Show Jumping's Olympic Competition Format: Explained

Set your DVRS and/or alarm clocks for early tomorrow morning, because the moment we’ve all been waiting for is upon us: Olympic Show Jumping! Depending on where you are in the United States, the competition begins either in the middle of the night or very early in the morning Saturday. But take it from me, this is one show that will be worth getting out of bed for.

However, before you get swept up in the excitement, wouldn’t you like to know what’s actually going on? Even if you’re intimately familiar with show jumping, the Olympic format can be confusing. So get out your pens and take some notes. This is how it’s going to go:

Saturday, August 4th: First Individual Qualifier (2:30am/PST, 5:30amEST)

Fifteen teams of four horse/rider pairs, and 11 countries with individual riders (some coutries have several individuals competing) adds up to 75 riders total who will start in the first round, a full course with no jumpoff.

Jumping clear rounds is important for teams in the First Individual Qualifier, as overall team scores from this round will determine the start order for the first round of the team competition, on Sunday. Jumping clear rounds for individuals is important as well, because the bottom group of riders will be dropped before the next round. Scores for all riders carry over into the second round.


Sunday, August 5th, Second Individual Qualifier/First Team Qualifier (3:00amPST/6:00amEST)

Sunday’s round counts for both Team and Individual rankings. Already, riders will have been culled from the first round, as only the top 45 Individuals, and the top 8 teams, are allowed to return for round 2, another full course with no jumpoff. This round is often referred to as the Nations Cup, because teams of countries are competing against each other. 

In this round, overall score is combined from the first and second rounds. So, if you’ve had one bad round and one good one, chances are you’re not going to make it to round 3. Scores from the top three riders will be tallied for team points, and the worst score will be dropped.


Monday, August 6th, Third Individual Qualifier/ Team Final (6:00amPST/9amEST)

This is when the cream will start to rise (ride?) to the top. Things can get confusing because even though this will be the third round the horses have jumped, it’s often referred to as the second team round. Only the top 35 return to jump this round, another full course set to Olympic standard. This round is also referred to as the Nations Cup.

Scores from this round and the First Team Qualifier will decide the team medals. If two or more teams are tied with the same number of points, the tie will be broken by a jumpoff. Team medals will be given today!


Tuesday, August 7th, Rest Day! 

Watch dressage (or sleep in) while the show jumpers take a day off.


Wednesday, August 8th, Individual Final, Rounds A and B (begin at 4:00amPST/7:00amEST)

That’s right, after one day of rest, the top 35 will return to jump for Individual medals. Now we’re looking at the best group of show jumpers in the world, hands down. They’ve qualified to jump in Round A of the Olympic Final by putting together consistent rides in the three previous rounds (from Saturday, Sunday and Monday.) Their overall score from the first three days determines their ranking, and if a team has four riders qualified in the top 35, only their top three can return today. Team medals have already been determined, and their combined faults over today’s two rounds will determine individual medals. They begin Round A on a clean slate.

After an hour or so break, the top 20 riders come back to jump Round B of the Individual Final. It’s another full course, the fifth one that these horses will have jumped in as many days. If, at the end of Rounds A and B there is a tie, riders will jumpoff for individual medals. This is extremely rare, but it did happen in Beijing in 2008. Get excited, the big individual medal ceremony is today!


The Bottom Line

After all that, are you still completely and utterly lost? Don’t worry, if you need to explain the jumping to a non-horsey friend or family member, the bottom line still applies: clean rounds are good, rails down are bad. And the best horse will be jumping the most fences, potentially over six rounds. It’s a grueling competition, but if it were easy this wouldn’t be the Olympics. George Morris said it best, that the horse that wins will be the best horse on the day, the one that doesn’t get tired and can leave the jumps in the cups.


How to Watch

Listen, if you’re in the U.S. and you don’t have cable, you can barely call yourself an American (kidding, kidding.) If you are in the U.S. and you DO have cable, you're in luck. Hopefully you’ve already figured out that you can watch all of this online, and DVR it on your TV. Canadians, I don’t know what to tell you but the options are out there.

Some helpful links:

 Handy timetable with time zone converter of all equestrian events

Official rundown of all the riders

A cute equestrian fact sheet from London 2012 organizers

ProEquest's previous explanation of how and where to watch equestrian at the Olympics

See? That wasn't confusing at all....