The Roots of Equestrian Sport

This article highlights why we braid, mount on the left side, and ride dressage: how history dictates the modern horse sport tradition.

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By: Jessica Lefroy |

No matter the discipline, modern horse sport is steeped in tradition, with some interesting origins behind common riding-related customs. First presented as a “military test” that evolved into three distinct disciplines – jumping, dressage, and eventing – at the 1912 Olympics Games in Stockholm, Sweden, many basic riding practices were born of military applications put in place for the safety and practicality of mounted troops. For example, to facilitate the use of a sword, which was most often carried in a scabbard on the left-hand side, riders mounted from the left, the bight of the reins was carried on the right, and manes lay on the right so as not to impede drawing or sheathing the weapon.

Classical dressage also evolved from practical applications. Xenophon, the Athenian general and historian who penned On Horsemanship circa 360 BC, observed horses’ natural movements – collection, pirouettes, and lateral motion – while they roamed freely in a herd. It was decided that if these evasive manoeuvres could be trained for use in the battlefield, a major strategic advantage would be obtained over those fighting on foot. Modern dressage later evolved as civilians developed the sport, still retaining the classical principles of lightness and impulsion.

The traditions of foxhunting are still felt in the hunter discipline. Foxhunting originated in the early 16th century in England as a method of pest control for landowners. When farmers began to fence off land, it became necessary to find horses capable of jumping natural obstacles and carrying riders great distances. Field hunters, chosen for their ability to travel for hours without tiring, were ideally flat-kneed movers with ground-covering strides and energy-saving low knee action. The show ring hunter was developed to showcase these same skills; to this day, suitability, style, movement, and manners remain key to hunter judging.

Turnout in the hunter ring also harkens back foxhunting. Hunting regalia was designed with practicality in mind; riding jackets were initially designed for warmth and water-resistance during the cold months; breeches and leather boots offered protection against briars, brambles, and branches. The stock tie, traditionally fastened by a large safety pin, served as a bandage or sling should a rider, horse, or hound sustain an injury. Horses’ manes and tails were braided to avoid getting snagged in branches or matted with burrs.

So consider how you are honouring thousands of years of tradition the next time you braid your horse, pin your stock tie, or practice a piaffe!