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A History of Horse Sport

Equestrian sport – where did it all start? 

Modern day horse sport is one of the most popular sports enjoyed across the world and, in every discipline, the heritage is rich and its practices are steeped in tradition. When considering the origins and history of horse sport, it’s possible to trace a line of progression in common riding-related customs throughout the centuries, many of which are still applied to the sport today.


They’re customs now, but where did they come from?

Many riding customs we now adopt were first applied to military practices for the safety and practicality of mounted troops. For example, traditionally a soldier’s sword would be carried in a scabbard on the left-hand side of his body, leading riders to mount from the left and carry the bight of the reins on the right-hand side. The horse’s mane would also lay to the right to ensure it wasn’t caught when a solider drew or sheathed his weapon. The sword may have been left in the hands of the soldier, but his basic practices have been carried forward to modern day equestrian sport.


Where did dressage start?

Practicality can also be credited with the evolution of classic dressage. Athenian general, historian and author Xenophon observed the natural movements (collection, pirouettes and lateral motion) of horses as they moved freely in a herd. After his findings were documented in a book titled On Horsemanship in around 360 BC, it was decided that these evasive manoeuvres could provide a distinct advantage on the battlefield if it was possible to train the cavalry horses. Later, the ability to carry out such manoeuvres was developed into a sport by civilians, who retained the focus on the classical principles of lightness and impulsion.


Where did show jumping start?

We can trace the origins of show jumping back to the late 19th century. When the Inclosure Acts were put into place, they presented new challenges to hunters who followed fox hounds. Enforcing a law which brought about fencing and boundaries to many parts of the country, hunting foxes now involved jumping over these obstacles if there was any aim to travel across greater distances.

In early French horse shows, competitors would set off across a landscape and jump over the fences, but this never really took off as a spectator sport as audiences weren’t able to follow and watch. Before long, fences began to appear in the arenas for jumping competitors, and the competitions themselves were labelled Lepping. In 1869, ‘horse leaping’ came into prominence at Dublin Horse Show, and fifteen years later the sport travelled across the Celtic sea and was introduced to Britain. By 1900, most of the bigger horse shows had Lepping classes, as well as classes for ladies who rode side-saddle.

The first major show jumping competition in England was held at Olympia in 1907, before the sport appeared in its current format five years later. The 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, were a landmark event in the world of equestrian sport, where horses and riders competed to perform a “military test” which combined aspects of all three riding disciplines; what we now know as jumping, dressage and eventing.


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