Three-day eventing, sometimes referred to as a “horse triathlon,” is a grueling event designed to test the training, ability, and strength of a horse, along with the connection between horse and rider. Eventing is also called “combined training,” because it integrates dressage, endurance, and show jumping, three equestrian disciplines which are typically kept separate. An eventing horse is a rare and extremely talented athlete with a strong connection with and loyalty to his or her rider.
The roots of eventing lie in testing military horses, which had to posses the highly disciplined traits of a dressage horse, the endurance of a cross country steeplechaser, and the suppleness and attention to form required for show jumping. Each phase of a three day event is called a “test,” because it tests the abilities of horse and rider, and each test is judged on a time trial. If horse and rider fail to complete a test in time, they are automatically disqualified.
The first day of a three-day event focuses on dressage, an equestrian art form which requires a supple, highly trained horse. During a dressage test, horse and rider move as one through a series of fluid moves in a ring. To the untrained eye, dressage resembles dancing, and it requires great physical control and grace. The dressage portion of eventing limbers the horse for the following two days, and it is judged on overall form, which includes how well the dressage test flows, and how well turned out horse and rider are.
The second and most difficult day of the event is endurance/cross country, which starts with roads and tracks, an exercise at a light trot designed to stretch and warm up the horse. The horse proceeds directly to the steeplechase portion of the test, which involves six to eight jumps on a long course, and follows with another round of roads and tracks to cool down. After this point, the horse is checked for soundness by a veterinarian. If the horse is deemed unfit to compete, it is withdrawn. Otherwise, the horse enters the cross country phase, an exhilarating and challenging course through highly varied terrain and over an assortment of obstacles, undertaken at a gallop.
On the third day, the horse is examined again by a veterinary crew before being allowed to compete in the final test, show jumping. Show jumping is performed in a ring, and judged on form. It also tests the horse's ability and willingness to compete after the first two days of the event. Judges look for horses which move fluidly through the ring, do not reject jumps, and work in harmony with their riders to complete the course.
At the end of an eventing competition, the horse and rider teams are judged using a point system, which takes form into account, along with the amount of time it took to complete each course. As with many equestrian sports, a number of people and horses of all ages and abilities compete in eventing, but the field is dominated by a handful of equine superstars who are at the peak of condition and training. Observing high-performance eventing horses in action is a rare privilege.