The Academic Equestrian: Dressing the Part

Sometimes show clothes can feel like a costume.

Photo by Anesko Quarter Horse Photography, used with permission.

I am most comfortable grubbing around the barn in well-worn jeans and a t-shirt I’ve probably had since the eighth grade, with dirt on my boots and under my fingernails. There’s usually more dust on my face than makeup, and (especially during shedding season), I end up with a healthy coat of horsehair myself before I leave the barn.

I grew up in the barn, heading there after school with jeans and boots shoved into my bookbag, spent long summer days cleaning stalls to work off riding lessons. I was a grubby barn child on those days, all matted ponytail and stained jeans, horse-slimed from shoulder to wrist, with boots full of sawdust and hair full of hay.

When horse show days came along, I’d get my pony ready, wash my hands and allow my mother to wrestle my knotted hair into a bun, and change into jeans and the collared shirt and vest my grandma had made me. If I walked into showmanship with hoof-blacked hands or a smear of whitening shampoo down my neck, no one really noticed. I ended the day caked in dust, fly spray, and endless coats of sunscreen — filthy, but grinning. I was expected to take care of my own horse throughout the day and put everything away after the show ended, so I had no option but to traipse around in increasingly-dirty show clothes to make sure she had enough water, her legs stayed white, she had enough fly spray, and so on.

I often find myself missing the carefree little girl at 4-H shows. Though I’ve grown into myself as a horsewoman and now compete in intercollegiate reining and horsemanship, some National Reining Horse Association and ranch horse shows, expectations for my appearance have changed.

The jeans are replaced with slimming (read: skintight, no stretch, probably sawing my internal organs in half when I try to bend over) horsemanship pants that fit like a noose around my stomach. My hair is gel-glued to my head, each strand cemented in place. The style of the old button-down shirt I probably bought at Walmart has been long abandoned, swapped for fitted, shoulder-padded zip-up shirts — or, in some cases (thankfully this is not my coaches’ taste) bling-encrusted shirts, the likes of which shed glitter everywhere or clank when you walk. I wear an uncomfortable arrangement of padded bras and sports bras to give the illusion of a bigger bust — this is required (for girls built like me) to have the proper “look” for horsemanship. My teammates help me apply makeup, a mask of eyeshadow and lipstick and other creams and powders that make me feel like I belong in Toddlers and Tiaras.

I have not transitioned well into this new set of requirements. Unused to wearing much makeup, I frequently smear it off on unseemly things like my own show clothes or horses’ noses. What started out as evenly-applied eye makeup quickly becomes raccoon eyes when I unwittingly rub at it. Traces of hoof-black or shampoo are no longer acceptable, and when I get sneezed/slimed/snotted on, I have to change shirts if the resulting stain is noticeable. Although this undoubtedly contributes to a classier look than what I grew up with, I miss the unglamorous, relaxed shows of my youth when my own appearance was the least of my worries.

I envy the riders to whom this routine comes naturally, who look like they belong in shiny show clothes, nails perfectly done, with impeccable makeup. I suspect that, on me, the effect is more clown-like. However my show career evolves, even as I become more accustomed and resigned to the styles of horsemanship, I will always feel slightly out of place. I’ll never be able to completely hide the side of me that is more comfortable waist-deep in the cow pasture pond, or riding up the road bareback in pajamas, or even sunburned with hay in my bra riding on the hay wagon, than I am on show day, poised, made-up, and strapped and belted into a set of fancy show clothes.

Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse. Catch up on past columns by clicking the #ACADEMIC EQUESTRIAN tag at the top of the page!

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.

Photo courtesy of Haley Ruffner.

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