I can still remember, with remarkable clarity, the dressage show outfit that I coveted in my youth.
It was 1996, my fifth year of riding competitive dressage, and I had my eye on a high-fashion ensemble: My dream was to have a stock tie of the most gigantic puffiness (I had a real “gift” for tying those things extra poofy, but I desired one with a slight sheen of ivory paisley and extra length to make the poof more voluminous). I desperately wished for a “real” dressage coat, one with the extra-large shoulder pads and shiny gold buttons. I pictured myself in a completely unsafe velvet hunt cap (remember those?) like the ones all my idols were wearing. But most of all, I was salivating over a pair of Petrie dressage boots—extra stiff, matte black ones that fit at that “just too short” height on the leg that screamed ’90s fashion.
While (thankfully) many style trends have changed in the past 20-plus years (anyone else glad that helmets are now standard issue? I know you all are), some have remained the same, namely, the white breeches and a sea of mostly black coats, as far as the eye can see.
I am still, undeniably, a dressage fashion queen. I have approximately zero outfits to wear to weddings or “going out.” (What is that?) But I have enough Kastel shirts and Kingsley boots to stock a large closet. So when the USEF approved new dress code rules for dressage (USEF DR120, which goes into effect Dec. 1) I was eager to see what was in store for this season.
My feeling, upon reading through the new guidelines, is that the rules have eased up ever so slightly. Complete disregard of traditional attire is certainly not the theme here—stripes or bold patterns still are out—rather, it is about relaxing the rules to make the clothing a bit more modern, varied and welcoming to newcomers. Darker breeches and “tasteful accents” on dressage attire, such as crystal “bling” or contrast piping and coat collars, now are formally allowed.
One also is now permitted to substitute paddock boots and half-chaps for tall boots through fourth level. For many equestrians who are new to the sport, giving it a try for the first time, or perhaps for juniors who are outgrowing boots every two months, this is a positive change to ease the financial burden.
The change that most people have mentioned to me is the inclusion of “dark-colored breeches or jodhpurs.”
To be entirely honest, white breeches are truly ridiculous to try to wear around horses, and most equestrians who are new to the sport find them terribly fussy and unflattering. Nonetheless, and to risk sounding rather geriatric, I’m not quite ready to part ways with mine. I’m working on being open-minded. Perhaps I will find something stunning to replace my amazing Halter Ego Perfection breeches (probably the same breeches in a stunning color that I’m simply not aware of yet). But for now, I think that white looks sharp and says “show time!” (And then they get muddy. And green-slobbered upon. I know all this, and yet I continue to profess my fondness for white breeches at the show.)
I just love, and I mean love, the variety that has appeared in short coats and tailcoats over the past several years. Since there has already been so much freedom allowed in this area, I doubt that too many are going to take Edward Gal’s lead and begin to style themselves as jaunty pirates in the FEI show arena. (After being judgmental about Mr. Gal’s fashion, I actually had a nightmare that I entered at “A” in a mustard-colored shadbelly, with matching boots—oof!)
I have been contemplating whether my clients suddenly are going to arrive at shows dressed in shocking neon green coats with pink crystals and garishly clashing maroon breeches, but I doubt it. My people happen to be on the conservative side. I’m the one encouraging them to try a coat other than black, or add a little contrast or sparkle.
I may actually post the new rules in my stable and highlight the areas where I feel they could experiment! I have several riders entering the show ring for the first time in 2022, and I certainly feel that the rule changes make an entry into the dressage world more welcoming, less pricey and certainly less “dress like a penguin”-like.
I think that with freedom in attire, it’s possible some bad choices may arise, and I am here for it! Perhaps I shall become a style columnist for the Chronicle and have a weekly “fashion fail” report? Dress is, of course, quite subjective. And while a mustard kit may repulse me, it could be what some 16-year-old aspiring rider has secretly been coveting! My feeling (and hope) is that we, as dressage competitors, can enjoy this increase in flexibility while still remembering that it’s the horse who should shine, even more than the bling on our boots, helmet and gloves!
I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer and fashionista from the lovely state of Maine. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and young riders at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center. (And yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well, and have some lovely ones in my stable!)
When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my farm, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I enjoy many dressage adventures with my German Riding Pony, Dubai’s Dream, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.