Dressage is a style of riding on the flat that requires horse and rider to perform a predetermined series of movements in a formal "test". In competition, the quality of each movement is scored and the rider in any division with the highest score wins. Any score over 70 is pretty amazing. Dressage is not the greatest spectator sport but it is an incredibly difficult discipline and in some way the purest form of riding. If a rider can master the seat, which is straighter than that of a hunter/jumper, and aides - rein, weight and leg - taught in dressage they will be far more capable of doing other things with their horse such as jumping big fences. Dressage builds a horse's muscles, it's sort of like going to the gym to lift weights and run for a football player. It teaches a horse to bring its hind legs underneath its body and move with greater balance. Dressage can be likened to horse ballet and is every bit as difficult to master as human, classical ballet. Dressage competition levels start with Introductory then move to Training, 1st Level, 2nd Level, 3rd Level, 4th Level and then I get lost. Freestyle tests incorporate musical routines and can be ridden at all levels. There is something called a Grande Prix test and other than knowing it is beyond me in every sense I don't really know what it is.
Eventing incorporates 3 phases into one competition which can be referred to as combined training, horse trials or 3-day eventing (though only the highest level events take place over the course of 3 days). The first phase is dressage. The tests in eventing differ slightly from those in pure dressage but incorporate the same types of movements. Dressage is there to demonstrate the true ability of both horse and rider. The dressage score in eventing is a little different with a lower score being better than a higher score. This is achieved by subtracting the actual dressage score from 100. A score of less than 40 is good and under 30 is amazing. The second phase in most horse trials is Show Jumping or Stadium. A rider is given a course of jumps and a time in which to jump them. If they go clean - make it over every fence without knocking anything down - and within the time, the move on with no penalties. If they go over time (or under the minimum time), faults are added to their score from dressage and likewise if they take down a rail, miss a jump or have a refusal. If they fall off, they are disqualified. The third phase is Cross Country and involves a course of natural and man made obstacles laid out over a path through fields, woods and water. Again the goal is to get around clean in the time allotted. Eventers don't have to look good in the jumping stages. They just need to stay on and get over the fences in the time allowed. As you get to the higher levels, though, it would be strange to see anyone doing well in dressage that didn't look pretty amazing going over fences. The jumping seat in eventing is much more back and in the saddle than in other disciplines primarily because when going cross country eventers encounter drops (these links bring you to photos of what I'm talking about), hills, ditches, they gallop over rough ground and change trajectory from uphill to downhill to over a huge wall very quickly. You can't stay on a horse if you are leaning forward on its neck while going down a drop. At the end of the day, the rider in each division with the lowest score wins. A rider "finishing on their dressage score" is one who incurred zero penalties in the show jumping and cross country stages. Eventing is not the discipline of choice for kids who like lots of ribbons. The maximum possible number of ribbons on any given day is one and it is anything but guaranteed. The goal for young eventers is to make it through the day still in the competition. This discipline requires bravery, resilience and toughness to a higher degree than most other disciplines which makes sense since it used to be a test of our cavalry officers and has in more recent years developed into a civilian sport. Having made the switch with my daughter from hunters to eventing I encourage you as a parent not to underestimate the extraordinary difference between jumping in a fenced arena and doing so out in an open field and galloping (even trotting) through woods all alone. The levels in eventing: Pre-Elementary, Elementary and Tadpole are offered only at the schooling show level. Rated horse trails include Beginner Novice, Novice, Training, Preliminary, Intermediate and Advanced. Then they get into something to do with stars and CCI which I don't understand at this point but since that is all at least 10 or 20 years away for my daughter if she even makes it that far I figure I'll know it by the time we get there! In order to compete at Preliminary and above, a rider must accrue a specified number points at the previous level in rated shows. Higher levels also have age requirements.
Hunters/Jumpers/Equitation - These are actually 3 distinct disciplines at the higher levels but they have similarities and for kids all start at the same place. Here's an oversimplification that I'm sure I'll get in trouble for but you have to start somewhere. In hunter classes the horse is judged and in equitation classes the rider is judged. Of course both horse and rider are judged in both to some degree and if the rider isn't riding well in a hunter class then the horse is unlikely to do well. One thing you will hear as a parent of a young hunter is the term "lead change". This has to do with which leg is in front during the canter. As a horse bends it should be the inside leg that comes forward at the beginning of the stride. So if turning to the left, the left front leg should be visibly out in front as the horse canters. This is a big deal in the hunter world and is the reason you will pay more for a pony or horse with "auto changes" meaning the animal pretty much hands it to your child on a silver platter. Some will have strong changes that are not automatic so they need an indication from the rider but get their changes pretty easily. In lower levels a rider can do simple changes which means they break to the trot, then pick up the canter on the new lead. Many many many ponies and horses just don't have great lead changes. They can often be ridden in the hunters but to do well will need a super strong rider who can give them very clear and consistent signals. There are lots of other little nitpicky things judges look at and similar to dressage they keep a score sheet during the ride. Hunter and equitation classes can take place over fences or on the flat. Equitation on the flat, though having a different seat and not presenting a preset test, is most similar to dressage. An equ rider will be focused on how she sits on the horse and perfecting her aides. In the flat class a group of horses will enter the ring at the same time. The judge will ask the riders to walk a particular direction, trot, canter, etc. At the end of the class the riders line up and ribbons are awarded. A rider will likely enter an entire division which will have 4 - 8 or more classes in it with champion and reserve champion ribbons being given for the highest scorers at the end of the division. A division can included both flat classes and classes over fences. For the jumping classes each rider enters the ring on their own, jumping a set course and being judged differently depending on if they are riding a hunter or equitation class. In this discipline, one terrible class doesn't necessarily ruin your whole day, depending on how many classes you entered. In some sense the scores in hunters and equitation are subjective and a judge can play favorites for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they just love the particular look of a particular pair. In that case it's just tough luck if you aren't the lucky pair.
Jumpers is more like the stadium segment in eventing and it is scored objectively. Form is sort of irrelevant. Jumpers are getting around a complex course of jumps in an enclosed ring within an allotted time. Those who make it enter a jump off which is a shorter course of jumps. The fastest time with the fewest rails down wins.
Additionally there are pony classes and points and medals. I have no idea what medals are but they have to do with particular medal classes. Over a show season a rider can earn points at every rated show they go to. I know many kids who want a great pony with lead changes so they can make it to pony finals. At some point I'll add a blog post from one of my hunter jumper friends so they can explain all this more fully.
In the Hunter/Jumper world there is an opportunity to compete on a team which I think is great! To some extent the hunter/jumper world is more cut throat and the price of your horse has a good deal to do with your level of success. Of course there are exceptions. With the IEA teams I think some of the more negative aspects dissipate. Many barns as well as boarding schools have Interscholastic Equestrian Association teams beginning in 6th grade. Many of the kids who ride on these teams go on to ride on collegiate equestrian teams. IEA sometimes offers kids an opportunity to compete who would not otherwise be able to do so because the school or barn will have a team of horses the riders use for the season. My sense is that IEA barns are extremely kid friendly and more comfortable with kids being dropped off for riding than eventing barns where on average the riders are older.
Within the world of English riding there are some other fun events people participate in and I've only recently become familiar with them. There are hunter paces in which a cross country style course is laid out. Course planners set an ideal time for getting over the course. Riders go out in groups, unaware of the ideal time that has been set. The group that finishes closest to the ideal time wins. There are as many penalties for riding too fast as there are for riding too slow. A hunter derby is a hunter/jumper class in which riders jump over cross country style obstacles in an enclosed arena. They are timed, not judged, thus making the derby more like Jumpers. I think derby cross is similar to a hunter derby. There are several in our area but having never participated I can't be sure. Both derby type sports are an attempt to give spectators a more exciting event with greater opportunity to watch - typically it is very difficult to watch cross country in an event since it takes place over a great distance. Many equestrians also participate in an old fashioned hunt. The hunt in our area does not involve a fox. A scent is laid, the hounds go after it and everyone has a jolly good time bounding through fields and over fences. I have to say the whole thing appeals to me in the sense of community it creates among horse people. It's the one time huge numbers of local horse people gather not to compete in the show ring but to enjoy riding together.
There are a million other horse sports I'm sure but if you have a horse crazy kid, the disciplines I mentioned are probably the ones you need to know about. I don't know anything about western disciplines and then you have all the specialties like Morgan Horses and Quarterhorses, both of which have great organizations and publications.
I'll leave you with a couple of more realistic photos of competition - my daughter in her inaugural 3 phase event where she competed at the elementary level with jumps up to 2'3". The dressage portion was ridden in costume so I've included a dressage shot from earlier in the season. In costume she is dressed as Timone aboard her pony Pumba - show name Hakuna Matata!