November 01, 2021 11 min read
Your first horse show is an exciting time filled with anticipation, stress, and excitement. Showing up to the competition with the wrong horse tack can not only throw a wrench in your planning, but can completely derail your show day. Knowing which equipment to buy at the horse tack store for your next competition is crucial. Using the wrong bit, boots, or saddle can get you eliminated. We dove into the USEF Rulebook to pull out the horse tack dos and don'ts you need to know to have the best show day possible.
The sport of Western dressage combines the elements of a traditional dressage test with the skills expected of a good Western horse. Similar to traditional dressage, there are plenty of rules and regulations regarding what horse tack is allowed and what is prohibited.
Bridles that fall into one of four main categories are allowed. This includes a Western cavesson, a Hackamore or Bosal, a Western Two Rein bridle, or a bitless bridle. Mechanical hackamores are prohibited, but bosals that are rounded in shape and constructed of a braided rawhide or leather are allowed. Bitless bridles must be constructed of a flat leather or leather-like material and be of Western style. They cannot use any sort of sidepull. Any noseband that uses a flash, figure eight or dropped noseband is not allowed.
Unlike traditional dressage, the rulebook makes it clear that “there is no discrimination against any standard Western bit.” However, there are some regulations on what types of bits can be used at what level. And, of course, any bit that may cause harm to the horse is absolutely not allowed. For example, a snaffle bit can be used at any level of competition and on a horse of any age. Mouthpieces that are solid or barrel-shaped are allowed, but any flat, sharp, slow twist, twisted, or pointed edges on the bit are explicitly prohibited. While curb chains or straps are required to be used with a curb bit, they must lie flat against the horse and be of a suitable material.
Don’t make the mistake of signing up for a Western dressage class with an English-style dressage saddle. English, Australian, Baroque, McClellan, and Spanish saddles are explicitly not allowed in these competitions. Instead, a standard American Western stock saddle or a working Western side saddle are required instead. None of the saddles can have thigh or knee rolls, but you can use a breastplate, crupper, or breeching with your saddle. As long as you’re shopping in the Western saddle section of your online horse tack store, you should be good to go.
Were you hoping to use boots on your horse in your Western dressage class? Unfortunately, splint boots, hock boots, and any type of boot for leg protection is not allowed. Instead, you can use polo-style leg wraps in a color that closely matches the natural color of your horse or in white. Whatever you do, don’t use polo wraps in bright colors. While they aren’t strictly prohibited, the judge is allowed to knock you down in points.
Spurs and whips are an accepted part of your horse tack for a Western dressage test, however there are some limitations. Spursshould be of Western or English dressage style. They can have tines, but they must be blunted. Whips must be shorter than 47.2 inches including the lash.
When you’re shopping at a horse tack store for your Western dressage equipment, keep in mind that “less is best.” You want your tack to be neutral colors and not take away from your horse’s performance.
There are so many different Western riding divisions that it could take all day to go into detail about the specific horse tack needed for each one. The USEF rulebook has a section on required horse tack for Western general competitions. Instead of breaking down the intricacies of the requirements for Working Cow Horse versus Reining versus Barrel Racing, let’s dive into Western general instead so you can be prepared for almost any Western competition.
In the world of Western riding, particularly Western show classes, bling is king. Some Western saddles are covered from horn to skirt with beautiful Western-inspired silver. Unfortunately these saddles can be extremely expensive. Don’t let the price of a glitzy saddle hold you back. According to the rules, stock saddles and side saddles are allowed and it explicitly states “silver equipment shall not count over a good working outfit.”
Unlike the rules and regulations on horse tack for Western dressage, USEF doesn’t say much about bridle regulations for Western general. It does say that hackamores are permitted in any class, as long as the horse is under five years old.
While USEF doesn’t say much about the bridle, they do go into detail on the bits that are allowed. Standard Western bits are expected and defined as having a maximum length shank of 8 and a half inches. The mouthpiece of a standard western bit is a metal bar between 5/16 inches and ¾ inches in diameter. The bars must be smooth or latex wrapped with no protrusions above or below the mouthpiece. Standard snaffle bits are also allowed but have to be used on a horse that is less than five years of age. The mouthpiece of a snaffle should be center jointed, single rounded and smooth.
Not even polo-style leg wraps are permitted this time. All bandages and boots for leg protection are prohibited except in Working Cow Horse Classes. In these particular classes, shin, bell boots, and/or protective bandages are allowed on the front legs and standard sliding or rundown boots are okay on the rear fetlocks.
The traditional dressage ring has some of the most strictly-regulated requirements for horse tack out of all competition arenas. From the bit to the saddle pad, every detail is governed closely straight down to the color of the leather.
The type of bridle allowed varies with the level of competition. For tests ridden below Second Level, FEI tests for children, and FEI pony tests a plain snaffle bridle must be worn, not only in the competition arena but in the warm up as well. Above Third Level, a double bridle is permitted to be worn instead of a snaffle. But if you’re riding in a Junior or Young Rider class held at Premier Leagues or High Profile Shows, including the Under 25 Championships and at FEI International shows, you better buy a double bridle at your horse tack store. At this level of riding, double bridles are required.
Bridles used in dressage competition must be made of leather or a leather-like material, although a small disk of sheepskin is allowed where two leather straps cross as in a figure-eight bridle. If nylon or a similar material is used to reinforce the headstall, it cannot come in direct contact with the horse. Of course, bit snaps, buckles, or hooks/studs to attach the bit to the bridle are allowed. Bridles must be in brown or black and use a browband, noseband, and bit. No Western-style bridles are allowed here! Unlike in Western dressage, bitless bridles are also not allowed.
There are many rules and regulations on bits as well as the rest of dressage horse tack. Bit guards and mouthpieces with a diameter less than 10mm are not allowed. Acceptable manufacturing materials for bits include rubber, nylon or other synthetic materials, but there can be no aftermarket additions. Common legal bit styles include loose ring, eggbut, D-ring, upper cheek, full cheek, hanging cheek, and Fulmer cheek bits. The mouthpiece for a bit on a snaffle bridle can be single joint, double joint, barrel joint, ball joint, double ball joint, central piece with a roller or even an unjointed mouthpiece.
Look at the mouthpiece of your bit carefully before you buy one at an online horse tack store. The bit must be smooth with no twisting, bumps, or uncovered wire or cable. Any joint that could trap or pinch any part of the horse’s mouth is strictly prohibited.
Don’t ride into a dressage arena in a non-English style saddle as Australian, Baroque, Endurance, McClellan, Spanish, Stock, or Western saddles are all prohibited. However, at most levels you can choose between using a dressage-specific saddle or a jumping-style saddle. The rules on horse tack state that “an English type saddle, with or without a tree, with flaps and stirrups is compulsory for all tests and classes other than FEI tests.”
Keep in mind that a jumping saddle will not allow the rider to assume the best position possible for performance and equitation marks in a dressage test. While any English saddle is allowed at lower levels and at schooling shows, including treeless saddles and sidesaddles, most riders choose to ride in a dressage-specific saddle for optimum results on their own and their horse’s performance.
More rules and regulations come into play when you start riding in FEI tests. For these competitions, a dressage-specific saddle must be used with long, near-vertical flaps and stirrups. This does not apply to FEI para dressage tests.
Unlike most other competition disciplines, USEF also regulates the saddle pads used in a dressage test. Pads must be conservative in color. Usually you will see riders use a white or black saddle pad, but occasionally you will also see cream or navy. Contrast color and piping are permitted, but you can forget about using a striped or multi-colored pad.
In terms of horse tack accessories, fly veils that match the horse’s natural color are allowed, even the noise-reducing versions. But ear plugs and ear muffs are not allowed and could cause you to be eliminated. The same goes for boots! If you ride into x with your horse wearing any form or boots or bandage, you will be automatically eliminated. If you feel that you’ll remember to take them off, you can warm up with your horse in boots or bandages as they don’t contain any magnets. Whips are allowed as long as they don’t go over 120cm including the lash.
In general, when shopping for horse tack for a dressage test, try to be as neutral and conservative as possible. The goal of dressage is to show off your horse’s natural beauty and grace. Bright flashy colors and bulky boots can hide the horse’s movements from the judge.
The hunter/jumper ring may have fewer explicit rules and regulations than dressage competition, but there is significantly more pressure to conform to a certain look. For example, most competitors use a brown close contact saddle. While black saddles are legal, you’ll likely stand out in a bad way. And while there aren’t any official rules on saddle bling, it could make you stand out like a sore thumb. Keep in mind that it is up to the judges discretion to give marks for the you and your horse’s turnout. They will take away points if they feel you are not presenting the expected image.
Most riders use sheepskin or fleece pads that conform to the shape of the saddle, with as little sticking out behind the saddle as possible. Again, there are no regulations explicitly stating a rider must use a shaped pad. But if you cannot find a sheepskin pad cut in the shape of your saddle, use the most conservative pad possible.
Boots of any kind-- bell boots, tendon boots, dressage boots, brushing boots, etc.-- are explicitly not allowed. If you enter the ring with your horse wearing boots or bandages, the chances are good that you will be eliminated before you’ve even started riding. At some shows, you won’t be eliminated, but there’s no way you’ll find yourself in the ribbons.
When it comes to your horse’s bridle, you’ll find most competitors ride in a plain snaffle bridle. Some of these have decorative stitching, but this is generally quite understated and almost invisible from far away. Some nosebands are prohibited including dropped, flash, and figure eight.
If you’re heading to the horse tack store for a bit for your next hunter/jumper show, stick to a simple snaffle bit or pelham. Illegal bits for this show arena include three rings, gags, and kimberwicks. While you may not be eliminated for the use of these bits, you could be penalized in points.
The rules can become a little complicated when it comes to horse tack accessories. For example, martingales of any type are prohibited in the under saddle, hack, and tie-breaking classes. But you can use a standing or running martingale in all over fences or jumping classes. If you’re wondering if nasal strips, nose nets, belly bands, etc. are allowed- always play it safe and choose not to use them. The only exception to the prohibition of leg protection is in case of inclement weather. In truly muddy conditions, the show manager can choose to allow the use of bell boots. Somewhat surprisingly, whips are allowed but they must be shorter than 30 inches are only permitted while jumping.
The showjumping world has some of the least restrictive requirements when it comes to horse tack. These classes are based on the speed of the horse over fences and do not take into account the quality of the horse’s gait, appearance, or rider equitation. Because of this saddles of all kinds are allowed, although nearly all riders choose to use jumping saddles to facilitate better performance. Saddle pads of all kinds and colors are also allowed, as well as any type of bridle the horse and rider prefer.
There are still some restrictions when it comes to bits. Any curb used with any style of leverage bit must be formed of loose links or joints and lie flat against the jaw of the horse. It must be free of twists, sharp objects, or anything designed to harm the horse. Wrapping the curb or using a cover is allowed for the comfort of the horse, but it cannot be used with any type of wire, metal, rawhide, or other substance. If you’re unsure if a bit is allowed, you can always find out at your horse tack store either by going in person, or using the 24/7 chat button in the bottom left corner.
There are also some restrictions when it comes to martingales and draw reins. For classes where the fences are higher than 1.30 meters, only running martingales used in the conventional manner are permitted. On the other hand, draw reins and German martingales are allowed when schooling or in classes that do not offer prize money and fences are below 1.20 meters.
Unlike any other division, show jumpers must be careful of the total weight of the equipment applied to their horse’s legs. Whether they’re using boots, bandages, or even bell boots, this equipment cannot be over 500 grams of weight per leg. Besides the maximum weight requirement, there are no other restrictions on the type of boot used.
While other competitive disciplines have horse tack requirements based on appearance or movement quality, the cross country field places an emphasis on safety when it comes to equipment, not looks. One of the most emphasized rules for cross country is that all tack must allow for an immediate and unrestricted separation of the rider from the horse in the event of a fall. For example, stirrup irons and leathers must hang outside the flap and be free from the bar of the saddle. Reins must be free of any loops or hand attachments and connect directly to the bridle.
Despite these requirements, riders have a lot of freedom when choosing their equipment. An English type saddle and any bridle, including double bridles, snaffles, gags, or hackamores are allowed on the course. Running martingales, Irish martingales, bit guards, boots, bandages, fly shields, nose covers, and even seat covers are also allowed for the comfort of both the horse and rider. You will rarely see an event horse leave the start box without protective horse tack like boots and bell boots.
Side reins, running reins, and chambons are only allowed when the rider is lunging an unmounted horse. Other gadgets such as balancing reins, blinkers, and other forms of martingales are strictly forbidden and may result in the disqualification of the horse and rider. When looking at your online horse tack store, remember that less is best! The fewer “gadgets” you have to use, the better for you and your horse.
Spurs and whips are optional but do come with some restrictions. Spurs must be of smooth metal and have a shank less than 4cm that points only towards the rear and curves downward. Any spur that is capable of wounding a horse or drawing blood is absolutely forbidden. Whips may be no longer than 30 inches in length and cannot be weighted. Riders will be penalized for carrying an adjustable length whip while mounted.
From conservative black dressage saddles to western bridles to brightly colored saddle pads for show jumpers, Breeches.com prides itself on carrying all the equipment our riders need for competition. High-quality durable horse tack can make or break your time in the competitive arena. Shop brands that equestrians across the United States trust, like TuffRider, Equine Couture, and Henri De Rivel on Breeches.com.
For more horse show tips, check out this blog.
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