World Equestrian Games: 10 things to watch

Story highlights

  • The World Equestrian Games begin on August 25 in Normandy, France
  • Held every four years, the world's biggest equestrian festival lasts for two weeks
  • Leading Olympic hopefuls mix with lesser-known sports like reining and driving
  • Events include gymnastics on horseback and a 100-mile endurance race

More than 70 nations, 1,000 athletes and as many horses. The World Equestrian Games are upon us.

The biggest equestrian event outside the Olympics comes to Normandy, France, on Monday for two weeks of drama, daring, dressage and ... "Don Johnson."

Normandy claims to be home to 93,000 horses and more than 400 equestrian centers, but France has never seen anything on the scale of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (often shortened to "WEG").

You can win world titles in no fewer than eight types of horse sport at the four-yearly showpiece. All three Olympic equestrian disciplines are involved, alongside the Paralympic sport of para-dressage.

So what should you expect over the next two weeks? Where to look? Who to follow? CNN World Sport answers those questions and more.

1. Admire the 'Versailles of horses'

That's the French nickname for Haras du Pin, a magnificent estate built in the 18th century which will host the eventing competition -- a combination of dressage, cross-country riding and showjumping.

One of 22 National Studs across France, the Haras du Pin was founded on the orders of Louis XIV in 1715. The cross-country on August 30, in particular, should look spectacular against this backdrop.

Scott Brash dominates showjumping
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Britain: unbeatable in para-dressage
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However, with seven more events being held at WEG, this is not the only venue worth your time.

Dressage, where horses perform complex maneuvers -- sometimes to music -- across what looks like an oversized sandpit, takes place inside the Stade Michel D'Ornano in Caen -- usually the home of the city's soccer team.

Horseball, a fun, fast-paced mixture of rugby and basketball on horseback, appears as a demonstration sport in Saint Lo. Rich in history, the small town was inhabited for millennia before its almost total destruction during World War Two's Battle of Normandy in 1944.

Read: 'Horse Quidditch' seeks place in Olympics

2. Beware the Brits

This is the rule all other teams must follow at WEG, given the prominence of British riders in the world rankings right now.

This year, for the first time, Britain has number-one riders in all three Olympic equestrian sports: dressage, eventing and jumping.

Scott Brash, from Peebles in Scotland, is the world's leading showjumper and comes to Caen off the back of a home victory in the London leg of the prestigious Global Champions Tour, while William Fox-Pitt is an eventing superstar and has already won one of his sport's biggest titles, in Lexington, Kentucky, this year.

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Dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin won double gold for Britain at the London 2012 Olympics -- there are individual and team medals available in all of these disciplines -- and has dominated her sport since, but recently looked vulnerable when she finished a lowly sixth at a grand prix event in Aachen, Germany.

However, the 29-year-old immediately won Aachen's freestyle event (these routines are performed to music) and now dismisses that blip as "a wake-up call" that she and her horse, Valegro, needed.

Nowhere is Britain more dominant than in para-dressage, the Paralympic discipline, where it has won every major team title of the past two decades.

Competition to make the British team is so fierce that top rider Lee Pearson, the 40-year-old winner of 10 Paralympic titles, was dropped for last year's European championships but is now back in the lineup for WEG.

Read: Madonna teacher Fox-Pitt's equine quest

3. Root for Rio

The next Olympic Games will be held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and this year's WEG is the first chance for riders to earn places for their countries.

Watch the team events to see who qualifies: the top three in dressage and para-dressage, plus the five best in jumping and eventing's six highest-ranked nations, will all be celebrating their tickets to the Olympics.

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In dressage and para-dressage, look for Germany and the Netherlands to rival Britain and sew up Olympic berths -- though eye-catching black stallion Totilas, dubbed a "rock star" of dressage for his expressive style, has been ruled out of contention through injury for Germany.

New Zealand is a world power in eventing, and two legends of the sport -- Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson -- will be competing in Normandy.

Nicholson and his horse Nereo finished third at the last WEG, held in the U.S. state of Kentucky in 2010, and are back to try for more. Two-time Olympic champion Todd, meanwhile, has spent time coaching members of the Brazilian team ahead of their home Games.

Also keep an eye on Germany's Michael Jung, too, who is the defending world champion.

Showjumping could be a chance for the host nation to shine, alongside near neighbor Germany. From the United States, watch out for Beezie Madden, twice an Olympic champion and winner of last season's World Cup title. The 50-year-old had surgery to repair a broken collarbone in May, but has won events since and is certainly a contender.

4. Relish the Royals

If royal-watching is your thing, this is the place to be.

Zara Phillips, the Queen's granddaughter, is one of the best-known -- and best, period -- eventers in her sport.

The 33-year-old is a multiple European champion, the 2006 world champion and a team silver medalist from London 2012. "This is a fantastic championship to be at and be involved in," she says of WEG.

Phillips gave birth to her first child, daughter Mia, in January but has returned so swiftly to form with her horse High Kingdom that Britain's selectors could not overlook her.

Bill Levett prepares for World Equestrian Games
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Bill Levett prepares for World Equestrian Games 03:15

Speaking of royals, even the chief of world horse sport's governing body, the FEI, is a princess.

Princess Haya, the 40-year-old FEI president and one of few women currently leading global sports organizations, is married to Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai.

She recently turned down the chance to stand for a third term as president, which means the next World Equestrian Games will take place under a new leader. An election to replace her will be held in December.

Read: Equestrian etiquette

5. Discover Damon Hill

You remember Damon Hill, right? Famed Formula One rival of Michael Schumacher and winner of the 1996 world championship?

Well, this isn't him. This is a 14-year-old horse from Germany.

Not only that, Damon Hill is really something at dressage. With Helen Langehanenberg in the saddle, Damon has serious moves: enough to be second in the world behind Britain's Charlotte Dujardin.

They won Olympic silver in 2012 and last season's World Cup title, so they could well prove a winning formula in Normandy.

The German team doesn't stop there. Don Johnson may have spent the '80s and '90s starring in TV cop shows "Miami Vice" and "Nash Bridges," but it turns out he's now moonlighting as the reserve horse of dressage rider Isabell Werth, which shares his name.

"Lord of the Rings" fans, meanwhile, may be shocked to hear that American dressage team member Steffen Peters will be riding Legolas.

6. Enjoy gymnastics on a horse

The World Equestrian Games are also an opportunity for lesser-known equestrian sports to shine -- none more so than vaulting, which is effectively gymnastics on horseback.

You can compete on your own, in a pair known as a pas-de-deux, or in a team of six as a vaulter. While your horse canters in circles, your job is to hop on and perform your most daring moves while judges score you -- and the horse.

One more thing: you need to be wearing head-to-toe spandex. Hopefully that's not a deal breaker.

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Scottish family masters vaulting
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Guess what? The British are world-beaters here, too. A Scottish dentist named Joanne Eccles beat two German rivals to the world title in 2010, and is back in (and on, and around) the saddle to defend her title this year. Her younger sister Hannah is on the team alongside her, and her dad John is the coach.

In the men's event, competitors include world champion Nicolas Andreani, a French vaulter who is hoping to win again on home soil in his last WEG appearance.

Read: Dentist by day, vaulting world champion by night

7. Go the distance

Maybe you're an Ironman triathlete or an open-water swimmer, and thoughts of spandex or "horse ballet" aren't your thing. You need to try the endurance race.

They should call this the horse marathon, except it's far, far longer than any marathon you've ever tried: horse and rider must complete a 160 km (100-mile) course.

In 2010, the Spanish winner -- Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton, riding a horse named Nobby -- needed just over seven and a half hours to complete the course. Remember Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, husband of Princess Haya? He came second.

This year's course promises to look the business, taking in Mont Saint-Michel, the instantly recognizable monastery and tourist spot listed as a World Heritage Site. Riders from the United Arab Emirates, a global breeding and racing center for endurance horses, are expected to once again do well.

Endurance racing is not without controversy, given the distance involved and the resulting physical demands placed on a horse.

Middle Eastern riders, in particular, have in the past been accused by prominent vets and others of pushing horses too far in these events. In addition, endurance racing in the region accounts for a sizable percentage of equestrian doping tribunals each year.

The FEI has developed new measures to improve the welfare of endurance horses, but expect the discipline to remain under scrutiny in Normandy.

8. Cheer the chariots

Better known in the equestrian world as driving, this sport may strike you for its initial, passing similarity to the ancient Roman sport of chariot racing.

However, driving is much more intricate than a straightforward race to the finish. First, find yourself a carriage and attach your team of four horses to the front. Now, you are ready to go.

There are three parts to driving at the World Equestrian Games: a dressage test, a marathon and an obstacle course. The winner is whoever completes all three with the lowest total number of faults, which you try to avoid earning as the competition goes on.

The obstacle course is the final and involves trying to navigate your horses and carriage through 20 "gates," marked by cones. Yellow balls are placed on top of the cones: knock a ball off and that's three faults. But the longer you take, the more time penalties you will earn for coming home late at the end.

9. Reining men (and women)

Reining brings the ranch to the rest of the world. If you like your horse riding to involve stetsons and bravado, this is the event for you.

Imagine dressage being held in the Wild West and you can begin to picture reining, which rewards modern-day athletes for exhibiting the same control over their horse that cowboys would once have prized: speed, a light and nimble touch, and a horse happy to be guided through a precise series of instructions.

Unsurprisingly, the United States has a commendable record in reining and will defend both the individual and team titles in Normandy. Look out for 360-degree spins and the signature move of reining, the sliding stop.

10. Get to know the new names

This is the biggest global gathering of horses and riders, and the most important before Rio 2016, so take your chance to meet the Olympic heroes of the future.

Established riders will be appearing with new horses, new riders will be taking their first steps on the world stage, and some countries will be making their WEG debuts.

There are 12 teams appearing for the first time, including Peru, Palestine and Kazakhstan.

Look out, too, for Brazilian riders trying to impress their selectors ahead of their home Olympic Games. While Brazil is a hotbed of showjumping, riders in dressage and eventing face a steep learning curve at international level and are frantically bidding to justify their places on the team for Rio.

With up to half a million spectators expected in attendance and many more watching at home, this will be the sternest test of many competitors' lives.