It’s show time! What will the best-dressed horses and riders be wearing this year? The answer depends on each show team’s budget, personal taste and – more and more – the events they are participating in. No longer is western pleasure couture the only acceptable look for arena fashions. Ranch horse participants; rodeo, parade, and drill teams; and western dressage riders are all bringing their own fashion flair to the show arena to create a varied and colorful collection of what’s in style for western riding competitors.
Whether it’s a renewed interest in classic vaquero tack and clothing for ranch horse events, or a rising expectation that barrel racers ‘dress for success’ in a rodeo, acceptable competition fashions are more varied – and more fun – than they have been in years. You may see a thousand-dollar custom show top on a reiner rider enter the arena just after a capable cowgirl wearing an off-the-rack cotton blouse, but rest assured that each rider chose their outfit to look great, lend them confidence, and look lovely on their horse.
So what looks great? First, regardless of cost or color, western competition outfits should fit trim to create a flattering silhouette in the arena, and be comfortable to ride in. Stretch fabrics, many with technical qualities such as moisture management, are often the base for show apparel and then are decorated with everything from beads and fringe to feathers, jewels, paillettes (hanging sequins), and elaborate applique. Even traditional western shirts are often modernized with a touch of stretch to the fabric. Remember that show apparel is sports apparel; it should be close fitting even as it allows you to perform in comfort.
After silhouette and comfort, the next criteria to consider in competition apparel is color. Certain color combinations create more visual interest than others when viewed from a distance in the arena, so give your color story some thought. The judge or audience will be looking at you from quite a distance away, so choosing colors that give you confidence, and are attractive on your horse when viewed from across the arena, add dash and drama to your presentation.
Note that you and your horse will be performing as a team, and your horse is the bigger team member and therefore your first consideration in selecting colors. An easy rule of thumb is that horses with red hair (sorrel, chestnut, red roans, etc.) are attractive when sporting earth-tone colors like vanilla, chocolate, and rust. Horses with brown hair (predominantly bay, black, or white coats) look terrific in jewel tones like garnet, royal, and purple.
Experiment with colors for your horse by using a towel or other large, colorful item to drape your saddle and then step away fifty feet or more to evaluate the effect. Take a short video or snapshot to capture the look. You can also look for horses colored like yours in the show ring to see what catches your eye. If you ride multiple horses, or you’re not sure what color horse you may be paired with, the blue-green color range (everything from pale celery through turquoise to deep greens) are a great look on just about any color horse, and they tend to be flattering for almost any rider as well.
How can you make you and your horse look like a color-coordinated team? Choose a large, colorful saddle blanket to both frame your saddle and anchor your outfit color to your horse. Try to keep your show look to one base color (often black) and one accent color for the sharpest look when viewed from a distance. A single saddle blanket, carefully chosen, can easily pair with many tops for a versatile and lovely show wardrobe.
As to details, let’s take it from the top, starting with your western hat. Your hat frames your face and defines your personality in the show ring, so invest in a fine western hat, and then keep it ‘tuned up’ with occasional professional shaping for years of attractive service. While hat trends change slowly, expect a steeper brim this year, hinting towards ‘taco’ hats from yesteryear. In some classes, extra hat embellishments like crystals and lacing on the brims bring bling to the hat’s personality.
For most riding events, you’ll still be in style with a jacket or blouse, with vests making strong inroads onto the fashion scene. Any top that’s close-fitting, colorful, and makes you feel confident is the ticket, whether you’re a quiet cowgirl who likes classic starched cotton, or a full-tilt showgirl who wants all the jewels and fancy trims you can encrust your show top with in the pen.
Don’t overlook the accessories and details that pair with your top: pretty necklaces, earrings, and scarves all add personal touches to your presentation and give you a chance to set yourself apart from the crowd. Don’t be afraid to use large accessories. Remember, they’ll appear small from a distance so ‘dress for the stage’ for a successful look.
Showmanship and halter classes will have most showgirls in a suit presentation, or at least a shapely shirt. Again, video your look to make sure it shows off your smooth moves and colorfully harmonizes with your horse. Have your suit pants hemmed offset, longer at the heels, to fall nicely over boots, and take extra care with makeup since you’ll be closer to the judge than in riding classes.
Western Dressage is spreading like wildfire, and many people are unsure what to wear in these exciting new individual-performance classes. Expect to see both western-pleasure inspired outfits and those with a hint of history borrowed from bolero jackets and working western looks. Vests are also great in this event, as they present a trim figure but allow freedom of movement riding two-handed.
Ranch horse classes are also attracting new fans by the thousands, and fortunately, turnout for these classes are more fun than formal. Some folks opt for simple ranch dressing with pressed traditional shirts and jeans, while others go for the way-back look with period attire including fancy big-brimmed hats, leather vests, and gorgeous working tack including silver bits and intricately braided romal reins. Chinks (short chaps ending just below the knees) are becoming the legwear of choice in ranch classes and, if custom made, can be personalized with initials, brands, twisted fringe, and other distinctive details. While the show ring is a traditional place, there’s always a little room to have fun to make a modest statement of style, and mix old and new pieces for your perfect presentation.
When shopping for show tops, or creating your own, do look for quality construction: tidy sewing, hidden zippers, stretch fabrics, and a good basic fit. Show apparel should have clean lines with a shapely fit, and then you can either buy or add the dramatic decor that brings show apparel to life in natural sunlight or under indoor arena lights.
Chaps or chinks are the largest item of apparel you’ll wear, so choose them carefully. They should hang from your natural waist and be long enough to cover your boot heels in the saddle for shotgun chaps, or fall below your knee for chinks. If you opt for something fancier than classic fringed suede chaps, be sure that extra trims – like crystals or blinged out conchos – add to your presentation rather than draw attention to busy legs or wide hips.
Western boots complete your western wardrobe, but only the foot portion shows – peeking from beneath chaps or jeans – when you compete. Consider a simple, classic boot style and perhaps spend your savings where they show more, on you or your horse.
Gentlemen in the show pen continue to present their horses in traditional attire of fitted, starched shirts, plain or modestly embellished chaps, and carefully creased hats. A showman can simply pair a solid or plaid shirt with an interesting scarf and color-coordinated saddle blanket and be dressed for success at the local to national level.
Saddles and tack are becoming more personalized, just like show apparel. Leather colors vary from pale shades to black through a rich range of brown tones which beautifully showcase shining silver on headstalls or saddles. Consider what looks best on your horse when choosing new tack items. We’re seeing more exotic leather inlays, even painted accents on tack, and customized high-quality sterling silver is making a comeback as well.
Educate your eye by studying videos, online catalogs and horse magazines for images of winning western ensembles in your favorite events to get you and your horse ready to win in 2016.