Getting Technical with Dressage Attire

How rule interpretations and new fabrics are changing dressage show attire.

Show attire that matches or complements the horse’s coat or the rider’s stable colors or personal preferences is spicing up the sport’s look this year. That goes hand in hand with recent rule changes allowing for coordination of coat, boot and helmet colors. Add fabrics that recognize riders as athletes, and show attire has definitely changed in the last decade, especially for those who can shop at the higher end of the price spectrum. 

Dressing by the Rules
Interpretations of the conservative colors the USEF recommends for coats at most levels of dressage competition are getting more liberal, but acceptance should not be the only consideration when assembling a show outfit. (See USEF General Rule 801 and Dressage Rule 120.5 for specifics in various classes.) 

Putting a show outfit together today is much like deciding what to wear for a night out on the town, notes Barbara Biernat, of the Horse and Rider Boutique in California. Ever-increasing choices are overruling the long-held idea “that I just need this one coat for 10 years,” she notes of riders’ shifting attitudes. 

A regular at trade shows in Europe and the states, Biernat says gray will be the hot color for this season with a taupe shade also likely to make an appearance. That’s on top of browns, navies and dark earth tones that are settling in as new standards acceptable within the USEF’s mandate for coats of a conservative color. 

Biernat visits the Florida circuit and typically every CDI in the United States. Her business includes Nordstrom-style personal shopping for dressage professionals like California-based Sarah Lockman. With Biernat’s help, Lockman’s show attire includes a blue-gray shadbelly that she wears while on her dappled-gray mount, Vinterpol, with whom she debuted in the FEI arena last year. She wears a light-purple stock tie that matches piping on her coat. Although she’s not a big fan of the patent-leather boots that are getting more popular, her boots have a patent-leather strip at the top, trimmed with gray piping to match the coat.

Lockman, 25, says, “I’m young and new to the scene and I want a little something to stand out without being unprofessional. I’m not talking about hot pink and bright colors, but something that allows a little personal flair. I like to be fashionable and stylish, but still within an overall traditional look.” 

As coat-color options expand, many more hues are popping up on collars, pockets, boot tops, shirts, stock ties and points. Bling on boots, helmets, coats and riding pants seems to be moving steadily in the “more is better” direction among the fashion-forward set. 

“It’s not going away,” notes Biernat after glimpsing the future at European trade fairs. 

Beth Haist, the owner of The Horse Of Course equestrian shop, is a tack-industry veteran who’s “pretty amazed at the color choices and athletic ability of a lot of the show coats now.” Headquartered at the heart of the Wellington, Florida, dressage scene much of the year, Haist loves the fact that great looks, comfort and convenience are bundled together. “I haven’t sold anything that can’t be worn comfortably or thrown in the washing machine in a long time.”

Haist notes that preferences in attire characteristics vary by age group. Comfort is critical for the under-30 set: “The tailoring isn’t so important to them because they’ve grown up wearing unbelievably comfortable clothes.” As a general rule, this demographic goes for high-tech fabrics that are lightweight, breathable and provide freedom of movement. Softshell fabrics are usually a tad heavier, and hence, often more flattering to the figure. Fabric of the same or similar names can have very different characteristics that affect how a coat looks on the body, warns Biernat. The most fashion-forward labels are not always the best choice for those with even slight figure imperfections. 

The move away from dressage’s black and white traditions has made Haist’s job more fun. “I remember years ago when [German dressage star] Ulla Salzgeber wore a cream-colored shirt and stock tie [rather than the traditional white] with her white breeches, and everybody thought that was so wild,” she recalls. “We are definitely stepping out of the box toward outfits that are much more interesting and fun.”

Riders should ask themselves how much attention they want to call to their overall impression and to individual body parts, Haist cautions. “If you are going to wear a patent-leather boot, you better have a nice quiet leg,” she says. “It’s one thing for the high-performance riders to wear that. If you ride that well, you can wear anything you want. But you probably want to temper it a bit if you ride in the lower levels.”

Balance in the overall look is also important, adds Biernat, especially with bling. “If you have crystals on your helmet or coat, go with a quiet boot,” she says. “You really have to look at the whole outfit, from the helmet to the boot, and make sure it all ties together nicely.”

Since the USEF dropped its recommendation that shirts must be of a “light, solid or conservative” color last April, “it’s been a free-for-all,” notes Haist. However, the show shirt that best complements the entire outfit is always the best choice. By all means, have some fun with the stock ties, she suggests. Checks, windowpane, stripes and even polka dots are among the patterns that can really make an outfit pop. 

Lockman echoes Haist’s praise for the athlete-oriented qualities of today’s fabrics. Competing in the warm weather of Kentucky last fall, she was able to wear her shadbelly for warm-ups and her test without getting too hot or sweaty. “It really helps us ride better when we’re not overheating,” she notes.

A traditionalist at heart, Lockman will likely always keep a black coat at the ready, just not the hot, heavy wool number she wore in her teens. “It’s nice that we have more options now, but I do hope styles don’t get too much glitz, glam and sparkle. Dressage is known for being classical, and I hope we can keep it that way.”

Will a great-looking outfit make you ride better? “We always joke about that,” acknowledges Biernat. “But I truly believe, to a certain extent, that, yes, it will. One of my amateur riders needed a new helmet, and we got her a helmet with a flower of Swarovski crystals on the back. I tell you, she sat like a million bucks! Dressage has so much to do with attitude and how you feel, so I think the right outfit really makes a difference.” 






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