From Dressage to Western: An Expert Guide to Equestrian Attire

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Like any other sport, equestrian riding requires a particular type of attire. Equestrian dress takes into account the unique history of the sport, the physical demands of the rider, and varies widely from one riding discipline to another.

From the ultra-formal, top-hatted style associated with classical dressage to the decorative yokes and paisley wallpaper prints of Western riding, equestrian apparel broadly spans the style spectrum. When you step into the stables for the first time (or the first time in a while), you want to make sure your dress is appropriate for the sport. This guide covers it all, so you will always feel confident in the saddle.

Attire Trends in The Riding World

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It should come as no surprise that, like anything else, horseback riding attire ebbs and flows with the culture as a whole, with trends coming in and out of fashion each season. Gone are the days of stiff, unrelenting riding gear. Right now, equestrian observers are noting a massive spike in technical fabrics, and riders are grateful. These new offerings recognize riders as athletes and transform otherwise limiting and itchy attire into gear that’s unrestricted, moisture-wicking and temperature-regulating. Coordinating attire with the horse’s coat is also in-vogue in the riding world.  

While materials may change and technical advancements influence, the basic formulas for each discipline largely remain the same, especially when we’re talking about traditional equestrian sports. If you’re thinking about (quite literally) getting back in the saddle, but aren’t quite sure how to dress, read this expert guide to discover what to wear when you get started.

Dressage: As Formal as It Gets

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Called “the ultimate expression of horse training and elegance,” by the International Equestrian Federation (abbreviated FEI, for the French Fédération Équestre Internationale), dressage is the riding discipline focused principally on mastery of the craft. Dressage is steeped in history, with contemporary attire taking cues from the classical tradition. The competition’s governing body (in the U.S., this is typically the United States Dressage Federation or USDF) typically provides attire specifications for competitors. During a competition, riders generally adhere to a strict code of dressing, which includes the following components:

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  • Top — Most dressage riders wear the signature plain riding jacket in black or navy with metal buckles. Upper-level riders don tailored jackets (called shadbellies) with yellow vests. Additionally, a white stock tie is worn.
  • Bottom — Dressage riders wear traditional breeches (ankle-length) or jodhpurs (full-length) during competition.
  • Head — Dressage riders have options when it comes to riding hats. Lower-level riders may wear derby hats, hunting hats or equestrian helmets, whereas upper-level riders must don a coat-matching top hat and, traditionally, no helmet.
  • Feet — In dressage, riders typically wear tall black or navy dress boots, field boots or paddock boots.
  • Extras — In addition to the above components, dressage riders must wear black or white riding gloves. White riding gloves are standard for upper-level competitors. Though not required, many competitors don body protectors to shield the upper portion of the body.

Endurance Riding: All About the Sport

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While dressage riding is all about the traditional equestrian experience, endurance riding is all about athleticism. Governed by the FEI, endurance riding is the sport of long-distance horse races, with most rides extending for between 50 and 100 miles. Some of the top-performing endurance riders have completed 100-mile races in under six hours.

Endurance riding requires hours of adaptability, fortitude, and speed. Because of these factors, endurance riding apparel tends to be much more technical and athlete-focused than other equestrian disciplines. Endurance riding athletes wear the following:

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  • Top — Endurance riders typically wear a T-shirt or base layer (often with a slogan from a previous competition) on top. For this type of riding, it’s important to wear tops that help wick away moisture and regulate temperature fluctuations during long rides.
  • Bottom — Riders generally wear flexible, breathable and moisture-wicking riding tights that keep them comfortable for hours in the saddle. Half-chaps may be worn to help protect the rider from calf chafing during prolonged rides.
  • Head — The riding helmet is not just recommended in endurance riding, it’s crucial. Wear an ASTM/SEI-approved riding helmet that’s lightweight, breathable and protective.
  • Feet — Look for sport-specific endurance riding boots which feature all-weather materials, like waterproof leather. A lightweight, well-fitting and slim boot that comes to just above the ankle is best when riding in this fashion.
  • Extras — Keep cool and protect yourself with breathable gloves and cooling vests.

Cross-Country: The Least Formal Eventing Attire

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Cross-country is the equestrian eventing component that tests equine and rider on speed, endurance, and physical fitness. To compete, riders must test their horses on various natural obstacles meant to simulate riding in the countryside, including bodies of water, fences, banks, fallen trees, logs and more.

Attire-wise, cross-country is considered the least formal of the three eventing disciplines (dressage, show jumping and cross-country) and usually has the fewest rules. As a result, many cross-country riders get creative with colors and patterns when dressing for this phase. Consider wearing the following when you’re suiting up for a cross-country ride:

  • Top — Most cross-country riders wear a long-sleeve or polo shirt beneath a cross-country safety vest. Competitive cross-country riders are also required to wear a medical armband containing medical history, should they become knocked unconscious and require medical treatment. Most also wear a vest so that if they fall they are more protected.
  • Bottom — Any comfortable, breathable breeches will work in the cross-country round, so long as they don’t get in your way while you’re riding.
  • Head — Protective headwear is required for all levels of cross-country riders. Typically, cross-country riders sport specific skull cap helmets with helmet covers.
  • Feet — During this phase of eventing, riders wear tall riding boots in black or brown. You may also need spurs, if necessary.
  • Extras — Most cross-country competitors wear riding watches to monitor and modify their time as they compete. Gloves are not required, but they may be worn to protect the hands and improve riding performance.

Show Jumping: Practical But Formal Attire

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Alongside dressage and cross-country, show jumping is a pillar of equestrian eventing. It is the discipline that tests, of course, jumping, with riders facing obstacles, such as spreads, combinations, and verticals.

In this discipline, there are two riding classes — hunters and jumpers. Both classes wear the same fundamental pieces of attire, but hunters have much more formal and regulated dress requirements. On the other hand, jumpers dress less conservatively but still must maintain the standard dress code outlined below.

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  • Top — During this phase, riders generally follow dressage conventions, with a tailored riding jacket, usually in black, over a formal, white shirt. In the event of hot weather, riders may be allowed to compete without their jackets. Riders often wear a choker or a stock tie as well. A white stock tie is generally worn with a black or blue coat, and a colored stock tie is typically worn with a tweed coat.
  • Bottom — Typically, show jumpers wear light-colored breeches or jodhpurs if they’re aiming for more traditional and conservative show jumping attire. It’s conventional for riders to wear white, pale yellow or beige bottoms.
  • Head — During this discipline, riders must be sure that they wear approved riding hats that meet the appropriate safety standards for the competition. All headwear should be either black or dark blue.  
  • Feet — Tall, plain black riding boots or leather gaiters with matching boots are standard in show jumping. Spurs are optional.
  • Extras — Gloves, which are usually black, are optional.

Trail: Comfort is the Key Consideration

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When you want to head out on a pleasurable trail riding adventure, it’s necessary that you’re prepared for anything the wilderness might throw your way. Trail riding is usually associated with pleasure riding.

In competition, trail riding is typically classified as endurance riding and there are no strict attire rules. The only exception is that some jurisdictions require the use of riding helmets by law. Still, there are certainly things you should keep in mind when you’re planning your trail-based equestrian adventures, most of which center around keeping you cool, comfortable, and focused on the long and winding trail ahead.

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  • Top — On top, wear performance apparel that’s appropriate for the weather and that helps to regulate temperature. If it’s cool, layer with a light jacket that won’t limit your movements when you have to make quick adjustments.
  • Bottom — Most often, trail riders don jeans on their journeys. Denim is fine to wear during long rides, so long as it doesn’t limit your flexibility or cause discomfort while you ride. Never wear shorts or capris while trail riding, the exposure can cause your legs to chafe.
  • Head — In general, wearing a helmet anytime you head out on the trail is a good idea. Many states require that those 18 and under wear a helmet while horseback riding. Whether you’re a competitor, a backyard rider or an avid trail adventurer, a comfortable, breathable and well-fitting helmet is a must.
  • Feet — No fancy riding boots are needed on most trail rides, but you should make sure you’re wearing a pair that’s sized right for the stirrup and provides your feet and ankles with the right amount of support.
  • Extras — Wear riding-appropriate extras that help you endure in the face of all weather conditions, including sunglasses, gloves and a rain jacket (if necessary). Remember: Always wear sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy out.

Western: Think Like a Cowboy

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Though their fashions may be less fussy, Western riders aren’t all about fun and games. This type of equestrian riding — which includes pleasure riding, reining, cutting, team penning and other events — differs widely from the English riding tradition, but it still has a fair amount of nuance. Generally, Western riding is associated with American cowboys and the Old West, but you’ll be surprised to see how modern and innovative some Western riding attire can be. Here’s what to wear when you’re saddling up on the ranch:

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  • Top — One of the most notable components of the cowboy’s riding duds is the Western shirt. It’s typically a long-sleeved, button-up shirt or jacket, with traditional styles featuring a collar, a wallpaper print, and a Western yoke. Modern Western riders opt for stretchy, breathable shirts and tank tops. During competition, Western riders often swap the shirt for a jacket.
  • Bottom — What pairs perfectly with a Western riding shirt? A pair of jeans, of course! Contemporary Western riders generally sport denim jeans, even during competition.
  • Head — Traditionally, Western riders wear wide-brimmed cowboy hats while they ride. However, contemporary riders, especially youth riders, often wear helmets while on horseback.
  • Feet — Every good Western rider needs a pair of cowboy boots to complete the look. Western boots are the preferred footwear for this discipline, but any comfortable pair that keeps the foot in the stirrup is appropriate for this type of riding. Spurs are also typically worn when riding Western.
  • Extras — To complete your all-West look, consider adding a bolo tie and a set of chaps to your riding uniform.

Trying Your Hand at All Things Equestrian

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If you’re looking to give any of these disciplines a go, we welcome you to come and ride at Brays Island. Our 5,500-acre community, which was showcased in the Wall Street Journal for its impressive equestrian facilities, is replete with riding opportunities for first-time and experienced equestrians. Our grounds feature over 60 miles of trails that take you on many inspiring and challenging horseback journeys. Meet over 70 horses of various breeds, introduce the kids to the world of equestrian sports or push yourself to try a whole new discipline when you come and ride with us at Brays!