It is no secret that the sport of dressage has faced many challenges of perception. For one, even acknowledging dressage as a sport is a challenge in some circles. Now the IOC has listed dressage as one of the potential sports getting the axe in the upcoming Olympic summer games to make room for other, seemingly more worthy pursuits. This would be a tragedy as dressage has a long history in the Olympics games. This does not change the fact that it is known as an elitist pursuit, one belonging to the modern aristocracy and not to the world of athletics.
Are “they” right? Is dressage a sport? Are we athletes? Of course I believe that we are, but the trappings of dressage belie its true nature. If we want to be taken seriously in this modern sports world then we as dressage athletes need to get serious about modernizing our sport. We need roots in the practical and should not maintain tradition for tradition’s sake.
One of the most impactful things that we can do is to lose the shadbelly and top hat combination. The shadbelly and top hat came into popularity in the early 1800’s by a man named Beau Brummell, otherwise known as the father of English dandyism. To the left I have included an 1805 sketching of the man wearing an ensemble that complies with all current FEI rules for a Grand Prix competitor. This English dandy, who stated that all shoes should be polished with champagne, could hop on a horse and ride into a dressage ring without earning a second glance. Which means that more than two hundred years later, our sports ensemble has done nothing but get arguably less practical, bedazzled with crystals and patent leather.
If we are athletes, then we are certainly doing ourselves a disservice. In what other sport does the clothing do anything but serve to improve the performance of the competitor, or to protect them from harm? In the one hundred meter dash do we see the runners clicking along in high heels? In hockey are they sporting fedoras? How about a weighted bathing suit? All of these seem silly and yet we strut out on our horses wearing a wool coat and a top hat into the warm up and sweat until someone in show management deems it hot enough to remove them. Then we peel off our coats with a sigh of relief. Sure we can take them off to warm up and then put the coats back on just before we enter the ring, but my question is, what is wrong with this picture? If dressage is a sport, and its competitors athletes, then let’s adjust the rules to allow for a practical and useful sports outfit. If we strip away all fashion, tradition and pretense then the top hat and shadbelly are ornaments, costumes. They do not keep us safe. They do not allow for us to ride the horses more efficiently. They are throwback to a previous era, traditional riding uniforms of the 1800s. We would never dream of forcibly blanketing our horses as they go into riding the test and yet we do it to ourselves for the sake of fashion and tradition.
The traditions that should be kept alive in dressage are ones relating to the horse. How are they being ridden? How are they being trained? These traditions are the ones that are essential to the sport and must be protected claw, tooth and nail.
Horseback riding is inherently dangerous so we should be wearing helmets as competitors. Period. End of story. What you wear at home is your own business, but in the competition ring the outfit should do nothing but serve the sport. So the modern dressage competitor should be wearing a helmet. Tall boots protect the lower leg so they stay. Breeches protect the upper leg so they stay. A shirt with some sort of wicking fabric that may be worn comfortably in hot weather should be instituted.
Trust me, I understand the allure of a shadbelly. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of wearing one. But now that I think about it, is that status separating the upper levels and lower levels through different jackets a good thing either? Many dressage riders of dubious ability have rushed up the levels to ride FEI and be a part of the shadbelly club before they were ready. Perhaps having a standard, practical coat that serves the purposes of an athlete will not only help individual riders, but also the sport as a whole, quelling the ambitions of those who want to be a part of the ‘elite’ through dress.