What are Horse Trials?

Cross Country phase at Badminton Horse Trials

Badminton Horse Trials

Horse Trials are an equestrian sport more commonly referred to as Eventing. The original Three Day Event was a competition for cavalry horses and army officers and was introduced to the Olympics in 1912. The modern event became open to civilians at the 1952 Olympics after Britain had started horse trials at the Duke of Beufort’s home, Badminton. Badminton is now the biggest and most prestigious Three Day Event in the world and attracts large crowds of up to 200,000 spectators.


The modern format is based on the original cavalry exercises and covers three equestrian disciplines: Dressage, Cross Country and Showjumping.

DRESSAGEParallels the parade ground. The horse must be obedient, graceful and submissive and the rider poised and elegant.

Ingrid clime and Butts Abraxxas in the Dressage phase

Dressage phase

The Dressage phase comprises an exact sequence of movements ridden in an enclosed arena (20x60m).The test is judged by one or more judges who are looking for balance, rhythm and suppleness and most importantly, obedience of the horse and its harmony with the rider. The challenge is to demonstrate that a supremely fit horse, capable of completing the Cross Country phase on time, also has the training to perform in a graceful, relaxed and precise manner.

Scoring: Each movement in the test is scored on a scale from 0 to 10, with a score of 10 being the highest possible mark and with the total maximum score for the test varying depending on the level of competition and the number of movements. Therefore, if one movement is poorly executed, it is still possible for the rider to get a competitive overall score if the remaining movements are very well executed. The total marks are converted to penalty points by averaging the marks of all judges and converting this to a percentage of the maximum possible score. EG. 77 % becomes 34.5 penalty points or (100 – 77) x 1.5 = 34.5

  • Once the bell rings the rider is allowed 45 seconds to enter the ring or is Eliminated (E).
  • If all four feet of the horse exit the arena during the test, this results in Elimination (E).
  • If the horse resists more than 20 seconds during the test, this results in Elimination (E).
  • Errors on course:
    1st: 2 penalties
    2nd: 4
    3rd: Elimination (E)



With courage, speed and stamina, the Cross Country phase replicates the battlefield – wonderful entertainment!

Cross Country phase

Cross Country phase

The Cross Country course requires both horse and rider to be in excellent physical shape and to be brave and trusting of each other. This phase consists of approximately 12-20 fixed jumps (lower levels), 30-40 at the higher levels, placed on a long outdoor course. These fences consist of solidly built natural objects (logs, stone walls, etc.) as well as various obstacles such as water, ditches, drops and banks, and combinations including several jumping efforts based on objects that would commonly occur in the countryside. Safety regulations mean that many jumps have a frangible pin system, allowing part or all of the jump to collapse if hit with enough impact. Speed is a factor, with the rider required to cross the finish line within a certain time frame (optimum time). Crossing the finish line after the optimum time results in penalties for each second over. At lower levels, there is also a penalty for completing the course too quickly to encourage discourage dangerous riding. Penalties are also incurred if the horse refuses to jump a fence or has a run out. Should the horse or rider fall there is automatic elimination. Fitness is required as the time allowed will require a strong canter at the lower levels, all the way to a strong gallop at the higher events.


  • Refusal, run-out, or circle

At the same obstacle:

First: 20 penalties
Second: 40 penalties
During the entire course:

First: 20 penalties
Second: 40 penalties
Third: Elimination (E)

  • Fall of rider: Elimination (E)
  • Fall of horse (shoulder and hind touch the ground): Elimination (E)
  • Exceeding the optimum time: 0.4 penalties per second
  • Exceeding the time allowed (twice the optimum): Elimination (E)
  • Coming in more than 20secs under optimum time (lower grades): 1 penalty per second
  • Error of course not rectified: Elimination (E)



Badminton Horse Trials trot up

Badminton Horse Trials trot up

Before the beginning of a Three Day Event, and also before the final Show Jumping phase, horses are inspected by a vet to ensure that they are fit to compete further. It is usually a very formal affair, with well-groomed and plaited horses, and smartly dressed riders. It can be a nerve wracking experience for competitors, as the “pass” or “fail” determines whether the horse may continue with the competition. A vet can request that a horse is sent to the holding box, where it will be assessed more thoroughly before either representing or withdrawing from competition.

In lower levels of competition the horse’s soundness may be analysed as they complete the Cross Country phase.


SHOWJUMPINGFollowing “the battle” the horse and rider must be able to take a short cut back to base, jumping the fence lines on the way.

Showjumping phase

Showjumping phase

Show jumping tests the technical jumping skills of the horse and rider, including suppleness, obedience, fitness and athleticism. In this phase, 12-20 fences are set up in an arena. These fences are typically brightly coloured and consist of elements that can be knocked down, unlike Cross Country obstacles. This phase is also timed, with penalties being given for every second over the required time. In addition to testing a horses  jumping skills, this phase tests the fitness and stamina of the horse and rider, when held after the Cross Country phase.


  • Knocking down an obstacle: 4 penalties
  • Disobedience (refusal, run-out, circle, moving backwards) over the whole round:
    First: 4 penalties
    Second: Elimination (E)
  • Fall of rider: Elimination (E)
  • Fall of horse: Elimination (E)
  • Exceeding the time allowed: 1 penalty per second
  • Error of course not rectified: Elimination (E)
    An obstacle is defined as having been knocked down if the height of the fence is altered.


Victory lap at WHT

Lap of honour at WHT


The winner is the horse and rider who finish with the lowest penalties. They will have demonstrated the necessary grace, speed, stamina, athleticism and partnership between horse and rider to prevail at the completion of all three phases. Awards are usually presented while mounted, before place getters enjoy a lap of honor around the arena.




There are two main formats for Eventing, the One Day Event (ODE) and the Three Day Event (3DE). At a One Day Event, Dressage is always held first but the Cross Country and Show Jumping may be held in any order. At a Three Day Event the order is always Dressage on Day 1, Cross Country on Day 2 and Show Jumping on Day 3. Eventing competitions are run as either National or International competitions in the following formats:

CNC – a National One Day Event

CCN – a National Three Day Event

CIC – an International One Day Event

CCI – an International Three Day Event