The Chronicle ran an article this week called "Hunter Fashion Dos and Don'ts." I usually love the COTH articles, but I have to be honest, I thought this one missed the mark. First off... what do I really want to see in the hunter ring? A beautiful, healthy, well-muscled (read, not obese) horse with a balanced uphill canter, a round athletic jump, and a rider who maintains her own center of gravity between, over, and after the fences. Those are the rounds that take my breath away. I have never had my breath taken away because I noticed that someone is wearing "the right breeches." But just for a moment, let's put aside the fact that we should be concentrating on performance, not fashion. This is hard for me to do, because I have defended the hunters more times than I can count as "more than just a beauty contest."
In a way, though, performance and rider attire do go hand-in-hand. The one point the article made, with which I did wholeheartedly agree, is that the rider's attire should never distract from the horse, who should be the main focus in the hunter ring (same goes for the rider's equitation, but again, off topic for today). One of my favorite hunter riders to watch is Amanda Steege, and what I love about her riding is that I don't even notice her.
Other than this point, though, I thought the article otherwise missed the boat. First, because it ignored some majorly glaring fashion faux pas that are rampant in the hunter ring, and second, because the article seemed to focus too much on the expensive parts of the hunter look, rather than what is necessary and appropriate. So here we go... "What Not to Wear: Hunter Ring Edition," by Tucker the Wunderkind. In order of importance, here is what I think is absolutely necessary to look your best in the hunter ring -- and ways to make it happen even on a shoe-string budget.
1. A sparkling clean, neatly clipped horse. You're there to show the horse off... so why on earth would you let him walk in not looking his very best? There is nothing less attractive to me than a horse going into the ring with a brown tint to his gray dapples, or a layer of dust visible form 100 yards. It takes nothing more than a lot of elbow grease and a willingness to rise at o'dark hundred to get a horse's coat looking nice for the show ring. (Hint: daily currying, and a swig of corn oil in their dinner, goes a long way to making them shine.) I also think it is imperative that hunters have whiskers, ears, a bridle path, white socks, and coronet bands clipped. I don't care if Pookie doesn't like it. Find a way (I prefer bribery). White socks just won't get white if the hair is too long, and if you think no one notices that her muzzle isn't shaved... well, I do.
2. Shiny tall boots. Note, I did not say expensive, custom, or embelished with alligator skin and tiny little rhinestones. No one can tell what brand you are wearing when they are on your feet. So long as they fit well, and you take really good care of them, they will do just fine. The boots I show in are the same ones I bought myself when I was 13, with my babysitting money. It pains me to add up exactly how old they are, but apart from having them resoled because the tread was getting slick, they are still in great shape and give us that polished ready-for-success look -- for the hefty investment of under $5 per year.
3. Clean, well-oiled tack. You'd think this would be a no-brainer. But you'd also be amazed to see how many people cut corners in this department. Tack should be a rich brown color, which means it needs to be cleaned regularly and oiled properly (once again, there are lots of inexpensive, good quality bridles out there. If you take good care of it, no one will know it didn't cost you half a paycheck). Clean tack includes a clean bit, a clean saddle pad, and a clean saddle. Giving the reins and the nose band a once-over doesn't cut it, in my book.
4. Good braids. I've heard the debate about doing away with braiding altogether because it's "so expensive." Guess how much I spend on braiding every year? About $10 in yarn, sharp scissors, a pull-through and a seam ripper. Braiding stinks, it hurts my back and makes my fingers cramp, but you have to admit, there is nothing more elegant than a well-braided horse. Braids should be tiny, lay flat against the neck, not twist, and be relatively uniform. If you're not braiding, make sure the mane is neatly pulled, laying flat (I spray with Quic Braid for this), and the tail is brushed out thoroughly. Tucker uses a fake tail, because he's not naturally blessed in that department, though I disagree with the suggestion in the COTH article that a fake is de rigeur.
5. Well-fitting breeches. I don't know what "the right breeches" are, Mr. Dignelli, but I do know what wrong breeches look like. Bad breeches are either skin tight (visible panty lines, is that really what you want people to notice over that two-stride?) or too baggy (sure, I almost pee a little if the jumps get big, but do I really want people thinking I'm wearing an adult diaper?). Try on lots of different brands at different price points, figure out which ones flatter you the most, and if they are going to break the bank, search for an online sale, stalk the consignment racks at your local tack store, or comb e-bay and the COTH classifieds until you find a pair in your size (you will eventually, I promise). I personally love the way the RJ Classics Ocala sidezip breeches fit me, but they are pretty pricey (IMO), so I only have two pairs (that only come out for clinics and shows) and I waited for a sale to buy them. I also seriously dislike super low rise breeches -- particularly with shadbellies. It's a no-no in my book.
6. A classic coat and showshirt. If you really want to get the look just right, you can never go wrong with a navy jacket and white show shirt. Here's another insider's tip for you: show coats go on sale all the time! Don't ever buy one at full price! I have purchased all my show coats (and I have a pretty decent selection at this point) either on consignment (one of my favorites, a classic hunter green one, was $25), or on at least 50% sale. My navy coat was free... someone at one of my former barns gave it to me because it didn't fit her anymore. All I had to do was hem the sleeves. Moral of the story? If you find a really good deal on a coat that fits okay, it's worth taking to a tailor to get it just right. Just make sure you show them that you need full range of motion in your arms. And of course, you can always try your luck at winning a gorgeous new hunt coat from Get My Fix, who is currently offering a gorgeous custom Hayward coat (and frequently offers lots of good giveaways). I'd absolutely love a wool one in navy, though I'd opt to skip the piping on the collar.
7. Black gloves. Non-negotiable in my opinion. You have to wear gloves in the hunters, and they should be dark, otherwise attention is drawn away from the horse and to your hands. Personally, this is one area where I think form meets function, because the right gloves, ones with a tackified grip, will help you keep a good feel on the reins. These Roeckl gloves are my favorite for summer, and these SSG gloves are my favorite for winter.
8. Hunter hair. I know, hair nets are stupid and you hate putting your hair up. But snoods are out of fashion in the hunter ring, and ponytails are out of the question if you're over age 8 (and even then, there should be two braids. With appropriately sized bows, people). I personally love the One Knot Hairnets, because they avoid the painful bump in the middle of your forehead from that second knot. If you need help, go here and type "hunter hair" into the search box. You'll find several threads where people will go on endlessly about how they do it. Just make sure the sides and the back are neat and tidy and your hairnet isn't showing below the brim of your hat and across your face. And while we're on the subject of your face, it doesn't hurt to run a baby wipe over it to remove the really obvious grime, but a full face of makeup while on a horse just seems wrong to me.
9. A conservative belt. Keep the bling for your Sunday hacks, a night out line-dancing, and maybe the jumper ring. Your belt should never, ever, be something someone notices in the hunter ring. I have a nice brown one with a brass buckle that I like, but black works too. Just keep the buckle small and be sure the width of the belt matches your belt loops.
10. The finishing touches. These are the last minute things you do (when time allows) at the in-gate to give you and your horse the extra little wow factor. Here is what I recommend. Wipe the horse over with a towel spritzed with rubbing alcohol, which will lift any dust that's landed on him during schooling. Wipe the eyes, nose, and mouth with a wet towel. It will darken these areas, which makes their faces shine, and remove gook. I also only feed him Canada Mints as treats on show days, so we never have green/brown/orange/pink lipstick. I don't use hoof oil (personal preference), but I do use a hoof brush to make sure his hooves don't have any caked dirt on them. Brush the ends of the tail so it flows nicely. Baby powder the white socks. Lint roll your show coat (if necessary). Wipe off your boots, or if possible, hop on the horse and then have a friend wipe them off. Now just breathe.
And there you have it... my suggestions for looking your very best in the hunter ring. It won't stop you from missing on that long approach diagonal oxer, but at least you'll do it in style.