Shadbellies: Uniformly Impractical

dressage shadbellyIt 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.

beau brummelsOne 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.

Dressage HorsesTrust 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.

Perhaps in twenty years the dressage competitor will look more like this.

Perhaps in twenty years the dressage competitor will look more like this.

11 responses to “Shadbellies: Uniformly Impractical

  1. Pingback: Is Dressage on the Olympic Chopping Block? | Eventing Nation - Three-Day Eventing News, Results, Videos, and Commentary·

  2. I totally agree! Observing my own progression through riding, as my horse Taye and I ride increasingly athletically, my practice wardrobe increasingly includes pieces I’ve pulled from my dance and pilates clothing. I need wicking, compression, high performance, weather-appropriate wear.

    The prospect of eliminating Dressage from the Olympics is heartbreaking. Excellence in any equestrian sport is among the most astounding of team events with its infinite variables. Being on the far end of the riding spectrum compared to Olympians, I always am moved to tears by the effort required for international competitive performance. The precision and artistry of Dressage is among the most impressive of equestrian sports. I agree a more contemporary presentation of the sport (a la Ariat’s futuristic performance brand, Volent) that focuses on improving athletic performance AND safety (helmets essential!!! and frankly, why stop with helmets when vests are an equally viable and beneficial safety garment?)

    Thanks for a great body of work in your site. Very impressed. Very. From first touch, to free content I read and share often. Soon, I’ll pay up to learn more about your work.

  3. I don’t know anybody who does not wear a helmet in the FEI level. And if they are not wearing one they are stupid. Today’s show coats are not wool but are breathable, flexible Fabrics. Check Equiline. Upper levels should be distinguished by the Tailcoats, its hard work getting there and it is a privilege and an honor to ride, as well as look like the ultimate dressage rider.

  4. Totally disagree with this article. If a rider wants to wear more “sporty” attire, there are other disciplines where that type of attire can be worn. What’s wrong with looking elegant while riding a horse? What’s wrong with bling? It’s part of the allure of dressage. And what’s wrong with a sport acknowledging its history through attire? Thank goodness for Beau Brummel! I’d much rather watch a rider dressed as Mr. Darcy than one sporting a Joules polo shirt.

    • I like tradition as much as the next person, but if the quaint attire is hurting our sport’s brand, I say change it. It’s not about the riders’ likes and dislikes, but rather the impression given the spectator. They’re the ones driving the train at the Olympics.

  5. Dressage is supposed to be elegant,like two ballroom dancers gliding together or a graceful ballet dancer! They may practice in sweat pants or tights, but when they perform they want to look beautiful ,elegant ! I don’t think people would come to watch them perform in there sweats! A bride may not be real comfortable in her wedding dress or a groom in his tux,but I’m sure they wouldn’t trade anything about that day!Dressage is very beautiful and elegant leave it alone!

  6. i feel there is a lot more wrong with our modern dressage than dress code….how about complete ignorance in the majority of riders, ignorance to true horsemanship, lacking any sort of soft feel, what about absurd bits and rolkur, or any of those subjects…and i think it proves my point when there is an article about clothes being problematic, you can dress in a clown suit for goodness sake, the problems in competitive dressage are rooted a lot deeper than costume…

  7. There is an easy fix for your opinion. Make the jackets modern with new fabrics. You could make a modern shadbelly with shorter tails and and built in collar, with new thinner stretch fabrics that for all intense purposes to the viewer would look pretty much as the standard jacket with lighter shirt fabric. Think Columbia sun shirt in a shadbelly form. It could be done, just because no one is making it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. As for the bling, get off your high horse and let the bling people alone, who the heck cares if someone is *into* being more sparkled in the ring. It’s only on the browband and tiny parts of tack. It’s not like Liberace is on a horse.

  8. Anyone who feels that Dressage is not a real sport has probably never ridden a horse. I have had people interested in taking riding lessons over the years that were athletes of other sports from basketball, football, martial arts, boxing, track, swimming, archery, weapons experts, boxing, and on and on. All came away with the same impression. They felt it was way harder than they thought, and definitely humbled. Some had fun, while others felt threatened, but all were challenged, incompetent, exhausted and sore. I propose we offer the doubters the opportunity to mount, first a simple ordinary lesson horse while wearing anything they wish, and ride for an hour without help or instruction. If they survive that without getting hurt or dying, then a lesson with a strict trainer would put things into perspective. Now simply ask them that they just imagine doing this for multiple hours a day every day for 10, 20, 30, or 40 yrs. or more until you qualify for the Olympics at the Grand Prix level and see what they say then…

  9. Interesting argument. It’s funny how photos of riders in top hats look “retro”, but I’m still a fan of the shadbelly. And I necessarily think wearing one has to impractical – look at the differences the newer technical fabrics make! It really comes down to personal choice shadbelly/helmet or not: Are you a rider who wants to look like a beauty pageant contestant at the Olympics? Or are you a modern athlete riding for the gold in a sporty, functional version of the traditional tailcoat?

  10. I really believe that it would be a tragedy to toss all tradition, and there is a huge connection between looking and feeling elegant and proud (in the best way possible) – and truth is both impact on performance . The fact is that dressage also has strong historical links to the military and ceremony – all of which has huge emotional resonance with us at the deepest level. I really feel and believe that something would be lost by taking away some of the tradition – after all tradition is what keeps us connected to our roots. Rather lets find a healthy way of integrating tradition with the physical needs (safety and comfort) and modern technology and aesthetics combined. Where are the unlined pure cotton, light jackets for those hot summer countries (after all in winter the thick, lined wool jackets are welcome), and designs of hats that meet safety, aesthetics and tradition are all there. The only things left are the breeches and boots and these are already designed for comfort and functionality in the highest modern terms – so ….. is this really an issue?

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