A first-person introduction to the sport of equestrian eventing. This is the first in a series that will explore some of the less well-known sports that are going on in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Editor’s note: With the Olympics in full swing, we asked Seattle Times reporting intern Kristen Gowdy to get the full experience on some of the sports being played in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. First in our series: eventing…
The Rules: Eventing, which has begun and runs through Aug. 9, is a three-part equestrian sport that combines rider’s scores from dressage, cross-country and show jumping to determine an Olympic champion. The rider/horse combination with the lowest score wins.
The first stage, dressage, requires riders to put their horses through a series of technical exercises in an arena setting.
Sarah Lorenz, a local eventer who works at Skagit Bay Ranch, said dressage is the most technical of the three stages.
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“It’s done as a matter of precision,” she said. “There are specific points that horses and riders have to execute in an arena … sometimes the horse might move sideways, it might trot with longer steps, make circles, that kind of thing.”
Each movement in dressage is assigned a score between 0-10, 10 being the best. Penalties, which are accumulated based on errors, are subtracted from the rider’s total score. The number is converted into a percentage, then subtracted from 100 to give riders their final score.
The second phase, cross-country, is the most difficult, Lorenz says, due to its dangerous nature and speed. In it, the horse gallops through a pre-determined course that features obstacles such as jumps, logs, ditches and water.
“You’re galloping at a high speed, as the levels go up, you have to be extremely accurate,” Lorenz said. “Being able as a rider to have that skillset, to be able to see at speed and have that accuracy is quite hard.”
Cross-country penalties are assigned based on errors. The first mistake — which can include refusals or skipping an obstacle — results in 20 penalties, the second in 40 and the third elimination from the competition. There is also a time limit, which, if exceeded, can accrue penalties.
Finally, the third day of competition consists of show jumping. Olympic level fences are 4-foot-3, and there are roughly 15 obstacles through which riders must guide their horse. Scoring is based on height alterations, horse refusals and time.
At the end of the three days, the scores are added up and the rider with the lowest total score wins.
The U.S. and Equestrian Eventing in the Olympics: Equestrian eventing made its Olympic debut in 1912, when it was a five-day competition. The U.S. has a long history of success with the sport, having won 12 individual eventing medals and 11 team medals.
Equestrian is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete directly against each other, though women did not appear in Olympic competition until 1964. Of the U.S.’ 12 individual Olympic medals, men have won eight while women have won four.
In Rio, five-time Olympian Phillip Dutton headlines a U.S. squad that is seeking its first Olympic medal since 2008. Dutton is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, having topped the podium for his home country, Australia, in 1996 and 2000.
The biggest competition for the U.S. is likely to be the German team, which claimed both gold and bronze in 2012.
Lorenz said Germany’s success in the sport stems from their breeding tactics.
“I think the Germans have had a little bit of a head start on us in recent years because they’ve really been pursuing that avenue and have been really diligent about breeding specifically for eventing,” she said. “That’s starting to catch on here.”
Training/feasibility of the sport: Equestrian in any form is an expensive sport, but eventing is perhaps its most expensive form.
“You’ve got three different saddles and all different kinds of gear you have to have for each phase,” Lorenz said.
But that doesn’t even take into account the horse itself. At the highest level of eventing, horses must be a minimum of 8 years old, but most Olympic horses are in their teens.
“The cost is tremendous to produce them,” Lorenz said. “You have riders in countries that are bringing up lots of horses then riders from the U.S. go and buy them. That’s something we’re really trying to bridge the gap, to breed the horses in the U.S. and get our own bunch of horses going.”
As far as training goes, Lorenz said cardio is emphasized over strength training for most riders. Core training is also important for controlling the horse at top speed.
Expenses aside, eventing can be a lifelong sport. Where most athletes in other sports peak in their late 20s or early 30s, eventers can compete at the highest level for most of their adult lives. Dutton is 52 years old, while Lauren Kieffer, the youngest eventer on the United States team, is 29.
My experience: Due to the dangerous nature of the sport, I was unable to personally participate in eventing. However, while I was at Skagit Bay speaking with Lorenz, she demonstrated the show jumping portion of the competition with her horse, Zaura. From a spectator’s point of view, it did not look easy, and both Lorenz and Zaura were winded after just a few minutes of hard riding, hinting at the physical difficulty of the sport.