We’ve all got opinions on, well, just about everything—but fashion is a topic, particularly in the horse world, to which everyone wants to add their two cents. Because fashion, or “the make or form of something ” isn’t just Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Chloe or Armani—it’s any garment you choose to sport.
And as those who indulge in a rather particular sport, what you don and when—specifically in the hunter ring, can cost you the blue. I was personally schooled in the art of dressing for the show ring by my trainer, Elizabeth Collins, who, even at 23 years old, was adamant about proper horse and rider turnout. She had one particular rule that still echoes in my head today as I peruse the racks at a tack store: I was not, under any circumstance, to wear a sleeveless show shirt under my jacket.
“But why?” I whined.
She offered this explanation: If you ever get permission to show without your jacket because of the heat, it would be a catastrophe (she might have been slightly less dramatic than this, but you get the gist) to be wearing a sleeveless top. She also offered me a trade: If I showed up wearing a sleeveless shirt, even under the most extreme heat index, then I was forbidden to remove my show coat.
I look back now and laugh because the older I get and the more exposure I have to the hunter scene—on all levels—the more I realize the importance of wearing appropriate clothing. If you’re going to commit to competing, you’ve got to give it all you’ve got.
Over the year I casually chatted with some of the hunter industry’s finest. Thus, in preparation for a new season of showing, I come bearing style advice from those who know.
Does It Distract From The Horse?
But before I reveal to you some of the stars’ pet peeves, I felt it necessary to refer to the holiest hunter handbook out there: George Morris’ Hunter Seat Equitation.
Morris touched upon several points regarding turnout in Chapter 10 of the Third Edition, “What The Rider Should Know.” Morris addresses hairstyle, accessories (jewelry, makeup, gloves), habit and boots. His general theme was understatement and taste.
“Anyone can be clean and neat and dress well regardless of his financial position….all in all, a rider entering a show ring should appear elegant in an understated, conventional way,” wrote Morris. “No part of his riding attire should draw attention to itself, and under no circumstances should there be any flashiness.”
Many of the industry’s most successful players are living by his words. Julie Winkel, a U.S. Equestrian Federation “R” judge who has judged at some of the nations most prestigious shows, said tradition still reigns supreme today.
“So in the hunter ring, I’m against anything that distracts from the horses. That’s what we’re there for—to judge the horse,” said Winkel, who owns Maplewood Stables in Reno, Nev.
“It bothers me to see the light colored hunt coats, and gloves should also be traditional—sometimes you’ll see pros wearing light colored gloves, but it draws attention to their hands, again, away from the horse,” she continued.
Jennifer Alfano, a top professional who campaigns many hunters at the biggest shows around the country, noted the importance of a hairnet.
“I hate to see a rider go in the ring and have their hair hanging out,” said Alfano, Buffalo, N.Y. “Although we see it a lot more in the jumper ring, it just looks messy.”
But what irks her more than a disheveled ‘do is being able to see a rider’s socks peeking out of the tops of his or her boots.
“I tell my [students] that if I can see the socks, they better be black,” she said.
Elgin, Ill.-based hunter rider and trainer Maggie Jayne claimed that she doesn’t like to see a rider’s ratcatcher, choker or stock tie come undone and start flapping around.
“I think that’s a faux pas,” Jayne admitted. “I just recently got sponsored by Le Fash  show shirts—they have a magnetic clasp at the top that avoids that—which will hopefully be a new trend.”
Andre Dignelli, a top hunter, jumper and equitation trainer in Katonah, N.Y., admitted that if he notices a rider and horse in the ring who are not (both) dressed to the nines, it would be enough to “take something away from even a perfect round.”
“When a horse walks in and doesn’t have the right tack on, is wearing a saddle pad that’s inappropriate, doesn’t have a fake tail, is not beautifully braided or isn’t wearing well-oiled tack,” he listed off, “it doesn’t look well turned-out. And the rider needs to have well-fitting boots, the right breeches. I like it to look like traditional hunter classes.”
“Fake tails that are too big and too thick are another faux pas in my opinion,” added Winkel. “I like the traditional D-ring snaffles or full cheeks. And I really don’t like the black plastic stirrups in the hunter ring. I think a lot of my fellow judges feel the same about them.”
Despite the constant evolution of new fabrics and colors and styles, hunter derby superstar Kelley Farmer discourages riders from indulging in that area, specifically noting her dislike for jackets made of polyester-type material and colorful vests worn with shadbelly coats.
Dignelli added, “I’m not a fan of a hunt cap that is adorned with a lot of glitz and glitter or riding jackets that are overly ornate.”
Jayne, 27, took a more relaxed stance on the color and glitter issue.
“I think it’s a little distracting when the coat’s lining is a bright color. But I think it’s OK to have a little sparkle on the top of your boot—like a little rhinestone. I think that’s super cute!” she said.
While I am always a fan of adding color, sparkle or oomph to any outfit (what the judges can’t see can’t hurt them—or your score—I say!) in the hunter ring, it appears that tradition trumps trendsetter.
In the words of USEF “R” judge Betty Oare, “In my estimation, less is better.”
Dress The Part
While your ratcatcher shirt doesn’t always have to be white, stay away from anything too colorful—even deeper shades of pastel. “Light yellow, pastel blue, light mauve or a pretty checkered design is always nice. With a solid color coat, that doesn’t bother me at all. But a checkered coat and checkered shirt might clash,” said Oare, Warrenton, Va.
Jayne agreed, “I love wearing gray or brown coats and colored show shirts. But it’s got to match. Don’t wear a gray helmet and a coat that doesn’t match. It just looks terrible.”
If it’s hot outside, and there’s a chance that judges might waive jackets, make sure you wear a long-sleeved shirt, iron it, check it for spots, and choose your undergarments with care.
If shirts and coats are not required in your class, take note that fitted tops reveal better posture and also cause less distraction for the judge. Opt for a solid-colored polo or a well-fitted sweater, if need be.
White breeches are considered formal attire and may be worn by men in classics and hunter derbies.
Hunter classes are rooted in traditions of the military and the hunt field, thus a solid, dark colored helmet is always an appropriate choice.
Consider your choice of sunglasses. If you have to wear them, make sure they don’t take the judge’s attention away from your textbook form and your horse’s beautiful style over fences.