In My Boots: Mad hatters

Not all cowboy hats are created equal, explains Horse Nation’s official western columnist Kristen Kovatch. She walks us through a few basic considerations of style and care.

From Kristen:

Western riding was born out of necessity, a style developed from working cowboys who simply wanted to use their horses to get their job done. In theory, it’s simple, straightforward and user-friendly. So why does running a western horsemanship equestrian team feel on occasion like running a three-ring circus?

Truthfully, it’s not my team riders, nor my horses, nor organizing eight horse shows in a single academic year as well as juggling post-season finals all around the country. No, really, it’s just dealing with the darn hats that gets me tearing my hair out.

Not all cowboy hats, after all, are created equal.

  • Crown shape

There are dozens of ways to wear a cowboy hat. I would destroy the Horse Nation server if I were to include photos of every single kind. Crown folds vary by region of the country, era in history, or personal preference. (Check out this handy guide at! Entire essays could be written on crown styles—but I will say only that the style for western show-ring horsemanship is the cattleman’s crease…only. I have the disheartening task of telling my team members each year who blithely display for me their show hats that they’re going to need to invest in another one—the square top look simply isn’t trendy this year. Or any year.

  • Brim shape

Brim shape is a little harder to define. In the show pens, you might see up to four different styles, including the cattleman’s crease and the AQHA/Congress/show crease, among others. The terminology gets vague at this point—it’s possible to have a show crease (brim) on a cattleman’s crease (crown), but not the cattleman’s crease (brim). It’s also possible to be sporting a show crease and also have it called the Congress fold, or the AQHA crease, depending on who you’re talking to. Regardless, the AQHA style crease is about as sharp as they come—flat across the front, the sides creasing upwards as close to a right angle as possible, the back tapered slightly down. The effect is similar to wearing a taco shell (why, I have no idea.)

For shaping either the brim or the crown or both, it’s crucial to take your hat to a professional shaper. Yes, it’s possible to be a professional hat shaper, and seemingly-absurd amounts of money are spent to get just the right look in a hat. Of course, when one might be spending $800 on a hat, shaping it is simply part of the game.

I tell my riders that nothing tops off the perfect horsemanship look than a clean, crisply-shaped hat. Some might argue that ultimately it should be just the equitation that’s being judged, the rider’s ability as a horseman—and I completely agree. However, when it comes down to the wire, carefully dressing my team can help insure that my riders get noticed in the show ring—they’re less likely to be overlooked if they’re dressed like champions.

Of course, if we’re going to go to all the trouble to get those hats shaped and cleaned, then you also need a:

  • Hat can

Show hats should always be kept in a can—a giant irregularly-shaped plastic box with a handle on it. They are notorious for not stacking well, making a ton of startling noise when dropped, springing open at exactly the wrong moment and ejecting the hat within, taking up too much space in the overhead bins on airplanes, confusing innocent passers-by. (Last year’s trip to Ocala to show was punctuated by concern when the flight stewardesses threatened to move the team’s thirteen hat cans to check luggage, and by laughter when a confused traveler misheard “hat cans” for “cat cans” and believed we were transporting domestic animals.)

Saturday morning, I clattered through the doorway of our “local” tack shop about two hours north with my two traveling companions, each of us clutching four hat cans in our hands. We made a second trip to the truck for the other half. We shut the store down momentarily as patrons and staff alike gaped at our procession of brightly-colored hat cans and the store owner gave us the stinkeye for awhile for accidentally stacking the cans in front of her lap dog’s food dish. Sorry, buddy.

If you’re going to invest the money in a good hat and professional shaping, it only makes sense to protect the investment. I remind myself of this truth every time I haul two hours to pick up the shaped hats, argue with a student who doesn’t understand why their vaquero-style wire-brimmed $15 tourist monstrosity simply won’t work in the show ring, or try to explain what it is that we’re doing to yet another group of nosy travelers (“Oh, those are hats in there? Are you a line dancing team?” True story.) Come show day, it will all be worth it.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.

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