Breaking Traditions to Be a Better Rider

BY IRENE ELISE POWLICK

There is no question that equestrian sport is deeply rooted in tradition.

In the hunter/jumper world, everything seems rooted in tradition. Why do we mount only on the left side? It was necessary for a soldier to mount with a sword. Why are our hunters braided? It’s traditional to have them braided on the hunt field. And yet, so many things that don’t have a specific traditional root are still simply “the thing to do.” Why do you use an ear bonnet on your jumper? Well, because that’s just what you do. But, what about when these traditional ideals impact a performance negatively?

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the hunters; I am the first to speak up if something doesn’t belong in the traditional hunter and equitation rings. I turn my nose up to colored piping on show coats in the equitation and trim on saddles in the hunters. But, sometimes breaking the tradition is necessary for the safety, comfort, and well being of competitors.

Winning at WEF was a highlight of my riding career… and I won there wearing what makes me perform my best! Photo © Piper Klemm.

Since the age of eight, I have struggled with my eyes because of an auto-immune reaction that affected my mucus membranes. As a result, I have heightened sensitivity to light, forcing me to wear sunglasses anytime the sun is shining. However, as an equitation rider, I struggled to get people to understand that I need my glasses to see, and that it’s not really a choice for me to wear them. This year at the Winter Equestrian Festival, I was getting ready to go into an equitation flat class when the stable manager of the horse I was riding asked if I should take my glasses off for the class. It wasn’t meant to be mean, but it’s an uninformed question that I get often. I replied, “No, I can’t see without them,” and he asked no more questions. Before that same class, I also noticed a big-name equitation trainer giving me looks and clearly judging me for wearing sunglasses- something most juniors simply don’t do. I even heard them say that I couldn’t possibly be successful in the equitation wearing them. I’ve gotten that comment often enough that it didn’t upset me, I just rolled my eyes. And, luckily, my eyes were hidden behind my shades.

Riding in the products that make me ride my best. Photo © Stella Grippe.

It turns out I can be successful wearing my glasses! I won the 15-17 Equitation Flat class at one of the most prestigious shows in the country, right in front of this top equitation trainer who had her own riders up against me.

My glasses are just one way that I push the boundaries for my safety. For more than a year, I have been using FreeJump Soft’Up Pro Stirrups, a high-tech safety stirrup that features a flexible outer branch that frees the foot, should it get stuck in a fall or drag-like situation. While I hope to never need it, having a stirrup that is safer than a traditional version seems like a no-brainer. And, can the judge actually tell that it’s different from a standard stirrup? And if they can, do they care? From my experiences, they don’t care, and I have had just as much success with the FreeJump stirrups than without.

Louise Serio competing in the elite hunter classes in her FreeJump stirrups. Photo © Vyla Carter.

My stirrup choice is for safety and my glasses are necessary for me to ride. But how many options that help to keep riders healthy are considered taboo? After I hurt my knee in a fall, I never thought about riding with my knee brace because you just can’t do that in the equitation. It took a severe fall for prominent hunter rider Sandy Ferrell to wear a protective vest in the show arena. At first, many people disparaged her choice, but then she was Champion at The Devon Horse Show. All of a sudden, people are more conciliatory about wearing a vest in the ring. Some people have severe sensitivity to heat, and want the lightest, most breathable jacket possible. Oh, but the Alessandro Albanese Motionlite Jacket isn’t appropriate for the hunter ring? Well, top hunter riders such as John French have been known to wear it and win in it at HITS Coachella, a show that can get extremely hot, and is also one of the biggest shows in the country.

Sara Someck riding in the hunters in the Alessandro Albanese MotionLite mech show jacket. Photo © Laila Klinsmann.

Down to the smallest details, traditions can be broken tastefully to make for a safer, more productive ride. I have recently started riding in Spur Tech Spur Straps that provide greater stability by using strong Velcro, creating a more precise fit as compared to traditional leather straps. Just a week after installing them, I had someone question whether they were “appropriate” for the equitation ring. Whether they’re appropriate or not, they give me the best ride possible, and I’m not going to turn my back on that for a weakly perceived tradition.

Spur Tech spur straps and FreeJump stirrups being used in the equitation ring. Photo © Sophia Ciardullo.

So, I propose this: Horse shows are not beauty pageants. At least not for the riders.

Ultimately, horse shows are for showing off your skill in the saddle, whether in the hunter, jumper, or equitation ring. Use of safer, healthier products should not be punished. Within reason, I ask for everyone to be more open and less skeptical of the products that help us ride better. Just because I have vision challenges or have had an injury doesn’t mean that I can’t compete. I have proved this and now you can