Many horse owners enjoy exhibiting in horse shows for fun and the thrill of competition. When you think about a horse show, a certain image probably comes to mind. You may be surprised to learn that that image can vary dramatically around the world and even within the United States.
In this article, we’ll talk about appropriate attire for both rider/exhibitor and horse show spectators. For information on how to pick the right clothes for riding in training, practice, and casual riding, check out our article with outfit ideas.
What to wear as a spectator attending a horse show
The appropriate outfit to wear to horse show can vary dramatically by region and by the type of horse sport the competition the set up for. East Coast “A level” horse jumping competitions (called hunter/jumper) have a very different dress code than, for example, a West Coast gymkhana (timed-speed events on horseback) or Midwest “Show-de-o” (a combination of rodeo and horse show competitions in one event). Wearing clothing appropriate to one of these events might make you look rather out of place at another. Because of this, it’s important to pay attention to the type of event, the region, and how elite the competition is.
The clothing that is appropriate to wear to most horse shows is fairly casual. The vast majority of horse shows in the United States and Europe are very casual: amateurs exhibiting horses owned by people who enjoy horseback riding as a casual hobby. For these horse shows, attending as a spectator has a wide variety of appropriate attire.
For both English and Western amateur horse shows, appropriate clothing could include:
- Denim jeans and a stylish but casual top
- Chambray button-up shirt with casual cuffed sleeves
- Sportswear (like puffer vests or track jackets) but generally not “athleisure” type leggings or tops.
- Weather appropriate gear (horse shows often take place outdoors or in only slightly climate controlled areas so you want to be prepared for hours of being outdoors.
The best shoes to wear for horse show, as a spectator, are shoes that are comfortable in, close-toed, and durable. Even if you don’t plan on getting close to horses, you may be walking through dirt, mud, or aminal waste. Horse shows don’t always have available seating, so you’ll want to plan for comfortable shoes in case you spend your day on your feet.
In other words, unless you are headed to a very elite, high-level horse show, skip the heels, sandals, flats and delicate clothing like dresses and fine fabrics, instead good attire that will help you be comfortable and fit in at most horse shows is a classic look of jeans or trousers with a nice top or appropriate outerwear paired with durable shoes like low-heeled boots or running shoes.
What to wear as a competitor in a horse show
Demystifying horse show clothing
You may find yourself, as a new rider or new horse owner, confused about why some horse shows are populated by riders and handlers wearing formal, almost business type clothing, while others encourage exhibitors to dress in the complete opposite direction: bright colors and bold prints. Still, other horse shows feature competitors in athletic clothing. So which is “correct”? And why are there so many diverse images of what people where to exhibit and horse shows?
In this article, we’ll talk about some common standards for horse show dress, and the type of competition they are appropriate for. When in doubt, you should always consult with the rulebook or website for the organization in charge of the show. And because the actual practice can sometimes vary a bit from published guidelines, it is a good idea to check in with another more experienced horse show competitor who can give you the inside scoop on both requirements and what is in fashion in the show ring currently.
Big shows versus small shows
Although the type of riding that you do primarily informs what you should wear, the rules for clothing tend to be far more relaxed at smaller horse shows. If you’re a new rider or a new exhibitor in horse shows, you will probably start your horse showing career at small shows: on the East Coast and west coast, these are often called “schooling shows” while in the Midwest where western riding is predominant, these type of shows may be termed “showdeos” (reflecting that they’ll combine elements of a horse show and speed events of a rodeo).
At informal shows, judges are unlikely to consider dress in their placings. Instead, it’s just a chance for you and your horse to get experience in the show ring. When entering one of these smaller shows you should dress as close as possible to the way you would dress in a much larger show, but in small English shows it’s okay if you replace the formal dress shirt with a light-colored polo shirt or knee-high leather riding boots with a pair of black rubber boots. In small western shows, generally, jeans, boots, and a collared shirt are sufficient.
The dress code for an English horse show:
minimum clothing requirements for exhibiting in an English riding style horse show:
- a helmet (preferably black),
- a white shirt (preferably collared),
- breeches (in very small shows, conservative color leggings may be sufficient),
- black boots with a heel (while child riders are generally permitted to wear short boots, for teens and adults you should wear boots that reach just below your knee or hair shorter boots with lower leg coverings called half chaps)
Correct/Full English riding clothes for horse show:
- a black helmet or hunt (check rules),
- hair neatly restrained (a hairnet remains the textbook choice),
- a collared English riding shirt in a pale color, called a “ratcatcher),
- a riding jacket,
- tan or beige breeches (white for dressage),
- a belt,
- and black leather riding boots – called “field boots” (be sure to use boots that are designed for horseback riding, not for fashion, as these will stand out in the show ring)
The dress code for a Western horse show:
(These guidelines cover Western pleasure, Western horsemanship, and other general classes at a western horse show)
Minimum clothing requirements for exhibiting in a western riding style horse show:
- a helmet or a cowboy hat (check the rulebook for your organization whether helmets are required),
- a collared shirt with long sleeves (preferably with a western cut on the collar and front pockets, although this is not required.
- jeans (Boot cut preferred)
- and Western-style boots.
Correct/full clothing requirements for exhibiting in a western riding style horse show:
In western horse shows, individual expression is encouraged! There are some rules (written and unwritten!) But in general, there is far more leeway to dress in a unique way that expresses yourself. Standards are:
- a western show shirt (for women these are called slinkies or “rail shirts” and typically feature spandex and embellishments)
- leather chaps (worn over pants in the same color)
- cowboy hat (typically in a color to match your chaps) or helmet
- and cowboy boots
Should you show if you don’t have the right clothing?
At small shows, horse show judges generally understand that not everyone has the means to buy all the correct equipment upfront, so if you don’t have quite the right thing to wear for a horse show, get as close as you can to the standard and show anyway! A good horse show experience is about having fun and getting feedback to develop your skills!
Although dress is important in a horse show, your riding skills, your horse, and your turnout (that is, how clean your horse is, how correctly gear is used, and how neat and tidy your appearance is) matters far more than the actual clothing you wear into the show ring.
Building a horse show wardrobe on a budget
Getting involved in competitive horse showing can be expensive! In addition to the costs associated with buying and keeping horses, and costs in registration fees, trailering your horse to and from shows, training, and investing in an appropriate show wardrobe for the kinds of classes you want to compete in.
It’s okay, as you start out, to exhibit in borrowed or used horse show clothing – in fact, it is often strongly encouraged and if you ride with the team or as part of a stable you may find many garments are shared, loaned, or handed down- especially among younger riders who change sizes as they grow.
As you learn about the show scene and try different types of horse show clothing, you’ll probably find the styles and brands that you like best. Although high-end brands are rarely worth buying new (especially when you are new to a sport) once you know what you like, you can set alerts for when these items in your brand are listed used on eBay.
Exceptions to the rules
Not all riding can be divided into English/Western binary. Both English and Western riding have subsets styles that have slightly different dress codes in addition, as you may have read on our English Western-style comparison blog, there are many, many styles of riding beyond the English or Western-style we recognize the United States.
Some of these riding styles and their dress codes include:
games, barrel racing– these performance judged events aren’t judged based on a rider’s clothing, so generally have a very lax dress code. However, because they are under the umbrella of a western event, you should wear at least jeans, a hat (we strongly recommend a helmet although cowboy hats may be permitted), and boots with a heel to prevent your foot from slipping through the stirrup.
Saddle seat – saddle seat has its own formal dress code that can become very complex at higher levels. At the most basic level, the apparel for standard English riding shows acceptable, while as a rider advances through higher levels of competition, a unique wardrobe including a bowler hat, jodhpurs, paddock booths, and the date coat (an English riding jacket that is longer)
Halter classes or “in hand” exhibitions – depending on whether the show hosting the class is predominantly English or Western, either English or Western apparel is accepted in these classes. However, usually, a helmet rule is relaxed and exhibitors are showing a horse from the ground may exhibit in cowboy hats or non-helmet hunt caps.