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What is Olympic Show Jumping?

Last updated October 23, 2023 by Rachael Kraft

Equestrian Olympic show jumping is one of the most popular types of equestrian competitions. Show jumping competitions continue to grow in popularity – spectators from all over the country come to watch talented horses and riders navigate difficult courses with a variety of colorful jumps, often including a water jump.a horse jumping over a hurdle

Growing up, my 4-H club would go to the Pennsylvania National Horse Show to watch the very best show jumpers compete.  I was always amazed by the strength and courage of the competitors.  When the Olympics rolled around, I would scroll through the channels just hoping for a glimpse of the show jumpers. Now, with the Internet and streaming, it’s much easier to watch and appreciate this amazing sport.

Horse owners and riders who come to watch and enjoy these competitions often ask questions like “how high are the fences in Olympic show jumping?” “What’s the maximum size of a horse water jump?” And of course, amazed by the training and athletic ability of these horses, they ask the ultimate question – “How high can a horse jump?”

Here we’ll answer all these questions and more so you can better appreciate and understand the impressive sport of Olympic show jumping.

Height of Olympic Show Jumping Fences

Olympic show jumping is a jumping competition at the highest level, also known as the Grand Prix level of competition. The Olympics aren’t the only event at this level, all the top competitions like the World Equestrian Games, the Nations Cup Series and the World Cup Series all compete under the same rules and regulations.

At this level, the courses have between 10 and 16 obstacles designed to test the stamina, control, and accuracy of both the horses and their riders. Every jump looks different – some have the poles layered one over the other, others have multiple jumps stuck together so the horse has to clear it in one jump, and some have jumps close together, forcing the horse to take only a few steps before jumping again (and again!).

How high are Olympic horse jumps? At this highest level of competition, the jumps range from 1.6 meters (5 feet 3 inches) to 2 meters (6 feet 6 inches). The jumps have a maximum width of 2 meters (6 feet 6 inches) or 2.2 meters (7 feet 2 inches) if the jumps are triple bar jumps.

How it Works: Olympic Show Jumping

What are the rules for show jumping competitions? Before the competition, riders prepare by walking around the arena on foot, memorizing the order of the obstacles and calculating how many strides their horse will need to take to successfully clear each jump.

Then, when the competition begins, horses and riders are given a certain amount of time to complete the course, jumping all of the obstacles in the order given to them at the beginning. If a horse refuses to jump over an obstacle, or knocks over a pole while jumping, they are penalized. These penalties are called “faults.”

In traditional show jumping competitions, there are two rounds with a different arena set up and different obstacles. The horses that complete the first round without any faults moves on to the next round. In the next round (called the “jump-off”), the horse that has the fastest time and the lowest score (or the lowest number of faults) is the winner.

The Olympic show jumping height is generally the same as other Grand Prix level competitions, but with a slightly different format. Here, horses and riders compete in several rounds over a couple of days before competing in the final “jump-off.”

Different Types of Jumps

In competitions, it’s not just the height of Olympic show jumping fences that can change, but also the styles of the jumps. These different jumps require the horse and rider to quickly determine how to approach the jump and complete it successfully, and make frequent changes to clear all the different jumps. The jumps are usually bright and colorful, with unique decorations that can distract or scare an unprepared horse.

Here’s a few of the different styles of jumps that horses and riders can encounter on an Olympic show jumping course:

a horse and rider at a jumping competition, jumping over a hurdleVertical Jumps

The most basic type of jump, these obstacles have the poles stacked one above the other and have a single width.

Oxer (Wide Jumps)

An Oxer is made up of two verticals close together. The horse has to jump over both of them at the same time, requiring both height and distance in the jump. There are also different styles of oxers, where the furthest pole is taller than the closer one (Ascending Oxer) or where the poles are set up in an X shape (Swedish Oxer).

Triple Bar

This type of jump is three vertical jumps stuck together, but with three poles, each higher than the last.

Combination Jumps

These types of jumps are vertical jumps placed close together, meaning the horse can only take two or three strides between them. They can be either double combinations (two jumps in a row) or triple combinations (three jumps in a row).

There are also different jump designs made to frighten or distract the horse. Some can look like a brick wall (it’s actually made of lightweight squares that can be easily knocked over), while others can have a ditch or a ground-level troth of water under a jump (these are called Liverpool jumps). There are even some jumps that have a bush or fake grass on top.

The Most Challenging Jump in Olympic Show Jumping

Although there are many different challenging jumps on the course, there’s one type of jump that’s perhaps the most challenging of all – the water jump. There’s usually only one water jump per course, but many riders consider it the most difficult obstacle on the course.

The water jump is challenging for horses because horses can’t tell how deep the water is, and reflections in the water can confuse the horse and make him unsure of how far to jump. Since horses can’t completely see what they are expected to jump (because of the reflections on the water and glares from the sun) many horses refuse the water jump and fault on this obstacle.

How long is the water jump in show jumping? Usually, water jumps are around 3 to 4 meters long. The maximum size of a horse water jump is 4.5 meters long (16 feet 5 inches).

Want your horse to ace the water jump in your next competition? Practice water obstacles with this Portable Liverpool Water Jump.

an action shot of a horse and rider at a jumping competition How High Can Horses Jump?

Watching these talented horses clear the full height of Olympic show jumping fences is certainly impressive to watch. The best show jumping horses make leaping over the jumps seem easy, but really, it’s hard work and requires a lot of training.

How high can horses jump? Well, the average horse can only jump around 3 feet. But a typical show jumping horse can jump 5-7 feet. The world record for the highest a horse has jumped was set by Huaso, ex-Faithful, a chestnut thoroughbred stallion. He jumped 8 ft 1.25 inches in a show jumping competition in Chile. To this day, no horse has beat his record.

Does Jumping Hurt Horses?

Jumping isn’t a natural movement for horses – usually if there’s an obstacle in their path, in the wild a horse would veer around it, not leap over it.  For that reason, many people wonder if jumping is bad for horses.

It’s true that jumping is an exercise that puts a high amount of stress on a horse’s joints. When a horse jumps over an obstacle and lands on their two front legs, all their body weight and the weight of the rider is forced onto their forelimbs. This can wear down their joints and ligaments in their legs and lead to chronic health problems. Front feet pain, osteoarthritis, and ligament injuries are common in show horses.

Keep your competition horse’s joints strong and healthy with this PureFlex joint supplement.

What Are the Best Horse Breeds for Show Jumping?

Show jumping horses must have both speed and agility, and must be adaptable, brave, and hard-working. It’s not easy to find a good show jumping horse, making them very valuable and pricy horses.

There are many different horse breeds that can be good for show jumping with the right training. Thoroughbreds, Dutch Warmbloods, American Quarter Horses, Selle Francais and Trakehners are all safe bets when looking for a winning show jumping horse.

Frequently Asked Questions

How high are the fences in Olympic show jumping?

The height of Olympic show jumping fences has changed over the years, but right now the jumps range from 1.6 meters - 2 meters. The traditional jumps have a maximum width of 2 meters and the triple bar jumps have a width of 2.2 meters.

Is Equestrian Show Jumping still part of the Olympics?

Olympic show jumping is still a part of the Olympics.  The same can’t be said for a related sport called Olympic Pentathlon that includes five sports with one being a horse jumping event. After the most recent Tokyo Olympics, the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) announced the show jumping event will be dropped from Olympics after the 2024 Paris Olympic games. The Olympic Pentathlon pairs riders with horses that they are not familiar with, making it more dangerous for both horses and riders. This surprising change was made in an effort to protect horses and riders.

What is the maximum size of a horse water jump?

The maximum size of a horse water jump is 4.5 meters – almost 16 1/2 feet long – making it one of the most challenging obstacles in the show jumping competition.

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