course at the Olympic Games in Tokyo will have up to 38 jumping efforts and be around 4500m long. It will take the best competitors approximately eight minutes to complete it.

    In the showjumping, the day after the cross-country, each horse and rider take on a short course of coloured fences which can be knocked down. At most competitions there is only one round of showjumping, but at the Olympic Games, the team medals are determined after the first round and then the top riders go on to an extra round to decide the individual medals. The team jumping round at the Tokyo Olympics will involve up to 16 jumping efforts and the individual round up to 12 efforts.

    How big are the jumps in eventing?

    This depends on the level of competition. At the lowest level of affiliated competition in Britain, the jumps are 80cm high, although there will be unaffiliated competitions with smaller jumps. At the Olympics, the cross-country jumps are up to 1.20m high (or 1.40m high if it’s a brush fence). The top spread of the obstacle can be up to 1.80m. The showjumps are up to 1.30m at the Olympics.

    Aren’t dressage and showjumping sports in their own right?

    Yes. Dressage and showjumping are also separate competitions at the Olympics. The event riders do not perform at such a high level in the dressage and showjumping as the riders in the “pure” disciplines, but the challenge is in training a horse to be successful in all three phases and keeping him healthy and sound for the showjumping after the rigours of the cross-country.

    Do riders compete on the same horse throughout?

    Yes. the rider competes on the same horse in every phase of the competition.

    How is the competition scored?

    The aim when looking at eventing penalties is to finish on the lowest possible score. In eventing dressage scoring, the judges give each horse and rider a mark in penalties – the best eventing dressage marks at the Tokyo Olympics are likely to be around 20 and the worst around 40. Penalties from the cross-country and showjumping phases are added to the dressage mark to give a final score. Riders will try to “finish on their dressage score”, meaning they do not add any jumping or time-penalties in the cross-country or showjumping.

    How are team competitions scored?

    In a traditional eventing team competition, teams of three or four horses and riders go up against each other. The best three scores in each team are counted and the team has to count a complete performance from a horse and rider pair, so they use the best three final scores from their four pairs – it’s not possible to mix and match and take one pair’s dressage score and another pair’s cross-country score.

    A new format will be used at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. In this competition, each team will consist of three horses and riders, plus an alternate pair. All three scores will count, but it is possible to substitute the alternate pair into the competition in various circumstances and to use the score from the original pair in some phases and from the alternate in others.

    How do event riders qualify for the Olympics?

    There are two elements to this. The first is that all pairs competing at the Olympic Games need to have worked their way individually up the grades in eventing so they can compete at the top level safely. The horse and rider have to meet “minimum eligibility requirements” – completing a competition with less than a certain number of penalties in each phase – at a set number of events in the years leading up to the Games.

    The second aspect of qualification is around which teams and nations can take part. The team spots are allocated to those nations which perform best at various championships in the years leading up to the Games, such as the World and European Championships. Individual places are then given to riders who do not come from a nation with a team qualified and these places are allocated according to ranking points. The world is divided into different regions and a certain number of places have to go to riders from each region to ensure representation from around the world.

    How do event riders get selected for the Olympics?

    This will vary from country to country, depending on how many riders that nation has. Some nations, such as Britain, have great strength in depth and there will be stiff competition to be on the British team. Horses and riders will have to perform well at a number of events in the build-up to be chosen to go to the Olympics. Some nations do not have many horses and riders competing at the top level and riders from those countries will be pretty much guaranteed selection if they can gain their “minimum eligibility requirements” and keep themselves and their horse sound and healthy.

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    Which nations will do well in the eventing at the Olympics?

    The countries who are most likely to be in the running for medals at the Tokyo Olympics are Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, France, Ireland, the USA and Japan. The other nations sending teams are Sweden, Italy, Poland, Brazil, Thailand, China and Switzerland. The new three-to-a-team format will mean the competition is even more unpredictable than is usual in eventing and there are likely to be surprises in the results.

    Is eventing dangerous?

    Eventing safety is a hot topic in the sport. Cross-country will always be an activity with an element of risk because it involves horses and riders jumping solid fences at speed. Everyone will fall at some point if they ride cross-country frequently and while many falls are innocuous, serious injuries to riders and horses do occur and occasionally even fatalities.

    Those inside the sport constantly strive to make the sport safer with better training and appropriate qualification procedures for horses and riders, as well as technical innovations such as fences which are “frangible” and fall down if hit with a certain force.

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find out more about getting the magazine delivered to your door every week.

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