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Letters and Stars: Breaking Down Competition/Horse Designations

Equestrian competition designations and horse name prefixes/suffixes can often look complicated, but they are easy to interpret once you know the patterns.

by Emily Girard | Jun 11, 2024, 10:26 AM

The $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI5* presents many of the naming and abbreviation conventions of FEI events. Photo: Taylor Pence/ISG

If you are not intimately familiar with the equestrian world, the symbols and abbreviations used to designate equestrian competitions and champion horses can be confusing. Upon reading about these events, you’re met with names like the FEI Jumping Nations Cup Vilamoura CSIO3* and the Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L. Additionally, when looking at competition records, you might find horses themselves often have abbreviations in their names. Recent examples in USEF news include CL Magnolia, Joshuay MBF, and Highway FBH.

What do these letters and stars mean? Let’s break it down.

Competitions

Letters like ‘CCI’ or ‘CHI’ or ‘CDI’ that appear in a competition name signify what discipline is being showcased at an event. CCI stands for Concours Complet International, which is French for International Eventing Competition. Dressage and show jumping competitions are designated similarly, with dressage often being labeled CDI and show jumping being labeled CSI. These stand for Concours de Dressage International (French for International Dressage Competition) and Concours de Saut International (French for International Jumping Competition), respectively.

Para dressage competitions are designated with the prefix CPED. The most commonly seen category is CPEDI, which denotes an international para dressage competition.

Finally, there is CHI, which stands for Concours Hippique International (French for International Equestrian Competition). These are competitions with more than one discipline. The official CHI disciplines are show jumping, dressage, eventing, and combined driving.

These labels sometimes have suffixes that add more detail about what type of competition an event is. Official Nations Cup competitions are labeled with an O suffix—CSIO, for instance. Additionally, Show Jumping World Cup competitions are labeled CSI-W.

These designations are all in French, the first official language of the International Olympic Committee. The Fédération Équestre Internationale (International Federation for Equestrian Sports) is headquartered in the French-speaking city of Lausanne, Switzerland.

A simplified breakdown of how the letters and stars are defined when used in events.

Other suffixes offer information about who is competing in an event. These include:

  • P: Pony riders
  • CH: Children (ages 12 to 14)
  • J: Juniors (ages 14 to 16)
  • Y: Young Riders (ages 16 to 21)
  • U25: Under 25 (ages 16 to 25)
  • V: Veterans (women 45 or older, men 49 or older)
  • Am: Amateurs
  • L: Ladies
  • YH: Young show jumping horses

Eventing designations are a bit different. International eventing competitions used to be sorted into two designations: Concours Complet International (CCI) and Concours International Combiné (CIC). In 2019, these were changed to CCI-L (long) and CCI-S (short), respectively.

According to the FEI’s 2019 eventing rules, in which the CCI-L and CCI-S came into effect, the cross-country phase of a long-format (CCI-L) competition “will be of such a length that the horse is required to be supremely fit and stamina will be required for success.” In a short-format (CCI-S) competition, the FEI noted, “the level of difficulty of the cross-country course is similar to the long format according to the star system, but the course is shorter and the intensity of efforts is higher.”

For example, events in the 3-star long format contain cross-country courses that are 5,700 to 6,800 meters, while events in the 3-star short format have courses ranging from 3,200 to 4,000 meters.

Speaking of which, what are the stars all about?

“Every star level corresponds to a level of difficulty, and the formats refer to how the three phases are run and the specification that they follow,” explained Amber Braun, USEF’s Managing Director of Eventing.

In addition to the CCI-L and CCI-S designations, the 2019 eventing format changes established a five-star rating system for international eventing competitions. These changes were made in an effort to make the sport more spectator-friendly and allow more countries to participate in Olympic-level eventing, according to the United States Eventing Association, USEF’s recognized affiliate for eventing.

As a competition gains more stars, the jumps get higher, the cross-country courses get longer, there are often more obstacles, and the speed requirements (meters per minute) get faster.

“You can't just decide to go CCI3*, for example. Every level (of eventing) has minimum eligibility requirements in terms of competition results that must be achieved before you can compete at that level,” Braun said.

These designations are important for potential competitors to know the appropriate difficulty for them and their horse.

“I would recommend that competitors review the specifications and the FEI eventing rules, which provide the level requirements in terms of fence height, course length, number of efforts, etc.. These give a pretty clear picture of the differences between the levels,” Braun said. “In addition to the international requirements for eligibility, we also have national requirements for international levels. It is important for competitors to check not only the FEI rules, but also the USEF rule book when looking to enter an international event.”

Lizzy Chesson, USEF’s Managing Director of Jumping, said the competition designations in show jumping are “super simple” to navigate if you know what you’re looking for.

“Once you figure out CSI is jumping, then the star level just really equates to the level of difficulty and the prize money offered,” Chesson said.

Chesson explained that these designations simplify the competition process.

“You know at a five-star that the Grand Prix will be a 1.60-meter [course]. And at a two-star, the maximum you will jump is a 1.45m. The three- and four-star levels also have corresponding levels of difficulty. In this way it is similar to eventing,” Chesson said.

Horse Names

In addition to competitions, horses themselves often have abbreviations attached to their names. Most of these come from the farm from which a horse originates. For example, Joshuay MBF, a horse that earned second place while being ridden by Tommy Greengard at the USEF CCI4*-L Eventing National Championship at Galway Downs in November 2023, has MBF in his name because he originates from Millbrook Farms in Clayton, N.C.

Horses can also gain titles through career achievements. According to the American Saddlebred Horse and Breeders Association (ASHBA), Saddlebreds registered with the ASHBA get a CH prefix added to their name after being approved as world champions. Half-Saddlebred champions are eligible for a similar CH-HS prefix. Both of these titles can be achieved once a horse earns enough points at USEF-licensed competitions, USEF Lite competitions, ASHBA Star Shows, and ASHA recorded open competitions. The ASHBA also offers more specific titles for equitation achievements (CH-EQ) and sport horses (CH-SH).

Deborah Johnson, Arabian Horse Association President, gives a presentation at the Saddle Seat Equitation meeting at the 2023 Arabian Youth and Mid Summer Nationals. Photo: Leslie Potter/US Equestrian

The Arabian Horse Association (AHA) also has its own system of symbols to designate award-winning horses. Horses who are enrolled in the AHA’s  earn points based on show results and have symbols—often a combination of pluses and slashes—added to their name once they gain a certain number of points. Achievement Award Program earn points based on show results and have symbols—often a combination of pluses and slashes—added to their name once they gain a certain number of points.

“That's all based off how many horses they're competing with in a particular class. We've got a sliding scale, which shows how many points that they will obtain based off the number of horses within the class and where they place within that class,” said Leslie Lockard, the senior director of competitions and convention at the AHA. “So points accumulate; they hit a certain level. If the owner has a membership and the points are paid for via enrollment/renewal or by purchasing back points (in the Achievement Award Program), then that horse is awarded that particular symbol, and that becomes a permanent part of the horse’s registered name.”

Points may also be obtained in scored classes (Dressage/Western Dressage/Working Western) by receiving certain designated scores.

Lockard said the goal of these designations is to accurately show the skill of a horse.

“It really shows that that horse is stellar within the show ring,” Lockard said. “The chart actually shows you have gone in and competed against other horses and beaten them, so it's a selling point for people.”

AHA President Deborah Johnson said the members and exhibitors of the AHA “thoroughly love the program.”

“If you're looking at a horse and if they have earned those designations, then you'd be willing to pay more for that horse because of its accomplishments,” Johnson said. “The points are hard to accumulate. It’s tough to get those highest honors.”

Despite the complexity of this designation system, a full understanding of it can be a great benefit to anyone involved with horses.