In a sport predominantly made up of women, with a uniform that includes form-fitting, usually light-colored breeches, it seems odd that it is somewhat taboo to talk about menstruation. Frankly, I don’t even like writing the word. It brings to mind the inconvenience and stress that periods can add to trying to perform my best on a 1,200-pound animal. Complicating things more is the fact that for many people, from young junior riders to those going through menopause, this “time of the month” pops up irregularly and often in the midst of competition.
Months of careful preparation can get thrown into the air at the in-gate when you suddenly realize your period has started. The mental focus that should be locked on the ride ahead instead shifts to wondering whether you will leak through your light-colored breeches before your round is over.
When you finally steal a chance to speed-walk to the restroom—which invariably is a hot, humid porta-pot—it takes Houdini-inspired moves, and maybe some elbows bumping noisily off the plastic walls, to pry off your sweaty, tight riding pants. Now what? Best-case scenario, you had a pad or tampon in your tack trunk and can use it now. If not, maybe you put your folding skills to the test and orgami your way through creating a pad, survivor style, to get you through the next hour of showing. Once you’ve dealt with your period, you notice that there is neither a trash can nor a sink to wash your hands. The hand sanitizer pump will have to do.
These things just aren’t easy, especially if you’re young and inexperienced. Maybe you now need a leg up to get back on your horse or pony, and you just pray that whatever product you are using is good enough to spare the mortification of a leak spot. We all know that competing is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, so what can be done to mitigate the worry during your period, especially for junior riders who haven’t established a consistent cycle?
A few years ago, a mother and daughter approached me at a horse show. The daughter had just gotten her period, for the first time ever, and the mother didn’t have any appropriate products with her, so they asked if I could help. The girl looked at me partly mortified, partly pleading. I took her to my trailer tack room, where I keep the supplies I’ve prepared for a horse-show apocalypse. I have everything I could ever need, including a sewing kit stocked with various colored buttons for show jackets, carefully chosen pieces of spare tack for emergencies, back up breeches, a “didn’t forget anything” horse first aid kit, a human first aid kit, and an array of feminine products. I gave her a few to get her through the day, and she and her mom were off. Similar situations have popped up again over the past few years—I must seem approachable, which I like. I understand the stress these young girls are feeling and with a few more years of personal experience, I’ve run into some awkward situations despite thinking I’ve prepared for anything. (The last thing you want to worry about, as you settle into a beautiful custom saddle: “Is there any chance the products could leak?”) So I set off to find a solution. Enter period panties.
These are specialized underwear that look like regular panties and typically are made predominantly of cotton and other popular materials, but have a special absorbent layer in the crotch to catch and pull moisture away from the body. They are made for all bodies with a plethora of styles and colors, costing anywhere from $15-$50 per pair. It was time to test them out. I placed an order for some Thinx brand panties and reviewed my list of doubts:
• Most importantly: Are they reliable or will they leak?
• Can they really hold up to various stages of menstruation?
• Are they uncomfortable?
• Are they ugly?
• Are they messy and gross?
Turns out they come in many styles, from full-seat boy shorts all the way to thong, plain or patterned; some even have pretty lace trim. They are not thick or uncomfortable. They feel like regular underwear, and they come in different levels of absorbency. Some people, including me, use them instead of other menstrual products; others use them in addition, as a safeguard against leaks.
I purchased a few of each absorbency based on different stages of my cycle and in the color and style I prefer. I recommend buying the same style or styles you like in your regular underwear, and getting a light, a medium and a heavy absorbency to get started. You can hardly tell which is which because they are not bulky like a pad, but each pair comes marked with its absorbency level next to its size on the tag to help you keep them straight.
To my great surprise, even during a busy show day, they didn’t feel damp, and they didn’t leak. In fact, you can wear them all day in many cases, unlike a tampon that needs to be changed every several hours. I tested this and really pushed the boundaries by cleaning stalls, feeding and scrubbing buckets, even cleaning out the trailer after the show, and they still didn’t leak or feel uncomfortable. They look and feel just like comfortable underwear yet they are absorbent.
The inner absorbent layer of the Thinx panties is black, regardless of the color of the panties themselves, so when you take them off, they don’t show any stains.
It didn’t matter that I was wearing light-colored breeches or climbing the ladder to the hay loft, I was protected and felt the freedom of movement and free from worry. I was hooked.
In college, I use them for more than riding: I wear them with white shorts and feel confident. I work out in the varsity gym with the personal trainer and alongside athletes from other sports without worry.
Manufacturers generally recommend rinsing the panties in cold water when you first remove them, then tossing them in the washer with the rest of your laundry. They also recommend hanging them to dry instead of putting them in the dryer.
I do the first rinse but, honestly, I don’t air dry them. I would rather throw them in the dryer and replace them sooner than to have them hanging in my room. Especially in college.
As a freshman in a coed dorm, it occurred to me that using period panties might be more complicated than when I was living at home. I’m convinced that the clocks on the dorm washing machines lie because regardless of how fast you return to the laundry room, someone has taken your laundry out already and tossed it in your basket. The good news is that period panties are cute and clean and look like all the rest of my underwear. So while I stand there and fold laundry in public, my period panties look just the same as the undies the person next to me is folding.
I decided to conduct an experiment and use traditional feminine hygiene products instead of my new panties for one cycle at college, while riding on the varsity equestrian team. The first glitch was that I ran out of products after two days, and because I don’t have a car at college and the campus store closed, I found myself facing a restocking challenge. This would not be an issue with period underwear, which you can just wash and rewear.
I ended up ordering a box of feminine products through an app service called Instacart. It showed me that a man named Melvin would be shopping for me and what he looked like. I pictured him going to the checkout carrying feminine hygiene products and worried about him being embarrassed. So I added some chocolate, fruit and a container of orange juice to my order. Twenty minutes later, Melvin and his girlfriend pulled up in front of the security desk where I was standing to receive my order. He was very kind, and his girlfriend said, “Let us know if you need any more honey,” in a motherly tone. With a wink from her, they drove off.
I took a lesson with my trainer the next day, worrying the whole time about shifting or leaking pads, wanting to protect my beautiful and coveted saddle. Afterward, I sprinted to my dorm with seconds to spare before my next class and stripped down and put on my Thinx. Forget the experiment, l have a college life to live and don’t have time to let menstruation get in my way.
I hope I don’t get bullied or picked on for writing this piece. It seems like college is a time when people take more risks and often look back and think, well that was stupid, yet I hope that sharing this will be informative to other equestrians who, like me, would rather focus on learning and excelling at their sport than worrying about periods.
Ella Doerr, 18, from Avon, North Carolina, is a recipient of the USHJA Youth Leadership Award, the USHJA Youth Sportsmanship Award and the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant. Since she was 7 she’s bought and paid for her ponies with her own earnings while keeping them at home and performing all their care. She’s brought them along from just broke to zone championships and USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky). She’s the brand ambassador for multiple companies and chairs the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Youth Group. She volunteers for charities and has managed three horse shows to raise funds for terminally ill children. She’s currently a freshman at Goucher College (Maryland).