Britain’s Olympic equestrian team

Samantha Murray competing in the Modern Pentathalon horse jumping round at Greenwich Park for the Lo

Samantha Murray competing in the Modern Pentathalon horse jumping round at Greenwich Park for the London 2012 Olympics - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The Rio Olympics are upon us and the highly successful Great British equestrian team is once again on a quest for gold. Susanna Ballinger, partner at equine veterinary specialists Rossdales Hertfordshire in Weston, gives a guide to the ultimate test of horse and rider

There are medals for individual and team equestrian events in several disciplines at the Olympics in Rio this month, and the British team will be looking to improve on its impressive haul of five medals, including three golds, at the 2012 London games where they topped the medal table.

Olympic equestrian events are the only ones to involve animals and the only sport where men and women compete on equal terms against each other. Built for the 2007 Pan American Games, the Olympic equestrian centre in Rio has been modernised and expanded for the 2016 games. The one million square metre facility includes the jumping, dressage and eventing arenas, cross-country course and horse and trainer accommodation.


Dressage is the art of riding a horse to develop calmness, obedience, flexibility and balance on the flat. With the grace of a prima ballerina, horses are ridden to a set routine or ‘test’, which includes complex sequences of moves to demonstrate technical ability, poise, fluidity and control. The term ‘dressage’ is a French term meaning ‘training’. The performance is scored by judges situated around the arena so that no angle is missed. A dressage test is also an element of eventing.

The only Paralympic equestrian sport is dressage. The riders are grouped depending on disability, to allow fair competition. The rigorous test is certainly no less challenging than that held for able-bodied competitors. At the 2012 Paralympics, the GB para-equestrian team topped the medal table with a stunning total of 11 medals, including five golds.


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Showjumping demonstrates speed, agility and accuracy of horse and rider over a course of jumps in an arena. Varying jump combinations challenge the rider and an optimum time is set for completing the circuit. There are ‘faults’ for refusals and knocked-down poles, and, if the course time is exceeded, time penalties are added to the score.

Showjumping is also one of the five elements of the Modern Pentathlon, along with fencing, running, swimming and pistol shooting. The sport is based on traditional military disciplines; simulating the experience of a 19th-century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines: riding an unfamiliar horse, fighting enemies with pistol and sword, swimming and running to return to safety. It is the ultimate display of fitness, courage and skill, all competed in just one day, heightening the challenge. In the showjumping section, athletes are required to ride a horse to which they have been introduced only 20 minutes before the start. Samantha Murray (left) won silver for Team GB at London 2012.


Eventing is held over three days and is a comprehensive all-round test of horse and rider. It comprises three disciplines – dressage, showjumping and a demanding cross-country test. Originally developed as a military exercise to reflect the training horses needed for the army, it tests and demonstrates versatility and stamina. The winner is the rider or team that accumulates fewest faults at the end of the competition.

Team GB support

Team GB depends upon its World Class Programme team who work tirelessly behind the scenes, continuously developing human and horse sports science and medicine, to give the athletes the best chance of success at elite level. The team includes doctors, coaches, veterinary surgeons, physiotherapists for horses and riders, farriers, psychologists and strategists.

Susanna Ballinger BVSc MRCVS manages veterinary care for high-performance competition horses and ponies across Hertfordshire. She and her team of Rossdales vets also provide 24/7 care for leisure horses, ponies and donkeys every day of the year.

GB equestrian team medals

From 2000-2015 Team GB has won:

161 medals across dressage, eventing and showjumping at youth level

143 medals in para-equestrian dressage

53 senior medals in Olympic sports

26 senior medals in Fédération Equestre Internationale sports