I recently offered some advice to a connection who was showing for the first time. She’s in her mid-30’s, and had the same concerns I think we all have in life, let alone in the show pen. She worried about how to create the right look for her horse and herself, in order to be considered a serious competitor, without having to take out a second mortgage on her house. It’s a fairly common problem, once that I’m honestly not sure how some people combat. We’ve all seen the people who arrive in expensive rigs, on expensive horses, using expensive equipment, wearing expensive clothing, yet they have what could be considered average income. I work in accounting, but that’s math I’ve never been able to figure out.
The two keys I shared with her were to keep it simple, and confidence is your best accessory. It’s especially important when you’re first starting out, and unsure if you’ll even go to a second show, not to go all in, and buy everything you’re told you have to have. It’s also important to remember that if you’re not feeling at home in your own skin, trying to be someone you’re not, it’s going to translate loudly at a show.
I worked in a local tack store for five years, so I had the opportunity to play personal stylist for a lot of people. So many things depend on your breed, event, level, etc, but the basics don’t change. If you’re showing in english events, other than color trends, the basic outfit has looked the same for as long as we can all remember. If you’re showing in western events, the trends tend to vary more, but again, the basics are always there. Be prepared to spend money, but take the time to shop, and spend wisely. I only ever had a few “real” show outfits in all the years I competed, and I think only two were new, the rest were new to me. Take advantage of all the consignment and second-hand options available.
There are rules that apply across the board. When buying an outfit, spend the most on your core items, the classic pieces that won’t go out of style before you get them home. Those are investments. I always looked at it the same way I did when I traveled for business, pick a neutral color for your basics, black, tan, navy, grey, and fill out the wardrobe with a selection of mix and match pieces. If you’re showing english, buy the best tall boots you can afford, and make sure they fit really well. Unless your feet or legs drastically change size, and you take care of them, you’ll never have to buy a replacement pair. Helmets are a little different, they’re definitely an investment in your personal safety, if you’re just showing flat classes with no safety requirements, a plain velvet hunt cap can span decades of wear. If your classes require an approved helmet, make sure you find the right one, and always replace them after a crash. Breeches tend to stay the same as far as shades of tan and grey, but more options are being offered as far as blouses and hunt coats. In the true hunter jumper circles, I suspect they’re staying more traditional (I could be wrong), but you can’t go wrong with a simple navy or dark grey coat and white or beige blouse. It might be boring, but it will fit in today, and 30 years from now.
Showing in western events leaves a much broader spectrum to cover, but the same concept still applies. Your basics here are things like boots, chaps, and hats. Boot styles to trend to a degree, but at least for showing, you can stick with a basic roper style, in neutral colors, that should work with most, if not all outfits. Chaps go through trends as well, but will always be made of leather or some kind of suede material. As long as they fit properly and are kept in good repair, they’ll last, so spend the money on them. Many places offer lengths now too, short, regular, and tall, so if you feel like length might be a challenge for you, custom doesn’t have to be your only choice. Shopping for hats, remember the rule, straws only between Memorial Day and Labor Day, no exceptions, and it needs to be shaped as appropriate for your breed/level. Even straw hats can be pricey, so if you’re only willing to buy one, go with a felt. I like to use the rule of opposites-again, if you’re only buying one. If you’re dark-featured, go with a lighter color, if you’re light-featured, go black. If you don’t mind having a couple, and I recommend at least two, have one of each in your closet. A light colored hat can create the illusion of a taller rider. I like a minimum 5x blend, and the higher the better. Buy the best you can afford, properly kept, they’ll hold up with regular shaping. The key to keeping a nice hat (one that doesn’t resemble a taco salad shell), is to never leave it in the trailer or your vehicle when you’re not using it. They’re made of natural animal hair that shrinks and warps when it gets wet or hot. The better hats aren’t as likely, but better safe than sorry!
Once you’ve got the staples covered, it’s time to think about tops. Showmanship classes are still using fitted jackets with a dress pant, usually in monochromatic palates. Riding classes are using blouses of all kinds, and vests are still popular. The most important factor is always fit. It’s far better to have a well-fitted simple blouse, over an ill-fitting blouse, that cost a small fortune, and ruined the eyesight of a nine year old in Viet Nam, for all the time it took to cover it in crystals. In much the same way, a million dollar horse looks better in a plain saddle, than a field pony does in a custom Harris saddle. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend, take a look through our own closet, or a discount department store, for business shirts that could be paired with the right chaps and hat, to complete a look. Dug those hot summer weekends, sometimes you’ll appreciate a simple cotton blouse and scarf, over a leather and lycra monster that doesn’t breathe. Once you’ve decided where you’re showing and what in, you can figure out a plan of attack. Personally, I had good luck buying off the rack, tailored blouses, and customizing them myself with jewel glue and a little creativity. That’s one way to make sure nobody else has the same outfit as you!
When it comes to tack and equipment, after determining what’s appropriate event-wise, you can absolutely use what you already have, as long as it’s clean and in good repair. If you do buy new, make sure you’ve had a few practices with it at home first, the show pen is not the time to find out something doesn’t fit you or your horse.
Ultimately, the horse will always be “the cheapest part of the deal,” especially if you plan on showing. But, you don’t have to intimidate yourself right out of the pen, before you even get there, thinking you can’t afford to do it. Make a list of what you need, price it all out online so you know what you’re looking at, make a budget, and stick with it. Never underestimate the power of your circle of friends either, you might be able to borrow before you buy, or buy used off of them.