The Most Popular Equestrian Pursuits in the English-Speaking World

"Silverwood Farm Dressage" (CC BY 2.0) by Bob Haarmans

While a love of horses is far from exclusive to English-speaking countries, equestrian sports and competition are very popular pastime from America and Canada in the northwest to Australia and New Zealand in the southeast.

There are plenty of other places too on the world map, so horseback riding of one kind or another has us enthused all over the globe. Ever wondered what the most popular are? Here, we run down the top equestrian pursuits.

Showjumping

It’s an obvious place to start. Teaching your horse to clear obstacles of one kind or another has international appeal. Show jumping is an Olympic sport where the world’s elite compete over courses against the clock with the aim of getting a clear round and not picking up faults for knocking fences down.

This sport tests a horse’s agility and athleticism, while the rider needs to develop accuracy and precision to navigate their mount through the course efficiently. You don’t need to be at Olympic class to enjoy show jumping, though.

Everyone from novice children up the pros can learn and take classes. If you’re interested, then be sure to visit your local riding centre and get involved. 

Cross Country

Just like in athletics, you can run around a set track in a race or take your horse out into the countryside. Cross Country courses combine the elements of show jumping with endurance as the courses plotted can be spread out over miles. 

While you’re regularly on the turn in the tight show jumping ring, Cross Country circuits are much more spaced out. Take the one at the Burghley Horse Trials held annually at the end of August or start of September in the UK, for example.

In 2016, there were 31 obstacles to clear set over a course of 6400m (roughly 4 miles) with horse and rider expected to take around 11 minutes and 15 seconds to complete it. There’s less of an emphasis on speed here with the test of economical jumping over things like ditches, hedges and dykes as well as more traditional fences.

“Kentucky Derby 2017 (17 of 48)” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by carpenter.heidi

Flat horse racing

You don’t have to clear obstacles against the clock to race a horse. One of the most popular and consistent equestrian pursuits is to train the animals to run against one another and without jumps. Racing horses on the flat is almost as old as time itself.

Officially, a horse should be in training to compete under rules. These rules differ from country to country and sometimes state to state depending upon what regulatory body decides on them.

The rules of racing could vary between the Railway Stakes at Ascot racecourse in Perth, Western Australia and say the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky in the USA. Flat contests between thoroughbreds also attracts betting interest aplenty and the latest horse racing odds can be found on Oddschecker.

Horses may not take well to be put into stalls or barriers to ensure everyone lines up level and equally. Keeping your horse race fit, meanwhile, takes a combination of diet and exercise

Dressage

If something more intricate than an end to end gallop on horseback appeals, then why not try dressage? Taking to a 20x60m arena, this is so much more than just prancing about – occasionally set to music.

Dressage is the ultimate test of discipline and that’s why it’s in the Summer Olympics. As a rider, you must shorten horse’s stride, much as you would if approaching a fence too quickly. Only here it’s all about poise, balance and memory.

Judges will evaluate these equine movements and, if competing freestyle, both horse and rider receive marks from 0 to 10 on the artistry and technicality of the composed routine. This takes real patience.

“Another popular equestrian event in the USA is harness racing” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by How I See Life

Harness racing

A throwback to Ancient Greece and Rome where chariot races were a popular and decidedly dangerous pastime, the much safer modern equivalent is harness racing. Horses pull a sulky – a cart with two wheels sometimes with the rider on horseback and sometimes on the cart depending on the rules.

This is done at a trot or pacing, but there are strict guidelines on speed. Horses are not allowed to break into a canter or gallop and must be controlled by the rider from whatever berth he occupies. North America is the most popular place for pacing and it’s also big Down Under.

Hobbles can be attached to the horse’s legs to bring them to the appropriate gait for harness racing. This is most often associated with dirt, whereas flat racing takes place on a variety of different surfaces including artificial ones. 

Team chasing

Want to work as a team in equestrian? Then team chasing could be for you. This is becoming increasingly popular as teams of four horses and riders go over a two-mile Cross Country course clearing all the fun obstacles we mentioned above.

Team members set off at different intervals and whoever is third to jump off, then their time will be taken for the whole quartet. It’s thus a sound strategy to put your best rider, even if they’re not on the best horse on this key anchor leg.

“Show jumping is the third and final part of eventing” (CC BY 2.0) by madnzany

Eventing

A versatile horse that has sufficient poise for dressage, the right amount of endurance for Cross Country and speed for show jumping can do all three disciplines in three-day eventing. This is the last of the Olympic equestrian sports.

Day one is always about the dressage. Once that’s out the way it’s on to clearing obstacles. You’ll carry a score over each day, culminating in the show jumping. Remember, you can receive faults – penalty points for knocking a fence down or failing to complete the courses in the optimum time.

National Hunt racing

As with Flat racing above, a particularly popular pastime more focused on the British Isles is horses racing against one another over jumps. There’s a variety of disciplines – hurdles races, steeplechasers and even Cross Country.

National Hunt racing has different rules to the flat and many thoroughbred horses from the point-to-point circuit – traditionally held over 3m at smaller unofficial racing venues in the UK and Ireland – come into training for this type of competition.

Horses can switch between the flat and jumps if they wish, but there’s a great deal of difference between being a sprinter over the flying five furlongs and tackling a steeplechase like the Grand National over four and a quarter miles!