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The Evolution of Equestrian Fashion

by Ann Bullard

Clothes and accessories make the man (and woman.) That saying holds true in many walks of life, few more than when showing a Saddle Horse. It seems so simple: buy a riding habit, fix your hair and makeup and show your horse. Not so, nor does what ‘worked’ years ago apply to today.

Granted, a lot depends on where you or your child wants to go. It’s simple in the beginning: a pair of jods, usually off the rack or by mail, a pair of boots, shirt and vest and tie, plus a riding helmet, suits most academy exhibitors.

But what, where and why? And how did we get where we are, anyway?

Riders have gone through many ‘fashion stages.’ British cavalrymen adapted the loose-fitting, blousy pants worn by natives of India during the British colonial period in that country. The jodhpur, named for the region where the style originated, offered greater comfort for riders in those hot climates. Early saddle seat riders rode in traditional English hunt seat attire, with flared breeches and high boots. Later, riders wore a cuffed or ‘pegged’ jodhpur without calf boots as hunt attire. Ladies rode side saddle, then adopted a split skirt when first riding astride.

Current fashion can be traced back to Carl Myers’s grandfather Emmanuel Myers of Lexington, Ky. Myers’s army surplus store became the center for Saddle Horse riders after World War I.

"Granddad carried boots and different things farmers used around here," Carl Meyers said. "That’s how he got introduced to the Saddle Horse guys such as Earl Teater and the Bradshaws. They got him involved with designing riding apparel."

Emmanuel Meyers was the first to design the ‘jodhpur’ as we know it today.

"The straighter-legged pants which pulled down over a rider’s boot presents a cleaner, sleeker look for the American Saddlebred," Carl Meyers explained. "It was more a uniform than fashion-oriented. Saddle seat riders showed in Kentucky jodhpurs with hunt coats, later adopting longer coats. Granddad was the first to put inverted pleats in the back of riding coats."

Meyers explained that factories that used to produce custom riding apparel closed down those lines to make uniforms during World War II. In the late 1940s and ’50s, ‘fashionable’ riding clothing came into play. By then, Melvin Meyers had joined the family company.

Meyers recalled his father dressing the late Joan Robinson Hill, and getting involved with what he called "the Texas group. That’s when fashion really started coming about. Joan had things dyed to match her horses and one to match her hair."

The picture of the beautiful equestrienne and elegant gray mare, Beloved Belinda, is one Saddle Horse fans of the mid and late-1950s still remember. The pair dominated the amateur five-gaited division during that time, tying champion or reserve at the World’s Championship Horse Show from 1953 through 1957.

The 1960s saw more fashion changes. "The first thing was a white coat at night. And that was the era that brocades started coming out. They made a big hit with Julianne [Schmutz] and that group," Carl Meyers recalled.

Solid suits with different linings, some in paisleys and other prints and some in a contrasting color, became popular. The most prominent of these that helped set a trend was Mitchell Clark’s navy blue suit with a red lining he wore while showing CH Sky Watch to the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship. Don Harris helped popularize the tan suit for performance riding when he showed CH Imperator.

The late Helen K. Crabtree helped set the style for equitation riders. In 1976, Ann Swisher won the UPHA Challenge Cup Finals wearing a very light-colored suit. Marsha Shepard (of Marsha de Arriaga) recalled speaking with Mrs. Crabtree about outfitting an equitation rider.

"She told me years ago that she put Ann Swisher in a light suit for a very good reason. She was a very quiet rider, almost too quiet and rode a very smooth horse. She didn’t look aggressive enough in the ring. When Swisher wore the light suit, you couldn’t take your eyes off her," Shepard said. "Helen did this for totally different reasons than many comprehend now. She had an artist’s as well as an equestrian’s eye."

"Helen was the matriarch of all that," Meyers said. "She already had done some with gray suits," Meyers said, admitting that Mrs. Crabtree intimidated him. "She was so concerned about the fit, how she wanted the legs to look. She went for an appropriate length – long enough, about four inches below the finger tips. Today they are at the knee cap."

Meyers says he interpreted ‘that look’ for Lillian Shively. "She has a wonderful style and color sense. She has made another whole change in equitation from what I specialized in during those days."

Fashion has followed success in more arenas than Saddle Horses. Shepard spoke of a trend in the jumping world.

"I once asked George [Morris] why the cut of his hunt coat was so short. He had a weak upper body and long legs and therefore cut his jacket short," Shepard said of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame member. "Others copied his style after he won the McClay Medal [in 1952.] If riders had thunder thighs, they still wore short jackets."

The late Nona Rutland, who trained such champion riders as the late Joan Robinson Hill, Zel Corkern and Barbe Smith at Audubon Stables in New Orleans, and Annie Lawson Cowgill wrote the ‘book’ on horsemanship in 1952. They were assisted by Mrs. Helen K. Crabtree of Colliersville, Tenn. The 16-page A Standard for Three and Five-Gaited Horsemanship set forth some very definite recommendations on appointments. Informal dress recommendations included wearing tweed, gabardine, linen, salt sack, check, plaid or solid color coats with pants to blend, contrast or match the coat. Kentucky jods, peg or frontier style were acceptable. A small, single flower boutonniere and handkerchief were worn in the left side breast pocket. In discussing semi-formal and formal attire, she stated that "coats should be long enough to properly cover the seat."

How times do change!

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