BY JENNIFER FINCH
Why the recent USEF rule change allowing dressage riders to wear dark-colored breeches is an important step in making our sport more accessible.
Early in 2021, USEF announced that, starting on December 1st, 2021, dressage competitors at any level could use dark colored breeches or jodhpurs in competition. In addition, even though bright colors and patterns would remain prohibited, breeches with contrast piping would now be allowed.
For a sport that relies heavily on tradition, this update came as a surprise to many people. However, USEF has a history of updating attire rules to follow equine industry trends and utilize available technology. For example, in 2011 they approved new helmet rules that affected riders in both dressage and eventing. This rule change required all eventing riders and most dressage riders on competition grounds to wear an ASTM/SEI-approved helmet while mounted. This decision was encouraged, in large part, by the United States Eventing Association (USEA) and the Eventing Technical Committee, which cited a significant decrease in rider injuries as a primary reason to focus on safety initiatives.
While the recent rule change to allow dressage riders to compete in dark colored breeches doesn’t address safety, it does confront another rising concern in the horse world: accessibility. According to a census from the United States Department of Agriculture, there was a 12% decline in the number of horse farms and ranches between 2007 and 2012. The American Horse Council found that the population of horse owners is aging, too, with fewer and fewer young people buying horses every year. According to their report, in 2005 only 6% of the population of horse owners was above the age of 60. By 2017, that number had risen to 18%. In addition, the percentage of horse owners between the ages of 18-24 declined by more than 11% between 2005-2017. By many accounts, the horse world is shrinking.
Why Do Dark-Colored Breeches Matter?
The rule change proposal that includes the use of dark-colored breeches for dressage competitions states that this update, “modernizes many of the rules, giving riders more choices and flexibility, and making the dress code more welcoming to many riders, including those new to the sport.”
But this rule change also makes riding more accessible to entry-level riders who may want to compete at a low level without investing in new riding clothes. Christy Weflen, owner of St. Croix Saddlery, says that when helping new riders pick out their first pair of breeches, it’s often easier to recommend dark-colored breeches over white ones. “For white breeches, we had to do a hand test to make sure they weren’t see-through, people sometimes wore Spanx under their beeches, and getting stains out was almost impossible, even with stain-treated fabrics,” Weflen says. She also points out that because white breeches stain easily, they don’t usually hold a high resale value, which is something new riders to the sport consider when buying their equipment in case they decide to sell it later.
This rule change for dressage riders could have a big impact on current equestrians, too. Many are looking forward to further customizing their competition outfits.
“We asked our customers for feedback about what to do next year and I’ve already placed new orders for next spring. We found ourselves ordering things we wouldn’t normally order as much of, such as more shades of green, more shades of tan and more shades of gray. We also looked for more full seat breeches than we usually do,” Says Weflen. “People who still want to wear white can wear white. It’s just opening people up for more options,” she explains.
Increased Safety In The Hunter/Jumper Ring
In addition to accessibility, safety remains a prevalent consideration in riding attire.
For decades, protective vests have been used by eventers during the cross-country phase of competition. Today however, it’s not unusual to see them in use in the hunter and jumper rings at high-level competitions. These vests come in a wide variety of price ranges, styles and colors. Some provide protection through foam plating, while others act like airbags – encasing the wearer in a CO2-filled fabric cushion during a fall.
When asked about the rising prevalence of airbags in the hunter/jumper ring, Weflen says that she’s seen a surge in the purchase of safety vests from her store. “I’ve had more hunter-jumper riders purchase vests this year than ever before. I see both trainers and students using them.”
One trainer who regularly competes and schools in a safety vest is Heather Parish. She says that when she first saw safety vests being used, she thought she would never wear one. Now, she compares it to wearing a seatbelt; she won’t ride without one.
“I got one over the winter but I didn’t wear it immediately. One day, I just decided to put it on. That day I did come off and I landed on my back. It was a fluke accident but I bounced right back up and I thought, ‘there’s no way I could have gotten right back up if I hadn’t been wearing it,’” Says Parish.
“I ride a lot of horses and it’s gotten to the point now where it’s like a seatbelt for me. I truly feel like the few times I got on without it, I didn’t ride as well because I was uncomfortable,” she says.
How The Future Looks
Some critics of safety vests argue that they make jumping less accessible because of the cost. For example, after the cartridge of an air safety vest is released, a new cartridge must be purchased. Replacement cartridges can cost anywhere from $40 to over $100.
But the cost of safety is worth the price for many. In some cases, ASTM-certified vests cost less than ASTM/SEI-approved helmets.
As trends and technology in the equestrian world change, so too do the rules that govern equestrian sports. And with the declining population of equestrians throughout the country, these rule changes may be part of the key to granting new riders access and keeping the horse world alive.
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