If you aren't very familiar with competitive horseback riding, all English equestrian sports may look the same to you. A rider wearing very tight pants and tall boots sits atop a huge horse as the horse makes his way around an arena, possibly jumping over a few obstacles on his path. While this description may cover English riding sports in the most general sense, actual equestrian competitions can be extremely varied. While some sports test a horse and rider's athletic abilities, others are more designed to test a rider's horsemanship. If you have any interest in riding whatsoever, you can probably find an English event that appeals to your personality.
Stadium jumping is definitely for the daredevils of the English equestrian world. In this event, riders take turns tearing around an arena, guiding their horses over towering hurdles. The riders each have to get over every jump, but they are allowed to form their own routes and can usually choose whether they want to attempt a shorter route with more hairpin turns or a longer route that is easier to navigate. Riders incur penalties called faults for knocking over poles on the jumps and they must finish the course under a certain time or else they risk incurring time faults. The rider with the fastest time and fewest faults wins, and any rider who falls off is disqualified. When a rider finishes the round without any faults, that is called a clear round. If more than one rider finishes clear, there might be a jump off to determine the winner.
Hunter jumping also occurs in a stadium and involves a rider guiding a horse around a course of jumps, but whereas jumper classes are judged only on time and clearance, hunter classes are judged on style and they are only allowed to take a certain route. The courses will usually have lower jumps, no higher than a meter and a half, and they'll be easier to navigate. The riders will also have more time to finish. In this class, however, riders will be judged subjectively on their manners and their horsemanship. Usually, hunter classes have fun, colorful and creative looking jumps. Hunters have strict rules regarding turnout and they are not allowed to use the same aids as jumpers.
Horse people always say that dressage competitions are best suited for people with Type A personalities. Dressage is based upon Austrian and Spanish military riding. Competitors are judged upon their ability to control their horses without visible signals. Dressage riders enter the ring, greet the judges, and ride around in a very specific pattern with no jumps. The goal is to demonstrate your horse's obedience and physical fitness.
Three day eventing involves one day of dressage competition, one day of cross country, and one day of stadium jumping. The dressage and stadium jumping are the same as in normal competitions, but cross country only takes place during the second day of three day events. A cross country course is an enormous course, usually several miles long, interspersed with obstacles such as jumps, hills, ditches, and water. The riders are judged only on speed and their ability to finish the course.