Dressage vs Show Jumping! What are the Differences?

Posted by James Borland on

When entering into the world of horses, there are many possible disciplines for a rider to choose from. Among the English disciplines, two of the most popular choices are dressage and show jumping. It can be hard to know which one you will enjoy more, and therefore which type of barn you should seek out for your first lessons. This article will explore the similarities and differences between the two, as well as offer advice to beginner riders on where to start.

What is Dressage?


Dressage is considered a “flat” discipline, meaning horses and riders do not go over jumps of any kind. In dressage, the horse and rider perform a pattern of movements to demonstrate agility and subtle communication within each gait (walk-trot-canter). Some examples include extended and collected gaits, lead changes, half-passes, and pirouettes.

After becoming comfortable riding all three gaits without the complication of added movements, beginner riders will start practicing short patterns of simple movements, and the difficulty and length of the patterns will increase as riders progress.

In lessons, riders will work with their trainers to improve their execution of individual movements as well as practice putting full patterns together and performing them from memory.

In between lessons, riders can practice individual movements on their own, work on improving upon their execution of a pattern they learned in their lessons, or create their own patterns.

What is Show Jumping?

show jumper jumping over obstacle

“Show jumping” is one of three jumping disciplines that people new to horses commonly and mistakenly group into “show jumping. However, these disciplines are different and need to be understood before throwing yourself into “show jumping.” 

In show jumping, the horse and rider jump over a series of obstacles in as little time as possible. The jump course and questions being asked of the rider and horse in a “show jumping” course are more complicated. Conversely, the “hunter” and “equitation” disciplines also include jumps; however, in a hunter class the horse is being judged on its form, tempo, and conformation over jumps, speed is not the defining factor.

Hunter courses are typically less complicated. “Equitation” is when the rider is being judged on their appearance and execution of piloting the horse over a course. The course itself is similar to a hunter course. 

Riders will begin by becoming comfortable riding all three gaits (walk-trot-canter) at the flat and practicing the position in which they will need to be over the jump, which is called the two-point. Once riders are confident and balanced on the flat, they will progress to jumping small obstacles.

As riders improve, the height of the jumps will be raised and more difficult obstacles will be introduced, such as oxers and combinations. Additionally, riders will practice making tighter and more difficult turns to increase their ability to complete a course quickly.

In lessons, trainers will first work with their riders on the flat to warm up, and then they will practice going over jumps, only after the trainer is satisfied that the pair are ready to progress. Trainers may set up short exercises to work on improving their riders’ ability to ride a specific part of a course, or they may set up entire courses for the riders to jump in a specific order from memory.

In between lessons, riders can work on improving their flatwork skills and riding over poles on the ground. Generally, jumping is not done without a trainer for safety reasons and to avoid putting too much impact on horses’ legs.

Dressage vs Show Jumping

dressage horses in line up

Advanced riders in both disciplines need the basic foundation of creating a collected, balanced horse with good impulsion to have a successful ride. However, for dressage riders, this translates to helping the horse complete the desired movement to the best of their ability, while for jumper riders it sets the horse up to jump well.

There are more nuanced differences between the disciplines as well: dressage arenas are one of two predetermined sizes while jumping arenas can be any size and are not always rectangular. The rules regarding what bits and other tack items are legal are more relaxed in show jumping compared to dressage (and the other jumping disciplines).

At competitions, dressage horses’ manes will almost always be braided while show jumpers’ rarely are. A dressage rider’s show coat will have tails on it, while a jumper will not if they are even wearing a coat in the first place.

Despite these differences, the most important parts of the two disciplines are the same: the horses’ health and happiness need to be prioritized, and the rider should be enjoying the sport.

What should you start with?

Beginner riders should look to dressage for the foundation of their training. An experienced horse will be able to easily make it over small jumps without skilled input from the rider; however, even the most seasoned horses do not tend to put themselves into a correct frame without the rider knowing how to ask for it.

This means that even basic dressage training necessitates thorough instruction on the proper use of the seat and leg, while jumping does not. This does not necessarily mean that a rider will not be instructed on these principles when learning how to jump but beginning with dressage will ensure education in this area.

Additionally, because show jumping is scored based on time while dressage is judged on the skill with which movements are completed, a jumper rider in the lower levels could perform very well in competitions with a very poor seat and leg while a dressage rider could not.

This makes it easier for corners to be cut during competitive show jumping training than in competitive dressage training. Though you should seek out a trainer, that prioritizes correct flat work to jump you unsafely or incorrectly. Once riders begin to jump higher and ride tougher courses, they will realize that a good seat and leg is necessary to make it around a course in good time and without faults, so taking your time to get the flatwork done well pays off over jumps.

Finally, horses appreciate clear commands, so riders with better flatwork skills will have better relationships with their horses. For these reasons, it is evident that regardless of which discipline a rider wants to do long term, a foundation in dressage will only be beneficial.

Dressage Events vs Show Jumping Events

women in white jumping over obstacle on horse

Both the dressage and show jumping disciplines offer the opportunity to compete against other riders at the same level. For dressage competitions, riders are judged on their completion of tests, which involves a variety of movements in a specific sequence that is distributed prior to the show.

This means that riders are able to learn and practice the test beforehand. Additionally, dressage riders are told the exact time at which they will ride. In show jumping, on the other hand, the course of about 10 to 12 jumps to be completed is not posted until the day of the competition, and riders are left to estimate their ride time based on the number of horses expected to show before them. In either case, the horse and rider pair will enter the ring and complete the given challenge to the best of their abilities under the watchful eyes of one or more judges.

In dressage, the score is based on how well the test is completed; basically, how accurately the movements were performed and how well the horse and rider communicated. After their round, dressage riders receive remarks from the judge on how the test could have been improved.

In show jumping, riders must complete their course within a set amount of time and without knocking down any of the rails of the jumps. All the riders who achieve this are invited back for a second, shorter course called the jump-off, which is scored based on how quickly riders complete it and determines final placing. Show jumpers may have multiple courses to complete for one show, potentially on multiple days.


Dressage and show jumping are two entirely different disciplines, yet at the same time, they share many of the same elements. Maybe the differences were enough to convince you to choose one discipline over the other, in which case you can start setting future goals and find a trainer that aligns with them.

If you are not ready to make that decision yet, that is okay – trainers should be willing to help you explore your options. In either case, starting out with dressage will give you the best foundation for whatever discipline you choose in the future. 

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