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Equestrianism and horse sports

by Carolyn Mincham

Horses have been popular for sport and recreation since they first arrived in New Zealand. Jumping contests were held at A & P shows from the 1870s. In the 2000s riders took part in showjumping, dressage, eventing and endurance events.

Equestrianism and horse sports overview

Equestrianism denotes a range of skilled activities performed by a horse and its rider or driver. The best-known are the traditional English disciplines of jumping, dressage, eventing and endurance. These are competitive sports.

Other equestrian activities may be competitive or simply recreational.

  • Horse trekking is a popular outdoor pursuit. Commercial operations as well as clubs throughout the country cater for non-competitive riding.
  • Mounted games consist of a number of obstacle and relay races with ponies.
  • Western riding clubs organise a number of events based on the style of riding developed by working horsemen of the American west.
  • Polo is a mounted sport played by two teams of four. Players score goals by driving a small ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet. Polo has been played in New Zealand since 1890. In the 2000s the New Zealand team has had considerable international success.
  • Polocrosse is described as ‘a joyful mixture of polo, lacrosse and netball’.1
  • Carriage driving skills are practised by dedicated individuals and clubs of enthusiasts.
  • Hunting involves a group of riders pursuing a hare, with the assistance of a pack of hounds which follows the quarry’s scent. It is one of the oldest organised equestrian pastimes in New Zealand.
  • Rodeo is based on the working practices of cowboys and tests riders’ skills in handling horses and other livestock. It includes events such as team roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding and barrel racing.

Equestrian Sports New Zealand

The national organisation is Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ), which had approximately 6,000 members in 2011. ESNZ represents jumping, dressage, eventing, endurance and para-equestrian disciplines. Each has a board and a number of area committees or clubs. There is also a national ESNZ board. Annual registration allows members to compete in ESNZ events nationwide.

Local competitions

Competitive equestrian sports are primarily contested by individual horse and rider combinations at local and national horse events. Limited prize money and sponsorship mean that New Zealand riders are primarily amateur competitors. Male and female riders compete on the same basis in almost all equestrian sports. Many of the participants have a rural background.

Stand up

Sure to bring the Horse of the Year crowd to its feet is the song ‘Stand up (for the champions)’ by Right Said Fred. It is played following prizegivings in the main arena, and everyone sings along and claps to the rhythm as the winners ride their victory lap.

Horse of the Year

The ESNZ disciplines as well as other equestrian sports compete at the annual Horse of the Year show in Hawke’s Bay. This is the country’s largest horse show, with 1,803 horses and their riders taking part in 2012. Over 70,000 spectators attend the six-day event.

International competitions

National teams compete at some international events such as the Olympics and World Equestrian Games.

Beginning with Mark Todd’s victory at the prestigious Badminton three-day event in England in 1980, New Zealand eventers have enjoyed considerable international success. Individual and team victories at the Olympics, World Equestrian Games and other four-star events have made New Zealand a leading nation in the sport.

New Zealand endurance riding teams compete internationally and in 1999 won the gold medal at the World Endurance Championships at Seih Assalam in the United Arab Emirates.

    • Polocrosse New Zealand, ‘About the game,’ (last accessed 8 May 2012). Back

Development of equestrian activities

Horses have been used for recreation since they first arrived in New Zealand. Māori as well as settlers enjoyed riding for pleasure and took part in the organised sports of horse racing, hunting and polo.


The earliest jumping competitions in New Zealand were called leaping matches. A prize was awarded to the horse that cleared the highest bar of a single jump. It was usual to allow several trials for each rise of the bar. Sometimes a prize was also given to the best rider.

Jumping competitions

From the 1870s some A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows held horse jumping contests. There was considerable local variation in the types of contests and rules.

Following the First World War, jumping gained in popularity, with an event known as ‘round-the-ring’. Competitors were required to go over a series of jumps placed around the perimeter of the show ring and were judged on style, pace, manners and riding.

New Zealand Horse Society

Introducing the international style of showjumping to New Zealand motivated Dick Pilmer and Duncan Holden to bring together representatives from the New Zealand Pony Clubs Association, the New Zealand Hunt Association and the Royal Agricultural Society to form a national organisation. The New Zealand Horse Society (now Equestrian Sports New Zealand) was founded in 1950. It aligned New Zealand equestrian sport with the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), allowing New Zealanders to compete internationally and raising the standard of local horsemanship.

Horse trials

The Horse Society promoted the combined competition known as horse trials or eventing. Eventing originated in Europe to test the versatility of military officers’ mounts. Parade-ground skills were judged in the dressage test, while the ability to carry despatches quickly was tested in the cross-country phase. Only a careful, obedient horse would be able to successfully negotiate the final challenge of a showjumping course.

This event was well suited to New Zealand conditions. Riders with a strong racing and hunting background were accustomed to bold and fast riding across open country. New Zealand’s racing industry also produced thoroughbred horses with the courage, speed and stamina to contest the demanding competition.

Local competitions

From the early 1950s showjumping and horse-trial competitions were organised throughout the country by the Horse Society. The New Zealand Pony Clubs Association also ran competitions and became influential in teaching the principles of sound horsemanship to young riders.

International competitions

New Zealand equestrian enthusiasts have long believed in the quality of their horses and wanted to test them against the best of the world, but the high cost of sending horses and riders to overseas events has always been a barrier.

For many New Zealand horses and riders, Australia has provided their first experience of international competition. The success of a four-person showjumping team at the Sydney Royal Show in 1953 paved the way for further visits. In the 1960s eventers began to cross the Tasman for competition.

In the mid-1970s showjumper John Cottle took a team of his own horses to Europe to compete for several years. Others followed his lead in establishing a European or North American base to gain the experience and competitive opportunities needed for top-level sport, a pattern that continued in the 2000s.

Jumping and dressage


Jumping is the most popular of New Zealand’s equestrian sports, with approximately 3,500 horses competing in either showjumping or show-hunter events, or both, nationwide in 2011.


A showjumping course is made up of 10–13 removable obstacles arranged within an enclosed arena. Horse and rider must jump the brightly decorated obstacles in a designated sequence, which involves turns and changes of direction. The object is to complete the course leaving the easily dislodged rails of the jumps in place. If a rail falls or the horse refuses to jump, penalties or ‘faults’ are incurred. Usually the winner is the competitor with the fewest faults. If more than one horse and rider has a ‘clear round’, the equals compete against each other in a ‘jump-off’ against the clock. The competitor with the fewest faults in the fastest time is the winner.

Show hunter

Show hunter is a judged event. Judges look for a horse that shows forward-going, free-flowing movement and the correct ‘round’ shape over a jump, qualities that make for a safe, smooth ride on the hunt field. The competition is held over a course of up to 10 naturally coloured jumps.


Most top-level equestrians specialise in one discipline, but Gisborne beef stud breeder Merran Hain is an exception. Over her long riding career, she has represented New Zealand in eventing, dressage and showjumping. In 2011, in her 60s, she was still contesting national titles.


Dressage is a discipline dating back over 2,000 years. It was based on the need to develop the strength, flexibility, confidence and obedience of the war horse. The ultimate goal was to achieve harmony between horse and rider.

Competitors must perform a set pattern of movements appropriate to their level of training. Tests are ridden in an arena of 40 metres by 20 metres, or 60 metres by 20 metres, with lettered markers. A test is scored by one or more judges who allocate a mark for each movement. Freestyle, also known as Kur, has developed as an additional performance test since the 1980s, and is now a major crowd-pleaser. It involves the horse and rider performing dressage movements to music.

Dressage took longer to develop in New Zealand than showjumping and eventing, but it has grown in popularity, with approximately 2,000 horses registered with Equestrian Sports New Zealand to compete in 2011. 90% of dressage riders are female.

Eventing and endurance


Eventing is a one-day or three-day contest, both for individual horse–rider combinations and for teams. Approximately 1,500 horses were registered with Equestrian Sports New Zealand to compete in eventing in 2011. There are three phases of the competition, and the winner is the competitor with the lowest total penalty points at the completion of all three.


The dressage test consists of a series of compulsory movements which are individually judged. The totals are then converted to a penalty score.


This is the focus of the competition and takes place on a specially designed course on natural terrain. Competitors jump the solidly built fences as well as various obstacles such as ponds, ditches and banks. Horses refusing to jump the obstacles, or exceeding the time allowed, receive penalty points. There have been rule changes over the years to make cross-country safer. In the 2000s a fall of either the horse or rider meant elimination.


Finally, a showjumping round takes place. In three-day eventing, it occurs on the final day, and after the gruelling cross-country of the previous day some horses may not be fit enough to contest this last phase. The objective is to leave all the jumps in place within the time allowed.

A champion pair

Mark Todd said of Charisma, his Olympic gold medal mount: ‘Good horses come and go but I have been lucky enough to have one who can truly be called a champion – Charisma – and they only come along once in a lifetime.’1

Mark Todd

Mark Todd was a pioneer of three-day eventing in New Zealand, and part of the first national team to contest a world championship, in 1978. He has won numerous eventing championships during his career, but is best known for the two Olympic individual gold medals he won on his famous horse, Charisma, in 1984 and 1988. He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and was voted FEI Event Rider of the 20th Century by the International Equestrian Federation in 2000.

Endurance events

Endurance rides and clubs have been organised in New Zealand since the 1970s, with about 500 horses actively competing in 2011. There are two types of competition held in New Zealand.


Endurance is a controlled long-distance race varying in length between 25 and 160 kilometres. Horses are monitored at designated checkpoints to ensure that they are fit enough to continue. There are also mandatory rests or ‘holds’ during the race. Although competitors strive for the fastest time, the winner is determined only when the horse has passed a final veterinary inspection.

Competitive trail riding

Competitive trail riding (CTR) is a scored event that tests the ability of the competitor to ride a marked course in optimum time. On finishing the course, the horse’s heart rate is added to any time faults from finishing early or late for a final score. The competitor with the lowest score is the winner.

    • Mark Todd, Charisma, London: Threshold Books, 1989, p. 5. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carolyn Mincham, 'Equestrianism and horse sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2021)

Story by Carolyn Mincham, published 5 Sep 2013