A cheat sheet for watching Olympic equestrian events

Don’t know the rules of dressage or what “warmblood” means? A beginner’s guide to understanding and enjoying the equestrian competition in Rio.

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Starting on August 5, the next six days of Olympic equestrian competition will bring together the finest horses and riders in the world. It’s the only sport in which men and women compete equally for six gold medals (three individual and three team medals) in three distinct equestrian disciplines: dressage, cross-country eventing and show jumping.

Don’t know Grand Prix from My Little Pony? Here’s everything you need to watch the equestrian competition like a pro.

The road to Rio

Equestrians from 43 countries will participate in Rio 2016. Each qualifying country may send a team of four riders. Making an Olympic appearance for the first time are riders from Chinese Taipei, the Dominican Republic, Palestine, Qatar and Zimbabwe. Germany, with 21 gold medals, holds the title for most medals in equestrian, followed by Sweden and France.

Do you speak horse?

A few basics are key to making sense of the equestrian events in Rio. Let’s start with the horse. Most horses have three paces or speeds, known as gaits—the walk, trot and canter.

The Olympic equestrian events focus on controlling and refining the movement of the horse, slowing or extending the natural gaits until they become art. You’ll hear the commentators speak a lot about extension (in which the horse extends his muscles to reach his hooves out as far as they can go) or collection (which is like marching in place).

There is no specific breed of Olympic caliber horse. Many breeds, including some rescues, have competed at the Olympic Grand Prix level. Some breeds are known as warmbloods. Their blood really isn’t different from that of a regular horse; they are usually specific breeds that originally derived from the Thoroughbred (a breed that is known in horse circles as ‘hotter’) and working breeds (known as ‘draft’ or ‘colder’ blood), hence the term warmblood. And unlike the human games, where youth is an advantage, Olympic horses are decidedly middle-aged: a horse must be nine years old or older to compete. That’s about 32 years old in human terms.

The disciplines

The first of the three events in the equestrian competition is dressage, in which the horse is guided through a specific pattern of advanced movements at the direction of the rider.

Think of Olympic dressage as graduate school for horses. Refined over centuries by European cavalries, the purpose of these movements is to exemplify perfect communication between horse and rider. The highest level of this training is known as “Olympic Grand Prix” or “Special Grand Prix.”

In Olympic Grand Prix and Special Grand Prix, the horse’s movement is modified to be more vertically balanced, with the horse’s weight supported mostly on his hind legs and hindquarters.

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body for equestrian sport, establishes the dressage test pattern for the competition, which the riders memorize. Marked placards in the arena indicate the points at which certain maneuvers are to be executed.

There are three rounds of competition in dressage—two are performed according to the prescribed pattern and a third, which is known as freestyle, allows riders to select their own pattern and perform it to music. (Think of it like the floor routine of gymnastics.)

The second equestrian discipline is known as eventing, in which a horse and rider team tackles a cross-country obstacle course full of jumps. Though the events are timed, the purpose is not to beat another rider’s time but to approach the “optimum time” for the course with a “clean round” (without penalties for form or the horse knocking down a rail on the jump). Riders may walk the course in advance—this is why you’ll often see them wandering around and counting their steps—but horses are not allowed until the day of the competition.

The final discipline, and perhaps the most exciting for general spectators, is stadium jumping, in which individual horse and rider teams attempt a closed course of 12 jumps. The jumps are each designed to look different, and may be as much as 1.6 meters (slightly more than 5′) in height. In this event, time matters almost as much as a clean round. Penalties are taken for time, refusals (when the horse backs away from a jump), and knocking down a rail. They must also execute the jumps in the correct order.

The horse spa

Equine athletes in Rio will be as pampered as their human counterparts, with massage therapy, acupuncture, swimming, nutritional experts, teams of veterinarians, grooms and countless attendants. Their trip will be a bit more luxurious; horses fly strictly business class on custom aircrafts, two to a stall, with a team of attentive attendants and limitless supplies of fresh hay and water. The equine Olympians are even issued a passport.

Though they can’t avail themselves of any in-flight entertainment (there’s no Seabiscuit on demand), one aspect of the road to Rio is certain for the equine athletes: when going through airport security, horses don’t remove their shoes.

The six days of competition at the XXXI Olympiad in Rio represents the pinnacle of global equestrian sport. The dressage competition, with its formality and choreographed movements, is the epitome of the synergy between horse and rider. The challenging cross-country event course, with jumps approaching a dizzying height of 5’3″, demands both cool nerves and bravery. Stadium or show jumping is not for the faint of heart, with high jumps, an unforgiving optimal course time, and the critical eyes of spectators.

Through it all, the human athletes chase the ever-elusive gold medal. As for the hardworking, pampered horses? They are just happy with the praise of their riders and maybe a steady supply of peppermint.

Smiling young woman with horse on show jumping course

Westend61 | Getty Images

Donna L.M. Khan
Donna L.M. Khan
Donna L.M. Khan, a lifelong equestrian, has written about horse sports and luxury travel for magazines including Town & Country and Polo Magazine. She is the publisher of Luxury Dossier, an online and custom print magazine for polo enthusiasts. She lives and writes at her farm in western North Carolina, which she shares with her polo playing husband, a number of unruly goats, and a handful of retired international Grand Prix champions.

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