Olympics equestrian explainer: An exercise in restraint and excitement

Story highlights

  • Germany's Michael Jung won gold in the individual eventing
  • Jung collected a second gold in the team eventing as Germany claimed top spot
  • Dressage has roots in the military training of elite officers and their horses, dating back hundreds of years
  • Show jumping is one of the more dangerous Olympic sports and it can also be one of the most exciting

(CNN)CNN's guide to all things Equestrian at the London Olympics.


Dressage has been featured in the Olympics for a century now, and yet, for all its history many spectators are baffled by the allure of a horse prancing about in a ring to music.

Unlike some of the more flashy Olympic sports, you won't find glitter, spandex or bulging muscles here -- save of course for those on the horse. Dressage is an exercise in restraint, in beauty of form and synergy between horse and rider. Here are some things to keep in mind while watching.

Less is More

    Once the horse and rider enter the ring, all movement should come from the horse. The less the rider appears to be doing, the better the score.

    To the casual eye it may seem like the horse is doing all the work, but the rider is using every part of their body -- even minute shifts in weight -- to guide each movement of their mount.

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    Dressage has its roots in the military training of elite officers and their horses, dating back hundreds of years. This has had a direct effect on the rider's attire, but it is also reflected in the judging of the horse.

    Look for calm horses with floppy ears and a relaxed demeanor. Judges mark down for signs of a foul temper- which includes pinned ears, constant tail swishing, and foaming lips, which indicate the horse is not listening to the bit in its mouth.

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    Tempo and rhythm are the keys to a great dressage performance. Each step should fall in a rhythm and as the horse takes strides it should fall into a tempo. Dressage is often called ballet for horses, look for the horse that has the best beat and you may find a winner.

    Show Jumping

    Show jumping is one of the more dangerous Olympic sports and it can also be one of the most exciting.

    Unlike dressage where the horse stays grounded, show jumping involves navigating a course of jumps often as wide as they are tall, without taking longer than the allotted time.

    First Impressions

    To the trained eye, an observer can tell a lot about a horse and a rider as soon as they enter the ring. How many sets of reins is the rider holding? How many rings are on the side of the bit in the horse's mouth?

    If the answer is more than one, it can often mean the horse is as temperamental as it is talented.

    Speed Up to Slow Down

    For a show jumper, faults come from taking extra time but can also be caused by errors when being too hasty. A horse cannot jump from a gallop because all their energy is focused forward and down.

    The energy to jump comes from the hind end of the horse- notice how the riders rock their horses back onto their hindquarters in front of successful jumps.

    Jumping a clear course -- no poles knocked down -- requires navigating the balance of when to flat out gallop and when to collect and slow down.

    No Route

    In show jumping there is no set route, only a list of jumps to be cleared in order coming from an assigned direction.

    This means that it is the rider's job to decide how they will get from one jump to the next. Tight turns and inside routes mean seconds off the clock, but can result in crashes and missteps if the horse doesn't have time to see where it is going.