Memories of an Olympics Trial Judge: Eventing Cross Country

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If you can’t see the above embedded video from last year’s three-day event at Greenwich Park, the venue for equestrian sports, click here.

Cross country looks like a point-to-point scramble in which horse and rider are expected to leave the scenery intact, but there’s more to it.

Historian and author KB Inglee, our guide behind the scenes of three-day eventing, served as a fence judge when she volunteered to work on the Olympics trials for eventing back in the day. Let’s see what she has to say:

Precision counts

A pair of fence judges is assigned to each of the cross country fences. The fences are huge. Each is surrounded by two penalty zones, one inside the other. The judges score each horse and rider team as it negotiates the obstacle. All that counts is what the team does inside the zones. The horse enters the zone and must ride straight through, over the fences and out the other side.

If the horse steps outside the zone, the team is penalized. If the horse refuses the jump — penalty. If the horse refuses the jump three times, the team is disqualified.  If the rider or the horse falls inside the zone, they are disqualified. If they can hold it together long enough to get outside the zone, no penalty. The fence judges note all this on a score sheet.

Maintenance and crowd control

We also must tamp down the turf torn up by the cleared shoes. I once had to convince a professional photographer that lurking under the fence for a better picture was a no-no.

I have had to convince the public that it isn’t their job to fix problems at fences. Once a horse got his foot stuck in the fence before a water jump. Everyone watching rushed to help the already scared horse to the point of terror. The rider got the horse unstuck without injury.

We go to the aid of fallen horse and rider when it is clear they cannot continue. Interference, even so much as handing them a dropped whip, leads to disqualification. I once had to hold a rider who insisted that she was fine and could continue until the course doctor arrived and pronounced her concussed.

Fence judges have to get it all right, since what they note on the score sheets can keep someone out of the Olympics.


Thanks, KB.

KB Inglee lives in Delaware and works at two local Living History museums as an interpreter. Her prime duty is the care of a flock of heritage sheep. She interprets the Colonial and New Republic periods, but she has short stories set from the 1780s through the end of the 19th century. Most are detective fiction. She is the author of the children’s book FARMER’S DAUGHTER, MILLER’S SON and has a story in FISH TALES: THE SISTERS IN CRIME GUPPY ANTHOLOGY.

KB blogs on her Goodreads page and at the Writers Who Kill group blog.

You can read Part Two in this series, Eventing Dressage, here.


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  • KB Inglee
    July 24, 2012

    Really nice vidio. You can see some of the fence judges standing inside the crowd control tapes. I love the water jumps. These can be a problem for the horses because they can’t tell how deep the water is.

  • Rhonda Lane
    July 24, 2012

    Thank you so much, KB, for your series. I imagine the horses have to trust the rider for those water jumps and those other crazy jumps over which the horses can’t quite see where they’ll land.