Dressage Rule Myths, Busted

Dressage Rule Myths, Busted

I spent the weekend at a dressage show with work and was struck by the number of competitors who were totally unfamiliar with USEF’s rules about attire and tack. (As someone who reads DR 120 and DR 121 several times as week, I’m more familiar with the rules than most, I suppose.) Dressage used to be a very conservative sport, but it’s loosened some rules in recent years and riders have more choices than ever. Here are five of the most common dressage rule myths I encounter- and what the real deal is!

1. Coats must be black or navy.

While it’s very common to see dark navy and black coats in the sandbox, competitors aren’t limited to those colors!

Through Fourth Level, riders must wear a “short riding coat of conservative color”. Above Fourth Level, riders must wear a “dark tailcoat or dark jacket”. The rules also state “at all test levels, riders may wear jackets in other colors within the international HSV color scale, as described in FEI Dressage Regulations, Art. 427.1. Contrast coloring and piping is allowed.”

Model wearing a green short dressage coat
Flying Changes Charlotte Short Coat in dark green with mint trim.

The FEI rule states that “a black or dark blue tail coat or jacket, or other dark colours may be worn within in the international HSV colour scale. Colours having a value for ‘V’ smaller than thirty two percent (32%) according to the HSV model may be approved through application to the FEI.”

That’s a lot of available colors! See for yourself- head to Colorizer, put “32” in the box for “Value” and go wild.

Colorful coats used to be the province of those with the means for a custom coat; that’s not the case these days. Mainstream, widely available brands like Kerrits, RJ Classics, and Horseware make affordable coats in a variety of colors. Of course, custom coats are always available. Flying Changes offers ten different body colors and dozens of piping and trim options.

My picks:

1A. Dressage coats have four buttons.

This is an outdated notion and certainly not a rule. Riders should wear a coat that fits and flatters.

2. Shirts must be white/a solid color/buttoned all the way up if coats are waived.

There are a lot of ideas about what kind of shirts are and are not allowed at a dressage show. I don’t know why- the rule book barely mentions them! The only time the rule book addresses shirts is in DR 120.8, which discusses what to wear in the event that coats are waived. It states competitors should wear “a shirt with sleeves and collar, without neckwear”- that’s it. Shirts aren’t mentioned at all in the other 15 rules that cover how to dress.

B Vertigo Debra in white/lead blue
B Vertigo Debra in white/lead blue

This means riders can wear just about anything. Patterned shirts, color-blocked shirts, dark shirts, light shirts, sunshirts- wear something that’s comfortable and flattering. White is a pain to keep clean, a pain to get clean, and unflattering on basically everyone. Don’t look like the moon over Miami. Get a shirt in any color but white.

My picks:

2A. Ruffled shirts aren’t allowed when coats are waived.

Another common shirt myth is that shirts with ruffled or detailed fronts aren’t allowed when coats are waived. I think the reasoning behind this is because neckwear comes off when coats come off. The ruffles or details on the front of a shirt aren’t neckwear, so it’s fine to wear this kind of shirt with or without a coat.

3. Saddle pads must be white.

Saddle pads are actually optional, though I can’t recall ever seeing a horse at a show without one. As for color, DR 121.1 states they “should be white or of conservative color. Contrast coloring and piping are allowed. Striped or multi colored pads are not permitted.”

B Vertigo Aria dressage pad in navy/rose gold; photo of the gorgeous Pasha by his owner Camille F.

“Conservative color” is obviously a subjective standard, but black, navy, and gray are all safe choices. Black can look very sharp on a bay horse, while navy and gray look nice on gray horses. Put a cream-colored pad on a chestnut horse and thank me later.

My picks:

3A. Amateurs cannot wear saddle pads with logos.

While there always seems to be some amount of confusion about logos, the rules are pretty clear on the subject. Per DR 121.1, anyone can wear a pad with breed logo (if the horse is registered with that breed), national flag (if the rider is a citizen of that country), USEF or USDF logos, stable or barn names and logos, and competition award names and logos. Amateurs are allowed to have the name or logo of a business or product they own on their pads. There are size restrictions on the logo (200 sq cm).

4. Dress/dressage boots are required.

This is another topic that’s discussed among competitors much more often than it’s discussed in the USEF rules. Boots are mentioned briefly in DR 120.1 as an item competitors need to wear, but that’s about it. Smooth leather half chaps with paddock boots are allowed through First Level, but beyond that, boots may be field boots, hunter dress boots, or dressage boots. Color and accents aren’t addressed until Fourth Level and up. Then, boots can be black or can match the rider’s coat.

True dressage boots are very stiff. They’re made that way to help stabilize the rider’s leg. If you like soft boots, stick with field boots or hunter dress boots.

My picks:

5. [Insert Name] bridle is not allowed.

When anatomical bridles exploded onto the scene a couple of years ago, the internet was rife with speculation about what was and was not legal in dressage competition. The USEF rule book has clear rules and illustrations about what kind of equipment is permitted.

Most snaffle bridles are allowed- flash, figure 8, dropped, crank, and plain cavessons are all okay, as are Micklem bridles and similarly designed brands. Double bridles must have a plain or crank cavesson.

There are some rules about bridle construction; for example, nylon is allowed when it’s used to reinforce leather in the headstall, but it cannot come into direct contact with the horse. (This was an issue in the Schockemohle Equitus Alpha early in its production. It had nylon backing on part of the noseband. Once they were alerted to the problem, they sent retailers new nosebands to put on the bridles.) Elastic inserts are allowed on the crownpiece and cheekpieces, but not on the reins. And the crownpiece can extend forward onto the poll, but not backwards. (The Dy’on Difference bridle is the most egregious example of this sort of crownpiece.)

There are lots of rules about bridles, but they’re laid out clearly and USEF provides illustrations.

My picks:

I hope this guide was helpful, and I hope it motivates you to wear fun and fashionable attire! Of course, you should always check the rule book before you compete; these rules are current at the time of this post, and they’re applicable for USEF sanctioned dressage shows. If you’re in another country or competing in eventing, your rules are likely different!

Any other dressage myths floating around out there that need busting?

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