TRYON – While rodeo sports like barrel racing and bull riding are branded into the collective American brain, the more obscure equestrian disciplines of dressage, vaulting and eventing, and their associated rider get-ups like top hats, tails and leotards, might take a little getting used to.
The FEI World Equestrian Games, the biggest horse riding sport on the planet, will take over the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Polk County Sept. 11-23 with eight disciplines sanctioned by the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the global governing body for equestrian sports.
The WEG are held every four years in the middle of the Olympics cycle.
The FEI will award individual and team gold, silver and bronze medals for each discipline: Dressage, para-dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining and vaulting.
Michael Stone, president of the WEG Organizing Committee, said although some of these sports might not be the stuff of coffee house talk in Western North Carolina, they are well known in Europe, like his native Ireland, as well as South America, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.
“The most popular discipline from a horse point of view is dressage, especially dressage to music, called the freestyle. It’s a bit like ice skating to music,” Stone said.
“For the more general public, eventing is the most exciting. They go out onto the old golf course, jump huge, solid obstacles really fast. It’s a really exciting, entertaining event. They jump into water, jump out of water, up and over banks. The course is about 5,500 yards and it’s out in the countryside. It’s absolutely beautiful."
If you only have time or money for one day at the World Equestrian Games, Stone recommends getting a ticket to eventing.
Dressage, along with para-dressage, jumping and eventing are Olympic events. The World Equestrian Games will serve as the first opportunity for U.S. athletes to secure team spots in these disciplines at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
For the other four disciplines, the WEG are the pinnacle of the sport, serving as the World Championships.
The Games are bringing some 839 athletes and their horses from six continents and 71 countries, Stone said, all at the top of their sports.
What is interesting to note is that men and women compete on equal footing, so to speak, in equestrian events.
“It’s a level playing field. Men and women compete against one another. The only discipline that breaks it up a little is vaulting, because there is an individual male and individual female competition, but those scores come together for the team score,” said Julian McPeak, marketing and communications director for U.S. Equestrian Federation, the sport’s national governing body, based in Lexington, Kentucky.
“It’s very unusual for the sporting world. Equestrian is one of only two Olympic disciplines that works like this – sailing is the other,” she said.
Get to know your World Equestrian Game disciplines
Dressage, which has roots in ancient Greece, is considered the highest expression of horse training. The term “dressage” means “training” in French.
The horse has to perform at a walk, trot and canter, and all tests are ridden from memory, following a prescribed pattern of movements. The only exception is the freestyle, which is specially choreographed for each horse and is performed to music.
Experts say that dressage is the most technically difficult of the equestrian disciplines, but perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing. In addition to the ballet-like movements of the horses, the riders adhere to a strict dress code that includes black or dark top hat and tail coat or jacket, white pants and gloves.
“It’s quite technical to understand it. It’s beautiful to watch. The horses are really beautiful. The athletes are all dressed up in top hat and tails. It’s a really elegant sport,” Stone said. “But to really follow it, you need to understand it.”
Horse and rider are evaluated subjectively by a seven-judge panel, much like in ice skating, on their almost imperceptible communication by which the rider uses his or her hands, legs and weight in the seat lead the horse through a series of movements or “tests."
The dressage challenges are divided into three categories: the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special and the highlight, the Grand Prix Freestyle, in which each team performs a routine to its chosen musical composition.
The first day of competition features the Grand Prix – the highest level of competition. It is a test composed of movements that include passage (a powerful trot); piaffe (a slow, elevated trot in place, or not moving forward); pirouette (a circle the horse makes with its front end around a smaller circle made by the hind end); and flying changes (when the horses front and hind legs change leads at the same time).
The Helgstrand Dressage takes place over four days, Sept. 12-14 and 16. Points are tallied for an overall percentage. All dressage events will be held in the main stadium, rain or shine.
Para-dressage is the only equestrian event included in the Paralympic Games. The discipline has the same basic rules as conventional dressage, but the riders are divided into different competition grades based on their functional abilities, Stone said.
“Some people have lost a leg or both legs or an arm or are blind, or have multiple sclerosis, and classified into similar groups to ride against each other,” Stone said. “It’s a really emotional event to watch.”
Para-dressage became the eighth FEI-regulated discipline in 2006 and joined the World Equestrian Games four years later, creating one of the few sporting competitions in the world featuring events for both able-bodied athletes and those with impairments.
The Adequan Para-Dressage competitors are tested on a series of moves at different paces depending on their physical ability, with some being judged at the walk, trot and canter, some at just the walk and trot, and others only at walking speed.
Competition takes place over four days, Sept. 18, 19, 21 and 22.
This is a full-throttle event in which a three-member team work together to navigate a carriage pulled by four horses, also known as four-in-hand, and encompasses three phases of competitions in three different types of carriages spread over three days: Dressage, Marathon and Cones.
According to the FEI, dressage involves performing a sequence of compulsory figures within a 100-by-40-meter rectangle. Movements, which must be executed from memory, include speed and gait transitions, circles of different sizes and halts.
The marathon is a "spectacular" time trial run over a course including natural hazards such as sharp turns, water and steep hills, and artificial ones such as labyrinths. It tests the horses’ fitness and stamina and the driver’s judgment of pace and horse control.
Obstacle driving – or cones – tests the fitness, obedience and suppleness of the horses after the marathon, as well as the skill and competence of the driver who must weave cleanly through a narrow track outlined by cones with balls balanced on top.
“If they hit a cone and the tennis ball falls off, they get penalized. Whoever goes the fastest and has the fewest penalties wins,” he said.
The event takes place Sept. 21-23 in the new driving stadium.
Endurance, which takes place Sept. 12, is a long-distance race against the clock featuring one day, one horse and 100 miles, in the ultimate test of the partnership between horse and rider.
Riders go out in 25-mile loops through North and South Carolina, then stop for mandatory rests and a wide range of veterinary checks, Stone said, to ensure the horse’s and rider’s welfare over such a long distance.
“If a horse is a bit lame, has metabolic issues, if its heart rate is too high, they get taken out,” he said. “It’s a pretty simple competition.”
Endurance tests the speed and stamina of a horse and challenges the rider over their effective use of pace, thorough knowledge of their horse’s capabilities and ability to cross all kinds of terrain. Although the rides are timed, the emphasis is on finishing in good condition rather than coming in first, according to FEI.
Endurance started as a sport in the United States, as a way for the U.S. cavalry to test its horses on a five-day, 300-mile ride. It became a competitive sport in the 1950s.
The track features natural terrain, starting and finishing on the TIEC main property, allowing easy access for spectators to catch the racy thrills up close.
Eventing, one of the three Olympic equestrian disciplines, is known as the triathlon of the equestrian world. Competition is held over three days in dressage, cross-country, and jumping, with the same horse for each phase of competition.
Eventing, which is sponsored by Mars, Inc., tests the horse and rider in all aspects of horsemanship and athleticism.
“It derives from the military. In Europe, the name of the competition is ‘military,’” Stone said.
“The idea was you had a horse you could control during dressage, was strong and fit enough to gallop cross country, but strong enough that even being tired after cross country, it could come out and show jump,” Stone said.
Athletes will ride the same horse over three days. Typically the best eventing horses are Irish Thoroughbreds, Stone said.
Throughout the three days, Sept. 13-15, each phase is scored, and penalties carry over from each day’s round. The goal is to accumulate as few faults as possible over the three days.
Jumping, also known in the United States as Show Jumping, is the most popular equestrian sport world-wide, Stone said, inducing lots of spectator breath-holding. It is also an Olympic discipline.
The four-day event builds up to a final on Sept. 23, the last day of competition. Jumping showcases a “spectacular mix of courage, control, and technical ability.” Athletes compete four to a team and one as an individual on a timed course urging their horses over a series of 10 to 13 “knockable” obstacles, or "jumps," some of which may be double or triple combinations, with penalties incurred for each obstacle knocked down or refused.
“They have to leave all the jumps standing. The jumps fall very easily. And they are complicated fences with distances that are irregular,” Stone said.
Fence heights range from 1.55 meters to 1.65 meters (5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches) over the three days of competition. The water jump must be used at least three times and can be no wider than 4 meters (13.1 feet).
The event will take place in the main arena Sept. 19-21 and 23.
Winners are determined by an accumulated score over the course of the days, with penalties for knocking jumps down, or going too slowly.
Reining is the only FEI World Equestrian Games western discipline, so this is where to get your cowboy fix. Stone calls it a “sort of cowboy dressage,” since the movements come from the working of horses when herding cattle.
It is team and individual judged event, as in dressage, designed to show the athletic ability of ranch-type horses in an arena setting.
Cattle-wrangling movements (without the cattle) include 360-degree spins, where a horse must go round in circles, flying lead changes, fast cantering and slow cantering, and slides – where horses gallop as fast as they can down the arena into a stop where the horse has to slide, while keeping its front feet moving, Stone said.
Instead of fancy coat tails, reining athletes must wear western attire while competing, including a long sleeve shirt with collar, cowboy boots and western hat or safety helmet.
Reining will take place Sept. 12, 13 and 15 in the new indoor arena.
In addition to the sliding and spinning, reining should be popular with an American crowd since the U.S. has dominated the sport for years, Stone said, considering the all-American quarter horse is the best reining horse.
Perhaps the most obscure of equestrian events, vaulting is simply gymnastics on horseback. It has a history as an equestrian act at circuses, but it is at least 2,000 years old.
All vaulting routines - team, individual, and freestyle - are performed by athletes in gymnast uniforms on the back of a cantering horse, traveling in a circle and attached to a lunge line. Competitors are judged on their ability to smoothly execute required movements demonstrating strength, flexibility and balance. The horses are also judged on their performance.
“Most equestrian sports developed from the military. Vaulting was a way of getting military to become comfortable on horses, to jump on and jump off, to build confidence on a horse and to build fitness,” Stone said.
It’s evolved over the years to become one of the most popular spectator sports, and children as young as 10 years old can compete.
“It’s really spectacular. It’s really different,” he said. “It’s not what most people imagine an equestrian sport is.”
If you go..
The FEI World Equestrian Games run from Sept. 11-23 at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. Tickets and more information available at tryon2018.com.