A Beginner’s Guide to the Equestrian World

horse·back rid·ing-  

  1. One of the most intense sports known to man
  2. A very intense sport which requires the use of every single muscle in your body to stay on when your horse decides he is finished.

Photo by Allison Grainer.

While Urban Dictionary’s definition of horseback riding may seem exaggerated, I, along with every other equestrian, assure you it is not.

The origins of horseback riding and humans domesticating horses dates back to about 4000 B.C. in the Ukraine and Russia. According to the Cambridge Journals, horseback riding, predating the wheel, was the first way of land travel. While still used in other countries for travel, horseback riding in the USA is mostly for sport, financial gain, and enjoyment.

There are many different disciplines, or styles of riding. Some of the most common are Hunter, Dressage, Western, Show Jumping, and Eventing.

Hunter: Sometimes known as hunt seat or hunter jumper, this is one of the most popular styles of riding in North America. It is recognized by the USHJA (United States Hunter Jumper Association). Based on fox hunting, competitions or shows have both flat and over fences components. Flat classes involve riders showing their horse at the walk, trot, and canter for style, correctness, and union between horse and rider. Over fence classes are the same, with the addition of jumps. Watch an example here.

Dressage: The word dressage is derived from a French word meaning training. Also based on fox hunting, dressage differs from hunter in that it is not judged as much on style and looks. Dressage is many movements put together into one performance. Its root meaning, “training,” describes it perfectly. Dressage riders train their horses to do increasingly difficult movements. Dressage shows are the coming together of the training in front of people to be judged for correctness. Watch an example here.


Photo by Allison Grainer.

Western: Both equipment and riding style of western riders evolved to fit the needs of ranchers in the west of the U.S. The style, brought to America by Spanish conquistadors, has different equipment than English (hunter and dressage). With larger, more functional saddles, so called “cowboys” could take care of themselves and their cattle. Nowadays, traditional cowboys are rarely found. Instead, western riders participate in competitions such as barrel racing, reining, trail classes, team pinning, and more. These competitions are designed to demonstrate rider’s ability to be a traditional cowboy. Watch an example here.

Show Jumping: Probably the most publicized equestrian discipline (besides thoroughbred racing), show jumping is popular throughout the world. Show jumping is open to anyone and has simple rules; be fast, don’t knock down rails, and, obviously, don’t fall off. The International Federation of Equestrian Sports (FEI) regulates show jumping as well as other disciplines world wide. Watch an example here.

Eventing: This is the wild child of the equestrian world. Also known as horse trials or combined training, eventing combines three disciplines; dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. This discipline has its roots in calvary tests, which required the rider to master several types of riding. Most competitions are run over three or four days with dressage first, cross country, and then show jumping. Eventing is an incredibly thrilling sport with high risks. Watch an example here.


Photo by Kerry Hakala.

Horseback riding goes beyond the definition of sport. It is a lifestyle filled with fun, responsibility, trust, and hard work. Probably the most common draw to horseback riding is the enjoyment gained through it. There is nothing like being able to ride your horse, galloping through an open field. Chelsea Thomas (‘16), a hunter rider, says, “I kinda’ feel like anything is possible on a horse” and while this might literally not be true, riding certainly feels like it. Along with fun comes responsibility. Dr. Rebecca Hottman, Upper School science teacher, says, “They [horses] make me a better person.” Horses are surprisingly delicate creatures who require an unfortunately large amount of money and time (which we equestrians happily give). When the inevitable happens and your horse injures him/herself, the rider is expected to be at the barn once, if not more times a day to care for their equine. Horses get hurt a lot.

Trust is another incredibly important aspect of horseback riding. In this sport, the ball has a mind of its own and often plans that are different from yours. Over time, a bond is built between horse and rider. This bond allows for trust, a crucial element that, if lacking, will lead to disaster. Finally, hard work. Many long, humid, dusty summer days, as well as bitterly cold, snowy nights, are spent by equestrians working and caring for their horses. Early morning and late night show prep is common and expected. Abigail Winfree (‘17), an eventer, says “I spend at least an hour a day on the ground getting ready to ride and the horses also have to be fed and looked after. That’s a lot of time commitment, but it is worth it.” Abigail spends about 28 hours a week involved in equine-related activities. I, as well as all other equestrians, would agree that all time spent around horses is time well spent.

About the author

Allison Grainer is a senior at Collegiate School. She Is interested in outdoor sports such as rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and sleeping.