Along with sailing, equestrian is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete against each other. Inspired by the chariot races of the ancient Greek games, it is also the only Olympic sport in which humans and animals are teammates. The horses are considered athletes (as they should be), and they receive their very own medal.
Riders compete in three disciplines—dressage, jumping, and eventing—and are awarded individual and team medals.
In dressage (derived from the French verb "to train") a horse-and-rider team receives scores based on a series of set movements. The movements test the horse's strength, suppleness, and obedience and the rider's ability to guide the horse through the test with subtle cues. The horse-and-rider team should present harmony, lightness, and free-flowing movement. The competition is held in three rounds. The third round is a freestyle test set to music, first introduced in 1996, that is scored both for technique and artistry.
The discipline traces its roots to Xenophon, a Greek horseman and historian, and to 17th- and 18th-century cavalry officers who considered the maneuvers a valuable training method. In fact, only commissioned officers of the military could compete in Olympic dressage competitions from its inclusion in 1912 until 1952.
In the jumping event, competitors complete a course of 15–20 obstacles within a specific time. The object is to navigate the course with the fewest penalties, which are given for knocking down obstacles, balking at jumps, or falls by rider and/or horse. The obstacles include fences up to 5 1/4 ft. high and 6ft. wide. A tie for first place is settled by a jump-off over a shorter, faster course.
Three-day eventing is the most grueling of the Olympic equestrian events, combining dressage, show jumping, and a cross-country phase. On the first day, riders demonstrate the training and obedience of their horses in a dressage test. The next day they compete in the exciting cross-country phase where they gallop 5,700m over varying terrain and jump up to 45 obstacles. While these obstacles are not as high as those in show jumping they are more solid and include ditches and fences in water. On the final day horse-and-rider teams compete over a show jumping course. This last phase demonstrates the fitness of the horses and how quickly they can recover from the previous day's trial. Eventing competitors do not win points, but instead incur penalty points during each phase. The winners are the rider and team with the fewest penalty points.
For the 2008 Olympics, equestrian will be one of the few events not to be contested within the city limits. Instead, such events will be held in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. The jumping and dressage events will be held at the Shatin Olympic Equestrian Venue, an 18,000-seat outdoor arena that was once part of Shatin Racecourse. Air conditioned stables four blocks long, and with the capacity to hold up to 200 horses were constructed for the competition, along with a number of other amenities for competitors. The cross country events will be held at a venue constructed on the Bead River Country Club and Hong Kong Golf Club.
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