Last summer, trying to beat traffic on the way to the barn and unable to find a pair of clean breeches, I threw on a pair of cheap yoga leggings and bolted to my car. The long drive was far more comfortable without a buttoned waistband and belt digging into me, and the leggings were cooler in the late-August humidity than even my lightest breeches. I’d thought I might feel a bit slippery in the saddle, but didn’t notice any difference while riding.
Pleased with my discovery, I kept wearing the leggings to hack, but found myself slinking around the barn, vaguely embarrassed and convinced someone would catch on. I could hear the voice of my first hunter-jumper trainer chiding me, the same trainer who made us dismount in lessons to hand-pick any missed shavings out of our horses' tails: “We ride in breeches, belts and collared shirts. It’s about respecting your horse, your trainer, and the sport.”
I hadn’t seen that trainer in decades, and my actual barn had a pretty relaxed approach to apparel. While breeches and sunshirts were a typical look, most riders were long-time clientele who saw the barn as a second home and had no fear of occasionally looking, to quote a barnmate, “a bit schlubby.” While I still dressed nicely for lessons, complete with clean saddle pad, tack, and equine partner, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my secret leggings habit was breaking some unwritten rule. And when I got home, I couldn’t stop Facebook and Instagram from dangling the latest, greatest riding gear at me when I just wanted to zone out and look at photos of my friends’ horses.
The more I thought about it, the more amazed I was that everyday riding gear in the hunter/jumper world had gone from the cheap cotton polo shirts of my youth to today’s $250 backpacks and $400 breeches. Reaching out to other riders, I heard a huge range of opinions: many people were happy to spend money on tried-and-true products that they knew were made to last, while others expressed stress over having the “right” riding clothes and the increasing cost of those clothes. Three people independently made the point that $200 or $225, which only a few years ago would have bought you the priciest breeches on the market, is now considered a mid-tier price point.
Sarah G., who rides in Michigan, told me, “I moved a couple years ago and started doing ‘serious riding’ at a hunter/jumper barn again and realized that even the more casual riders showed up in $200 breeches and $500 helmets, and I was wearing old hoodies. Being plus sized and on a tight budget is really, really hard. I have one or two nice things that I wear to the barn over and over. I hate how insecure I feel. I’ve never actually been judged by anyone there — it just feels wrong to stick out for not looking as nice.”
When I asked Sarah what might change how she felt about the clothing norms at her barn, she said “I know if I saw the other riders show up in t-shirts, I’d want to do the same. I genuinely think I just need to start seeing my peers doing it. And it would help to acknowledge how silly this all is: ‘Isn't it insane that nice breeches can cost $300?’”
“We don’t need to spend $15 for socks!” said Mel G., a pleasure rider in Texas. “You can just use regular socks.” She added that while she understands spending more on items like shirts with UPF protection, there’s similar options at mainstream retailers that are much lower in price than those marketed toward equestrians.
This pressure to dress a certain way or wear certain brands, whether internal or external, is only amplified by social media. Instagram in particular feels like an online mall, as influencers and regular riders alike tag every item in their #ROOTD and the app itself pushes its shopping features. “A tan pair of breeches is a tan pair of breeches,” said Sarah. “But I think now that people are able to highlight the brands they’re wearing on social media, it’s created a hyperawareness of what specifically people have on.”
One influencer bucking this trend is Kelly Wilson of Hunky Hanoverian and the Amateur Hour podcast, who previously announced that she would no longer tag products or brands in her everyday posts. Impressed, I asked her why she’d decided to leave product tagging behind, and she said, “I felt like a younger version of me would struggle seeing my own account. When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to have horses, but they lived at my house. I did not have fancy riding clothes at all, and I don’t want that to be the focus of riding. I know juniors follow my account, and I don’t want them to think they need to have a certain brand name to ride.”
She added that she does still plan to occasionally feature brand partnerships and products that she’s tried and tested: “As a culture we’re starting to be more eco-conscious, wanting to spend a little more money on a quality piece that’s going to last a long time. The only way to know about durability is if someone tells you. I want fellow equestrians to spend their money wisely, but I don’t want the emphasis to be on ‘you need to wear these fancy brands to be a good rider.’”
The idea of conscious consumerism was echoed by Kara W., a jumper rider from New York, who told me that what she loves about riding apparel and tack is that “historically it’s been made to last. That’s the whole point of using good materials and good design. I have breeches that I’ve worn for years and they still function perfectly well and they look fine. I wish my normal clothes would function that way!”
When I asked Kara about the emphasis on fashion in the hunter/jumper world, she thoughtfully replied, “If I feel pressured to be on trend at the barn, I’m not riding at the right place. It makes me sad that there’s so much consumerism, because it’s not making the horse world more accessible.” She credited working with her trainer and her therapist to let go of limiting beliefs that were holding her back from enjoying riding to its fullest: “I am no longer a junior rider. I’m never going to do the junior hunters, I’m never going to do the U25. Those goals that I really wanted are not going to happen, and I’ve spent a lot of time working through what makes me happy in the horse world.”
Kara pointed out that not having the much-vaunted “junior career” is one of many factors that could make riders feel inadequate or compare themselves to their barnmates. As a rider who’s never had a fancy horse or rated show record, it’s easy for me to understand how dressing to impress is a strategy to overcome the feeling that you don’t quite belong. I’ve found that the stronger I get as a rider, the less I care about what I’m wearing — I am happy to wear my rattiest breeches and let my riding speak for itself. As Kara said, “I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin and who I am as a rider, so if people want to judge me for wearing the same outfit for four days in a row, that’s fine. But that took me many, many years to realize.”
While I have a closet full of nice riding gear, most of it was acquired at a steep discount when I worked at a tack shop. I’d fill fitting rooms with the newest shipments of clothes, telling riders that this breech was what everyone was wearing at WEF, or that a certain pricey helmet was our best-seller. I never lied, and I truly wanted each customer to walk out of the store feeling great. But I was keenly aware that what I was selling wasn’t shirts and boots: it was a sense of belonging in an elitist, expensive and insular sport. I’d joke that if we couldn’t ride well, we might as well look good — a sentiment I believed then and cringe at now. While I still lust after the latest life-changing half pad, I know I’ll be happier putting that cash toward a clinic or show entries rather than a new piece of tack.
“We spend too much money on this sport to not be happy,” Kara told me. “If that means having really nice gear and you can afford that, great. But if you feel pressured to spend money that you don’t have, or that you could be spending on a lesson, maybe think about that. Nicer gear won’t make you a nicer rider, it just won’t.” And horses, lest we forget, don’t care what you’re wearing at all.
Written by Jessie Lochrie
Jessie Lochrie is a writer based in Los Angeles whose work has been featured in Longreads, The Outline, The Awl, and more. She spent her formative years galloping ponies through the woods of Massachusetts before receiving a B.A. in Literary Studies from New School University. You can find her in the jumper ring or at jessielochrie.com.