In Defense of the Burgundy Coat: Let’s Honor Tradition Where it Matters

Photo by Holly Casner


This week, I noticed a familiar photo of myself posted on The Plaid Horse blog accompanying a post regarding the proposed rule change surrounding coat colors in the Hunter Ring. Debating coat colors is exactly the sort of online conversation that makes skeptics of the discipline roll their eyes, but at the heart of the rule change is intent to honor tradition. Tradition that, ironically, is what drew me to the realm of flower boxes and braids in the first place.

For those not in the know – buried in the list of proposed rule changes to be discussed at this year’s USEF Board of Directors Annual Meeting, is this subtle shift in wording for attire in the Hunter ring:

 Riders are required to wear conservatively colored black, blue, green, grey, or brown coats (black, blue, green, grey or brown) which are free from adornment which in the judge’s opinion is overly distracting.

Basically, instead of including a parenthetical list of suggested colors, the new rule creates an exclusive list of permitted colors.

The most common argument for this change is that current trending colors (ahem, burgundy) and styles (contrast collars, piping, etc) do not honor the tradition of the fox hunt from whence we came.  As someone who wears their AA Motionlite “Primatova” coat a lot, I am somewhat aghast at the proposed change. Growing up watching my grandmother flip through photos of her old fox hunters, I am all in favor of tradition.

Photo courtesy of Carie Antonelli

To be clear, I’m vehemently against the rule change.  So how do I balance my adoration of our heritage, while thinking this is a poorly crafted, damaging proposal?

Well, to put it most simply, using the argument of “tradition” to throttle attire options for Hunters seems both arbitrary and insufficient.  Much of what a show hunter does and looks like has little to do with the function or tradition of an actual fox hunter. 

True, most hunts require you to wear a plain hunt coat (usually black) until you earn your colors. Which even when they are awarded are almost always limited to your collar, so I concede there is some merit in the restriction of color on that basis.  However, a hunt’s limitation on color isn’t just arbitrary rankism devised to embarrass rookies.  Having members of different rank or position easily identifiable by attire is extremely functional.  Regulating attire makes senior members and those with actual jobs to do on the hunt easy to spot in a herd of galloping horses and hounds.

Interestingly, the modern show ring presents an almost directly opposing challenge, which is to find a way to stand out in the show ring.  I’ve been at AA shows with over thirty “Low Adult Amateurs” in an under saddle class and lord help the judge who has to make notes on each one as that carousel bobs it’s way around the ring.  While most days I’m just praying I don’t pick up the wrong lead or do something to embarrass my trainer, ideally I want my turnout to be distinct enough that the judge can easily find me (for better or worse) in a sea of other ambitious ammys.  Once upon a time I was lucky enough to sit on a regular hack winner, now I have to navigate the ring with the same skill as an Indy driver to make sure I get seen if I want a chance of getting myself in the ribbons.  

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Aside from the “colors should be earned” argument, the “tradition” defense falls short for me in other more significant ways.  Our modern Hunters are rarely tested in any manner that would identify a true fox hunter.  The predictable line-diagonal-line-single is hardly an accurate reflection of what would make a suitable hunter in open terrain. 

Stock ties (which are one traditional vestige that actually makes sense to me), are now more often affixed with Velcro than actually tied.  Saddles are adorned with plastic plates.  Velvet helmets (another personal choice in my tack trunk) are rarely seen, having been replaced by more trendy options which are more akin to storm trooper armor than traditional hunt attire.  Mud knots (which are actually quite practical) are so rare that when I do see one, I also see a trail of puzzled faces in its wake.  Yet somehow false tails, which have no practical or traditional value, are the norm. 

Photo by Holly Casner

If we want to hold fast to tradition, let’s do it.  But let’s not pretend that forbidding particular coat colors is a noble defense of our roots.  If we’re going to hold our Show Hunters up to any real scrutiny of tradition, let’s do it where it actually matters – in our judging, our course design, and maybe most importantly, our drug policies.

USEF provides a user friendly way to review and comment on proposed rule changes. Regardless of your opinion on this topic, I encourage you to make use of it and make your voice heard. Commenting on this part of the process not only shapes the Board of Directors decision – but helps clarify what topics membership wants to see changed or modified in the future. Make your voice heard!