For the Roman order, see Equestrian order.
"Horseback" redirects here. For the back of a horse, see Back (horse).
"Horse riding" redirects here. For the EP by The Hiatus, see Horse Riding (EP).
A young rider at a horse show in Australia
Central Park - New York in May, 1940

Equestrianism (from Latin equester, equestr-, equus, horseman, horse),[1] more often known as riding, horseback riding (American English) or horse riding (British English),[2] refers to the skill of riding, driving, steeplechasing or vaulting with horses. This broad description includes the use of horses for practical working purposes, transportation, recreational activities, artistic or cultural exercises, and competitive sport.

Overview of equestrian activities

A young Tibetan rider. Horse riding is an essential means of transportation in parts of the world where the landscape does not permit other means

Horses are trained and ridden for practical working purposes such as in police work or for controlling herd animals on a ranch. They are also used in competitive sports including, but not limited to, dressage, endurance riding, eventing, reining, show jumping, tent pegging, vaulting, polo, horse racing, driving, and rodeo. (See additional equestrian sports listed later in this article for more examples.) Some popular forms of competition are grouped together at horse shows, where horses perform in a wide variety of disciplines. Horses (and other equids such as mules and donkeys) are used for non-competitive recreational riding such as fox hunting, trail riding or hacking. There is public access to horse trails in almost every part of the world; many parks, ranches, and public stables offer both guided and independent riding. Horses are also used for therapeutic purposes, both in specialized paraequestrian competition as well as non-competitive riding to improve human health and emotional development.

Horses are also driven in harness racing, at horse shows and in other types of exhibition, historical reenactment or ceremony, often pulling carriages. In some parts of the world, they are still used for practical purposes such as farming.

Horses continue to be used in public service: in traditional ceremonies (parades, funerals), police and volunteer mounted patrols, and for mounted search and rescue.

Riding halls enable the training of horse and rider in all weathers as well as indoor competition riding.

History of horse use

Prehistoric cave painting, depicting a horse and rider

Though there is controversy over the exact date horses were domesticated and when they were first ridden, the best estimate is that horses first were ridden approximately 3500 BC. Indirect evidence suggests that horses were ridden long before they were driven. There is some evidence that about 3,000 BC, near the Dnieper River and the Don River, people were using bits on horses, as a stallion that was buried there shows teeth wear consistent with using a bit.[3] However, the most unequivocal early archaeological evidence of equines put to working use was of horses being driven. Chariot burials about 2500 BC present the most direct hard evidence of horses used as working animals. In ancient times chariot warfare was followed by the use of war horses as light and heavy cavalry. The horse played an important role throughout human history all over the world, both in warfare and in peaceful pursuits such as transportation, trade and agriculture. Horses lived in North America, but died out at the end of the Ice Age. Horses were brought back to North America by European explorers, beginning with the second voyage of Columbus in 1493.[4]

An equestrian Mughal nobleman on horseback.

Horse racing

Humans appear to have long expressed a desire to know which horse (or horses) were the fastest, and horse racing has ancient roots. Gambling on horse races appears to go hand-in hand with racing and has a long history as well. Thoroughbreds have the pre-eminent reputation as a racing breed, but other breeds also race.

Types of horse racing

Under saddle:

Show Jumping:

In harness:

International and Olympic disciplines

Equestrian events were first included in the modern Olympic Games in 1900. By 1912, all three Olympic disciplines still seen today were part of the games. The following forms of competition are recognized worldwide and are a part of the equestrian events at the Olympics. They are governed by the rules of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI).

The additional internationally sanctioned but non-Olympic disciplines governed by the FEI are: combined driving; endurance; reining; and vaulting. These disciplines are part of the FEI World Equestrian Games every four years, and may hold their own individual World Championships in other years. The FEI also recognizes horseball and tent pegging as its two regional disciplines.

Para-equestrian disciplines

Para-equestrian competition at the international level, including the Paralympics, are also governed by the FEI and offer the following competition events:

Haute École

Main article: Classical dressage

The haute école (F. "high school"), an advanced component of Classical dressage, is a highly refined set of skills seldom used in competition but often seen in demonstration performances.

Leading haute ecole demonstration teams include:

Horse shows

Main article: Horse show

Horse shows are held throughout the world with a tremendous variety of possible events, equipment, attire and judging standards used. However, most forms of horse show competition can be broken into the following broad categories:

"English" riding

Main article: English riding

In addition to the classical Olympic events, the following forms of competition are seen. In North America they are referred to as "English riding" in contrast with western riding; elsewhere in the world, if a distinction is necessary, they are usually described as "classic riding":

"Western" riding

Main article: Western riding

Western riding evolved from the cattle-working and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors, and both equipment and riding style evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy on ranches in the American West.

Though the differences between English and Western riding appear dramatic, there are more similarities than most people think. Both styles require riders to have a solid seat, with the hips and shoulders balanced over the feet, with hands independent of the seat so as to avoid disturbing the balance of the horse and interfering with its performance.

The most noticeable feature of western style riding is in the saddle, which has a substantial tree that provides greater support to horse and rider when working long hours in the saddle. The western saddle features a prominent pommel topped by a horn (a knob used for dallying a lariat after roping an animal), a deep seat and a high cantle. The stirrups are wider and the saddle has rings and ties that allow objects to be attached to the saddle.

Western horses are asked to perform with a loose rein, controlled by one hand. The standard western bridle lacks a noseband and usually consists of a single set of reins attached to a curb bit that has somewhat longer and looser shanks than the curb of an English Weymouth bridle or a pelham bit. Two styles of Western reins developed: The long split reins of the Texas tradition, which are completely separated, or the closed-end "Romal" reins of the California tradition, which have a long single attachment on the ends that can be used as a quirt. Modern rodeo competitors in timed events sometimes use a closed rein without a romal.

Western riders wear a long-sleeved shirt, denim jeans, boots, and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. Cowboy boots, which have pointed toes and higher heels than a traditional riding boot, are designed to prevent the rider's foot from slipping through the stirrup during a fall, preventing the rider from being dragged—most western saddles have no safety bars for the leathers or automatic stirrup release mechanism. A rider may wear protective leather leggings called chaps. Clean, well-fitting work clothing is the usual outfit seen in rodeo, cutting and reining competitions, especially for men, though sometimes both men and women wear brighter colors or finer fabrics for competition than for work.

Show events such as Western pleasure use much flashier equipment, unlike the English traditions where clothing and tack is quiet and unobtrusive. Saddles, bits and bridles are ornamented with substantial amounts of silver. The rider may add a jacket or vest, and women's clothing in particular features vivid colors and even, depending on current fads, rhinestones or sequins.[7]

Western horses are asked to have a brisk, ground-covering walk, but a slow, relaxed jog trot that allows the rider to sit the saddle and not post. The Western version of the canter is called a lope and while collected and balanced, is expected to be slow and relaxed. Working western horses seldom use a sustained hand gallop, but must be able to accelerate quickly to high speed when chasing cattle or competing in rodeo speed events, must be able to stop quickly from a dead run and "turn on a dime."


Main article: Rodeo

Rodeo events include the following forms of competition:

Timed events


Roping includes a number of timed events that are based on the real-life tasks of a working cowboy, who often had to capture calves and adult cattle for branding, medical treatment and other purposes. A lasso or lariat is thrown over the head of a calf or the horns of adult cattle, and the animal is secured in a fashion dictated by its size and age.

"Rough Stock" competition

In spite of popular myth, most modern "broncs" are not in fact wild horses, but are more commonly spoiled riding horses or horses bred specifically as bucking stock.


A Welsh pony in fine harness competition
Main article: Driving (horse)

Horses, mules and donkeys are driven in harness in many different ways. For working purposes, they can pull a plow or other farm equipment designed to be pulled by animals. In many parts of the world they still pull wagons for basic hauling and transportation. They may draw carriages at ceremonies, in parades or for tourist rides.

As noted in "horse racing" above, horses can race in harness, pulling a very lightweight cart known as a sulky. At the other end of the spectrum, some draft horses compete in horse pulling competitions, where single or teams of horses and their drivers vie to determine who can pull the most weight for a short distance.

In horse show competition, the following general categories of competition are seen:

Other equestrian activities

Girls and their horses preparing for a polo game

There are many other forms of equestrian activity and sports seen worldwide. There are both competitive events and pleasure riding disciplines available.

Arena sports

Horse sports that use cattle

Defined area sports

Cross-country sports

A horse jumping a cross country fence.

Health issues

Handling, riding, and driving horses has a number of health risks.

Riding has some inherent risks, as when mounted, the rider's head may be up to 4 m (13 ft) from the ground, and the horse may travel at a speed of up to 65 km/h (40 mph).[8] The injuries observed range from very minor injuries to fatalities.

A recent study in Germany reported that the relative risk of injury from riding a horse, compared to riding a bicycle, was 9 times higher for adolescents and 5.6 times higher for younger children, but that riding a horse was less risky than riding a moped.[9] In Victoria, Australia, a search of state records found that equestrian sports had the third highest incidence of serious injury, after motor sports and power boating.[10] In Greece, an analysis of a national registry estimated the incidence of equestrian injury to be 21 per 100,000 person-years for farming and equestrian sports combined, and 160 times higher for horse racing personnel. Other findings noted that helmets likely prevent traumatic brain injuries.[11]

In the United States each year an estimated 30 million people ride horses, resulting in 50,000 emergency room visits (1 visit per 600 riders per year).[12] A survey of 679 equestrians in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho estimated that at some time in their equestrian career one in five will be seriously injured, resulting in hospitalization, surgery, or long-term disability.[13] Among survey respondents, novice equestrians had an incidence of any injury that was threefold over intermediates, fivefold over advanced equestrians, and nearly eightfold over professionals. Approximately 100 hours of experience are required to achieve a substantial decline in the risk of injury. The survey authors conclude that efforts to prevent equestrian injury should focus on novice equestrians.

Mechanisms of injury

The most common injury is falling from the horse, followed by being kicked, trampled, and bitten. About 3 out of 4 injuries are due to falling, broadly defined. A broad definition of falling often includes being crushed and being thrown from the horse, but when reported separately each of these mechanisms may be more common than being kicked.[14][15]

Types and severity of injury

In Canada, a 10-year study of trauma center patients injured while riding reported that although 48% had suffered head injuries, only 9% of these riders had been wearing helmets at the time of their accident. Other injuries involved the chest (54%), abdomen (22%), and extremities (17%).[16] A German study reported that injuries in horse riding are rare compared to other sports, but when they occur they are severe. Specifically, they found that 40% of horse riding injuries were fractures, and only 15% were sprains. Furthermore, the study noted that in Germany, one quarter of all sport related fatalities are caused by horse riding.[17] Most horse related injuries are a result of falling from a horse, which is the cause of 60–80% of all such reported injuries.[18][19] Another common cause of injury is being kicked by a horse, which may cause skull fractures or severe trauma to the internal organs. Some possible injuries resulting from horse riding, with the percent indicating the amounts in relation to all injuries as reported by a New Zealand study,[20] include:

Among 36 members and employees of the Hong Kong Jockey Club who were seen in a trauma center during a period of 5 years, 24 fell from horses and 11 were kicked by the horse. Injuries comprised: 18 torso; 11 head, face, or neck; and 11 limb.[21] The authors of this study recommend that helmets, face shields, and body protectors be worn when riding or handling horses.

In New South Wales, Australia, a study of equestrians seen at one hospital over a 6-year period found that 81% were wearing a helmet at the time of injury, and that helmet use both increased over time and was correlated with a lower rate of admission.[22] In the second half of the study period, of the equestrians seen, only 14% were admitted. In contrast, a study of child equestrians seen at a hospital emergency room in Adelaide reported that 60% were admitted.[23]

In the United States, an analysis of National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) data performed by the Equestrian Medical Safety Association studied 78,279 horse-related injuries in 2007: "The most common injuries included fractures (28.5%); contusions/abrasions (28.3%); strain/sprain (14.5%); internal injury (8.1%); lacerations (5.7%); concussions (4.6%); dislocations (1.9%); and hematomas (1.2%). Most frequent injury sites are the lower trunk (19.6%); head (15.0%); upper trunk (13.4%); shoulder (8.2%); and wrist (6.8%). Within this study patients were treated and released (86.2%), were hospitalized (8.7%), were transferred (3.6%), left without being treated (0.8%), remained for observation (0.6%), and arrived at the hospital deceased (0.1%)."[24]

Head injuries

Horseback riding is one of the most dangerous sports, especially in relation to head injury. Statistics from the United States, for example, indicate that about 30 million people ride horses annually.[25] On average, about 67,000 people are admitted to the hospital each year from injuries sustained while working with horses.[26] 15,000 of those admittances are from traumatic brain injuries - with around 100 equestrian related deaths recorded in the United States per year.[27] Studies have found horseback riding to be more dangerous than several sports, including skiing, auto racing, and football.[16] Horseback riding has a higher hospital admittance rate per hours of riding than motorcycle racing, at 0.49 per thousand hours of riding and 0.14 accidents per thousand hours, respectively.[16]

Head injuries are especially traumatic in horseback riding. About two-thirds of all riders requiring hospitalization after a fall have sustained a traumatic brain injury.[28] Falling from a horse without wearing a helmet is comparable to being struck by a car.[29] Most falling deaths are caused by head injury.[29]

The use of riding helmets substantially decreases the likelihood and severity of head injuries. When a rider falls with a helmet, he or she is five times less likely to experience a traumatic brain injury than a rider who falls without a helmet.[30] Helmets work by crushing on impact and extending the length of time it takes the head to stop moving.[31] Despite this, helmet usage rates in North America are estimated to be between eight and twenty percent.[32]

Once a helmet has sustained an impact from falling, that part of the helmet is structurally weakened, even if no visible damage is present.[33] Helmet manufacturers recommend that a helmet that has undergone impact from a fall be replaced immediately. In addition, helmets should be replaced every three to five years; specific recommendations vary by manufacturer.[34]

Rules on helmet use in competition

Many organizations mandate helmet use in competition or on show grounds, and rules have continually moved in the direction of requiring helmet use. In 2011, the United States Equestrian Federation passed a rule making helmet use mandatory while mounted on competition grounds at U.S. nationally rated eventing competitions.[35] Also in 2011, the United States Dressage Federation made helmet use in competition mandatory for all riders under 18 and all riders who are riding any test at Fourth Level and below.[36] If a rider competing at Prix St. Georges and above is also riding a test at Fourth Level or below, he or she must also wear a helmet at all times while mounted.

Riding astride

The idea that riding a horse astride could injure a woman's sex organs is a historic but at times popular misunderstanding or misconception, particularly that riding astride can damage the hymen.[37] Evidence of injury to any female sex organs is scant. In female high-level athletes, trauma to the perineum is rare and is associated with certain sports (see Pelvic floor#Clinical significance). The type of trauma associated with equestrian sports has been termed "horse riders' perineum".[38] A case series of 4 female mountain bike riders and 2 female horse riders found both patient-reported perineal pain and evidence of sub-clinical changes in the clitoris;[39] the relevance of these findings to horse riding is unknown.

In men, sports-related injuries are among the major causes of testicular trauma. In a small controlled but unblinded study of 52 men, varicocele was significantly more common in equestrians than in non-equestrians.[40] The difference between these two groups was small, however, compared to differences reported between extreme mountain bike riders and non-riders,[41] and also between mountain bike riders and on-road bicycle riders.[42] Horse-riding injuries to the scrotum (contusions) and testes (blunt trauma) were well known to surgeons in the 19th century and early 20th century.[43] Injuries from collision with the pommel of a saddle are mentioned specifically.[43]

Criticism of horses in sport

See also: Horse racing and Rodeo

Organized welfare groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States, and animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have been known to criticise some horse sports with claims of animal cruelty.

Horse racing is a popular equestrian sport which is practiced in many nations around the world. It is inextricably associated with gambling, where in certain events, stakes can become very high. Despite its illegality in most competitions, these conditions of extreme competitiveness can lead to the use of performing-enhancing drugs and extreme training techniques, which can result in negative side effects for the horses' well-being. The races themselves have also proved dangerous to the horses – especially steeplechasing, which requires the horse to jump hurdles whilst galloping at full speed. This can result in injury or death to the horse, as well as the jockey.[44] A study by animal welfare group Animal Aid revealed that approximately 375 racehorses die yearly, with 30% of these either during or as a result of injuries from a race.[45] The report also highlighted the increasing frequency of race-related illnesses, including bleeding lungs (exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage) and gastric ulcers.[45]

Animal rights groups are also primarily concerned that certain sports or training exercises may cause unnecessary pain or injuries to horse athletes. Some specific training or showing practices are so widely condemned that they have been made illegal at the national level and violations can incur criminal penalties. The most well-known is soring, a practice of applying a caustic ointment just above the hooves of a Tennessee Walking Horse to make it pick up its feet higher. However, in spite of a federal law in the United States prohibiting this practice and routine inspections of horse shows by inspectors from the United States Department of Agriculture, soring is still widespread and difficult to eliminate.[46] Some events themselves are also considered so abusive that they are banned in many countries. Among these are horse-tripping, a sport where riders chase and rope a loose-running horse by its front legs, throwing it to the ground.[47]

Secondary effects of racing have also recently been uncovered. A 2006 investigation by The Observer in the UK found that each year 6,000–10,000 horses are slaughtered for consumption abroad, a significant proportion of which are horses bred for racing.[48] A boom in the number of foals bred has meant that there is not adequate resources to care for unwanted horses. Demand has increased for this massive breeding programme to be scaled back.[48] Despite over 1000 foals being produced annually by the industry, 66% of those bred for such a purpose were never entered into a race, and despite a life expectancy of 30 years, many are killed before their fifth birthday.[48]

Horse riding on coinage

Horse riding events have been selected as a main motif in numerous collectors' coins. One of the recent samples is the €10 Greek Horse Riding commemorative coin, minted in 2003 to commemorate the 2004 Summer Olympics. On the composition of the obverse of this coin, the modern horseman is pictured as he jumps over an obstacle, while in the background the ancient horseman is inspired by a representation on a black-figure vase of the 5th century BC.

For the 2012 Olympics, the Royal Mint has produced a 50p coin showing a horse jumping a fence.[49]

A mounted rider from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is featured on a 1973 Canadian quarter dollar coin.[50]

See also


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External links

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