Modern Three Day Eventing (also called Combined Training) involves three distinct tests or phases for the horse and rider team. The scores from all phases are added together for each horse/rider team. The pair with the lowest score (i.e., the fewest penalty marks) is the winner, much like golf. The five levels of eventing in America are Novice, Training, Preliminary, Intermediate, and Advanced, with each level increasing the complexity, height of jumps and endurance needed for both horse and rider. The international ranking system is a star system ( CCI*, CCI**, CCI***, CCI****), with four stars (****) as the most difficult level, the level of riding one sees in the Olympics
The first phase is dressage. Dressage is similar to a choreographed dance. Each horse and rider complete the same test of patterns at walk, trot and canter. (i.e., a 15 meter circle at a canter, or a diagonal at an extended trot). The tests are judged subjectively at each movement for accuracy and grace.
The second phase is cross-country. Cross-country is a gallop through natural areas (hills, valleys, streams, and ponds) jumping over solid fences, such as logs, brick walls, stone obstacles that the horse has not seen before. This is an exhilarating phase of courage and stamina. At the higher levels of eventing, each horse must pass veterinarian inspection before and after completion of the course. Severe injuries to both horse and rider are quite common in cross-country. Horse and rider are working towards optimal time, a set time period for the course—the closer to optimal time without going over the time limit, the higher the placing in case of a tie. Faults are accrued from refusals (horse turns away from jump) or deviations from the course.
The third phase is show jumping. Horse and rider negotiate tight turns and jumps, receiving faults for knocked down poles, refusals and time over the allotted amount. After cross-country, this is a chance for the horse and rider team to display their jumping ability, accuracy and endurance. The course is set up inside an enclosed arena. The jumps in show jumping are brightly colored and moveable. Again, the horse has not seen these jumps before entering the arena.
Riders and trainers walk both cross-country and the stadium jumping courses before riding the course with their horse. They are careful to count the strides between fences and develop strategies for clean, fast and efficient rounds.
A note on three-day eventing style: in both cross-country and show jumping phases the manner and style of jumping is not relevant. All that matters is a clean round with as few faults as possible. This gives rise to many variations in jumping style, as well as a “no holes barred” attitude. The latter being the reason I'm addicted to the sport
”Oh, but the rewards! Horse and rider, in perfect communication, seem to accomplish the insurmountable—the beauty and elegance of an extended trot, the flawless execution of a monstrous cross-country obstacle, and the swiftness and agility of a perfectly executed triple combination. Eventing is a sport of the most extraordinary challenges. When horse and rider conquer the challenges with grace, speed, and courage, the rewards are extraordinary as well.” (From Allison Springer, 2004 Olympic hopeful: http://allisonspringer.org/horses.htm)