Apparel Riding

How to Dress for Your 1st Dressage Schooling Show

Dressage Test
Written by Aimee B.

Letter perfect dressage outfits

Are you thinking about taking your dressage game off the farm and heading to a show? Showing is the next logical step if you’ve been riding for a while. It offers a method to measure your progress and celebrate how far you and your horse have come. Although dressage competition might seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be! All it takes is a little preparation.

This post breaks down essential information for dressage show newbies. We will cover the difference between recognized and schooling shows, rules regarding attire and tack, and how to confidently make your debut with a polished show ring look.

Dressage Basics

Dressage is a French word that means “training.” The origins of the sport can be traced back centuries and have roots in the military. Although it may be tough to imagine a link between early warfare and the beauty of a modern musical freestyle performance, soldiers needed athletic, obedient, and versatile horses.

It’s impossible to discuss dressage without acknowledging its military roots. In the early days of equestrian competition at the Olympic level, only military men were allowed to participate. Luckily, today’s competitors can find a wide range of shows open to all levels.

If you’re completely new to dressage, the best place to start is with a schooling show.

These shows are designed to acclimate horses and riders to the art of competition. Rules are a bit more lax, and you’re more likely to see other competitors at around your same level. Dare I say that schooling shows can even be fun?

Once you’ve gotten some experience, you may want to consider participating in an official United States Dressage Federation (USDF) competition. Competing at a recognized show means you’re likely to see a broader range of competitor skill levels.

Although it can feel intimidating, upping the competition means your skills will improve. You’ll also be eligible for special awards through the USDF.

With competition basics covered, let’s discuss your attire!

Rider Attire

If in doubt about whether your attire meets standards, consult the booklet outlining all rules pertaining to you and your horse’s appearance put together by the United States Equestrian Foundation (USEF). The booklet is both detailed and user-friendly. It’s a handy reference tool for beginning and seasoned competitors alike.

Dressage show arena attire includes several staples. Safety is always first and foremost, so you need to have a helmet that meets ASTM/SEI standards.

USEF rules state you must wear your helmet whenever riding on show grounds.

Boots with a heel are another safety necessity. Depending upon what level you’re riding, you may be able to wear paddock boots with half-chaps.

Note: there are two different kinds of tall boots, field and dressage. You guessed it, you’ll want the dressage boots for showing!

Both schooling and recognized shows require you to wear a short riding coat with tie, stock tie, choker, or stand-up collar, and either white or light-colored jodhpurs or breeches. Jackets may be waived in extreme heat or humidity. In that case, you must wear a long-sleeved shirt with a collar.

Active or retired military or police force members are allowed to compete in their uniforms.

Horse Tack

While getting yourself all dressed up may seem complicated, dressing your horse certainly isn’t. Less is more when it comes to your horse’s tack.

Simply outfit your horse in a leather bridle with an approved bit, saddle, and saddle pad. Black leather is more traditional for the dressage ring.

Horse tack is minimal, but several pages in the USEF Dressage Attire and Equipment Rule Book are devoted to approved bridles and bits. Avoid disqualification by ensuring your tack is approved before you get to the show.

Summary: Dressage Attire by Activity

Activity Rider Horse Misc.
Dressage Lesson
  • Helmet
  • Collared shirt
  • Breeches or jodhpurs
  • Jodhpur/paddock boots with half-chaps or tall boots
  • Gloves
  • Spurs
  • Bridle
  • Saddle
  • Saddle pad
  • Leg wraps (optional)
  • Braided mane (optional)
  • If you will be showing with a whip, you should also practice carrying one in lessons
  • The color of your tack and attire does not matter
Dressage Schooling Show
  • Helmet
  • Collared shirt
  • Conservatively colored breeches
  • Belt
  • Boots
  • Gloves
  • Ponytail or braid with hairnet
  • Leather bridle
  • Saddle
  • Saddle pad
  • Braided mane (optional)
  • Whips are allowed at certain levels, but not in championship classes so consult the rule book
  • Spurs are optional except in upper levels
  • Color of your attire and tack becomes more important than during lessons, but less strict than at recognized shows
USDF-Recognized Show
  • Helmet
  • Short riding coat of conservative color and with stock tie, stand-up collar, tie, or choker
  • Collared shirt
  • White or light-colored breeches/jodhpurs
  • Belt
  • Boots
  • Gloves
  • Ponytail or braid with hairnet
  • Leather bridle with approved bit
  • Saddle
  • Saddle pad
  • Braided mane
  • Jodhpurs/paddock boots with half-chaps are allowed for riders through First Level
  • Follow guidelines in HSV color scale to ensure approved jacket color
  • Tasteful and discrete accents on coats are permissible
  • Spurs are optional except in upper levels

Dressage Lesson

Depending upon the trainer, lesson attire can be laid back or on-par with schooling show requirements..

Rider Attire

Although your clothing can be more casual, safety never takes a day off. Many trainers mandate helmets whenever you’re riding. You should always ride in boots with a heel. Aside from the basics of safety, anything goes. Consider the weather and riding conditions when planning your lesson attire.

Here are a few popular helmet and paddock boot options:

Dressage Lesson

Photo Cred: Canva

Horse Tack

It’s good to practice in the same tack you will be showing with. Doing so ensures your horse and tack get along without the added stress of the hustle and bustle of a show environment.

So You’re Going to a Schooling Show…

Congratulations on taking the first step in your show career! Schooling shows are a perfect place to start.

Most schooling shows are sponsored by dressage barns or clubs. Although they are not formally sanctioned, they follow the rules set forth by the USEF. Many shows do not conform to the formal dress guidelines of sanctioned shows. Still, you should verify this when you complete your entry.

Dressage riders

Photo credit: Canva

What should you wear to a dressage schooling show?

Preparing to show is messy. A stray nuzzle from your horse can stain your perfectly pressed, ivory shirt in an instant. Being a little too careless with the hoof polish can leave your snow-white breeches forever soiled.

Horses and light-colored clothing do not go well together. But, alas, rules are rules. And unfortunately, several pieces of your show attire must be white or a light color.

You will want an extra set of clothing to avoid completely soiling your outfit before you reach the show arena.

Dressage schooling attire

Photo Cred: Canva

Think about what the clothing change situation at the show grounds will be like and plan accordingly. Depending upon the weather, you could consider putting a pair of sweatpants on over your show breeches to protect them.

An old sweatshirt or jacket can fit nicely over your neatly pressed collared shirt.

Most shows are a social affair, especially if you are showing with fellow barn pals. You can take turns helping each other out with messy jobs and still look fabulous in the show ring!

What are the rules around what to wear to a dressage schooling show?

In terms of your schooling show ring attire, you have the option of dressing up or down. You can compete in a collared shirt, conservatively-colored breeches, boots, and a helmet unless otherwise specified.

Complete your ensemble with a belt and gloves.

You also have the option of following the USEF guidelines, which equals a coat for you and braided mane for your horse. The USEF Dressage Attire and Equipment Rule Book frequently mentions “conservative” when selecting colors for your attire and tack.

Fortunately, there is a set of companion guidelines outlining exactly what “conservative” means. Avoid disqualification by consulting these guidelines, known as the “HSV color scale guidelines.”

USDF-Recognized Show

Stepping into the world of recognized dressage showing is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. But you can take the edge off by thoroughly researching and planning your show attire.

Attending several schooling shows also gives you a better idea of what to expect from more formal shows before leveling up.

Rider Attire

The color of your attire becomes more important at this level than at the schooling level. Think “traditional” and “conservative” when choosing your color schemes.

When in doubt, consult the HSV color scale guidelines for information on whether your attire is acceptable.

It can be challenging to determine whether a coat is made for dressage or other English disciplines when shopping. One way you can tell immediately is the number of buttons. Dressage coats typically have four (4) buttons in the front, while others have only three (3). Traditional dressage coats are also generally either black or midnight blue.

dressage coats

Click to see dressage show coats at Amazon

The following are great schooling show coat options:

Although your coat and stock tie will cover your shirt, show officials can waive the coat requirement in extreme heat or humidity.

You should, therefore, come prepared with a white or light-colored long-sleeved shirt.

Gloves are helpful whether you’re in a lesson or the show ring. Choose either white or cream for recognized shows, depending upon your overall color scheme. Consider black gloves for lessons and everyday wear.

Horse Tack

Your horse should be clean and well-groomed. It’s customary to braid your horse’s mane at recognized dressage shows. There are several options for braiding, depending upon the breed of your horse.

Breeds with long manes, such as the Friesian, can sport French braids, while other breeds can opt for either hunter or button braids.

Bridle paths are commonly trimmed, as is the hair on the fetlocks, unless your horse is a draft breed. Do NOT clip whiskers!

You should clean your tack to finish your neat and polished look.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can you wear a gray jacket in dressage?

As long as the shade of gray conforms to the HSV color scale guidelines, yes. Traditional dressage coat colors are black and midnight blue, although there is an entire range of acceptable colors.

Q: Can you use a figure 8 bridle in dressage?

Not if you’re competing in the USEF 4-year-old or FEI dressage tests for horses ages 4-7.

Q: Are you allowed to use spurs in dressage?

Spurs are allowed in dressage. At FEI levels, they are mandatory.

Q: Can your horse wear a fly hood in dressage?

Fly hoods are permitted in competition as long as they don’t cover your horse’s eyes. They also can’t attach to the noseband.

Q: What do you wear for an intro dressage test?

Lower level dressage tests can be performed with jodhpurs or breeches and jodhpurs or paddock boots with half-chaps. Tests beyond First Level require tall boots rather than half-chaps.

Q: Is there a new USDF dress code?

The rule book was updated in late 2021 to reflect changes for 2022.

Q: Are there alternatives to traditional leather?

There are plant and plastic-based alternatives to traditional leather. Several companies offer synthetic or “vegan” leather tack, including Wintec. Care for vegan leather differs slightly from conventional leather. Still, it is a viable option for people wishing to avoid animal-based products.

Parting Thoughts

Dressage is a fascinating sport steeped in tradition. The rules surrounding attire and equipment were created to maintain the sport’s tradition in simplicity and partnership between horse and rider. Rules are designed to shift the focus from either the horse or the rider and to the combination.

Whether you’re just starting out at a local schooling show or have been showing in recognized shows for years, attention to detail matters in the dressage ring. Know the rules, do your best, and have fun!

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Bryant, J. O. (2006). The USDF guide to dressage. Storey Publishing.

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About the author


Aimee B.

Aimee grew up riding and showing in western pleasure and horsemanship through 4-H. She began riding dressage 7 years ago and is currently training her 3.5-year-old Friesian/Quarter Horse.