This article was produced in association with FEI
Michael Jung is one of the toughest competitors you’ll find in any sport. Back in 2015, at a major eventing competition, this champion equestrian broke his ankle falling off his first horse but told no one of his injury before going on to win on a second horse. A few days later he triumphed in the FEI European Championships.
This 35-year-old from Germany is the perfect poster boy for the equestrian sport known as eventing. Combining brilliant technique, meticulous attention to detail, an almost devil-may-care courage and, perhaps most importantly, a seemingly telepathic relationship with the horses he rides, he is one of the most successful eventers of all time. In both team and individual eventing he has won gold medals in six European Championships competitions, at two FEI World Equestrian Games™, and in three Olympic Games competitions.
His chosen sport is arguably the most adrenalin-fuelled, courageous and diverse equestrian event there is. Often compared to triathlon, it sees riders and horses competing (either as individuals or in national teams) across the three disciplines of jumping, dressage and cross-country, with the scores from each counting towards an overall total.
For the uninitiated, this is how most eventing competitions work: first off, rider and horse compete in dressage – a series of prescribed balletic movements in an arena, scored by a panel of judges. Then they negotiate the cross-country course, an outdoor rural circuit several miles long, featuring around 30 fixed obstacles which must all be jumped at speed.
Finally there is the jumping discipline, where horse and rider take on multiple fences within a ringed stadium. One particularly challenging aspect of eventing is that the same horse must compete in all three disciplines.
Overseen by equestrian sport’s international governing body, the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI), eventing takes place at almost 650 venues around the world, with well established events in the US, Australia, the UK, France and Ireland. The FEI counts nearly 5,700 eventing riders among its registered members, and 9,000 horses – mainly thoroughbreds or part-thoroughbreds.
The highest-profile stage for the sport is of course the Olympic Games. Outside of this there is eventing at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ (the ultimate equestrian world championship held every four years and alternating with the Olympic Games), plus many other FEI events, including the European Championships and other regional championships.
A team series of eventing that has made huge strides in recent years is the FEI Nations Cup™ Eventing. Comprising nine events, staged across Europe and USA between March and October every year, it started in 2012. The most recent champions were Germany.
Of the three eventing disciplines, it is often the cross-country that fans love the most. Not surprising, really, when you consider the non-stop action on offer.
In fact you really ought to call it an adrenalin sport. At the elite level, each rider-and-horse team must face 30 fences or more, as well as other obstacles such as ponds, streams, banks and ditches, during their timed gallop around the course. Both team members must be skilful, athletic and fearlessly brave, with penalties added for missing or refusing any obstacle.
As spectators watch the competitors zip past at top speed, they experience the sport with all of their senses. The course set-up often allows them to view both horse and rider from very close quarters, even as the athletes launch themselves over the fences. Get too close and they risk being spattered by mud flicked up by the horses’ hooves.
Meanwhile the drumming of those same hooves and the cheering of other fans fills the air. Fans are even close enough to smell the horses sweat as they exert themselves. This is equestrian sport at its most intense.
One of eventing’s rising stars is 28-year-old Alex Hua Tian, a British-born and British-educated rider who competes for China by dint of his Chinese father. In 2008, at the age of 18, he became the youngest eventer to compete at the Oympics, and China’s first ever equestrian Olympian.
For me, it’s the adrenalin of going fast, the danger, the pressure, the intimidation of the cross-country course. That, for me, is why I love the sport,” he explained in an excellent documentary by Tenzinsedon (vimeo.com/101856366).
Hua Tian stresses how much of a team sport eventing is, with communication between the human athlete and the equine athlete absolutely crucial.
When you’re talking with people, scientifically, something like 70 per cent of the conversation is body language. With a horse it’s 100 per cent body language. But you can still communicate by body language.”
“Horses have their own brains and they can think for themselves,” he continues. “They can do things against you or they can misunderstand what you’re asking them to do. They have emotions, they get nervous, they get tense, they get frightened. All these things human athletes have, equine athletes have as well. It’s all about partnership. The horse, he doesn’t learn how to jump these big fences in one day. It takes many, many many years to build up to the Olympic level.”
Given the dramatic nature of the sport, the FEI has taken great pains in recent years to ensure the safety of both riders and horses.
Some fences feature what is known as frangible pins which allow them to collapse in a controlled way if struck by the horses’ legs or body. Horses wear leg protection while riders wear safety vests and helmets. Some riders even use air-bag vests which automatically inflate in the case of a fall.
The FEI are aware of the enormous popularity of all three disciplines of eventing, and the opportunities this gives to potential sponsors.
“The sport is a unique challenge, demanding skill, courage and versatility across a range of disciplines,” says Ralph Straus, FEI Commercial Director. “Large, passionate crowds are drawn to the sport’s beautiful, outdoor, natural settings where the drama is played out at close quarters between elite athletes. The promise of a fun, family day out guarantees a vibrant, friendly atmosphere.”
The federation points out how versatile eventing is, with its eclectic mix of dressage, cross-county and jumping offering “changes of pace from serene to dramatic”. Then there are the brave athletes,” they add, “adrenalin-fuelled, courageous and versatile. Plus the diverse crowds – a rich mix of personalities of all ages.”
These crowds have been growing in size in recent years. FEI research shows that there are 407 million eventing fans globally.
It’s a very popular sport for families, with 64 per cent of fans travelling to events in family groups. 70 per cent of spectators describe themselves as “middle- to high-income” earners. And, unusually for an adrenalin sport, more fans (55 per cent) are women than men.
One reason for this is the fact that FEI disciplines, including eventing, are some of the very few sports where both genders compete alongside each other on the same stage. There are no single-sex categories in this sport.
To understand just how much adrenalin is involved, spectators really must attend an eventing competition. The next best thing is to hear about it from a top rider. In the Tenzinsedon documentary, Hua Tian is very articulate when he describes the excitement of his sport, especially the cross-country discipline.
“In cross-country you’re always on the edge of control,” he says. “It’s up to you as the rider to make the decision on how fast you’re going to go. It’s always a judgement and that’s where the adrenalin comes in. That’s why it’s so exciting.
"That’s why, when you’ve finished the cross-country, you always have this massive buzz and big smile on your face because you’ve made the right decisions, you’ve taken some risks, and those risks have paid off.”