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Judges Discuss the Dos and Don’ts of Western Fashion


From the fashion runways in Milan and Paris to the show rings in Columbus and Oklahoma City? In the world of western events, the sparkle of bling-loaded jackets continues to be highly popular. But what do the judges prefer? Is there such a thing as too much bling? What events do the judges prefer to see sparkly outfits? 

Multiple AQHA World Show Judge, Holly Hover, shares some sage advice, “If it makes you feel good and you feel like you look good in it, more power to you.” 

While some might think more is more, we talked with some leading AQHA and APHA judges who caution that at times, less may be more. They also encourage exhibitors to be true to their own personality before trying to keep up with the ever-changing trends. We asked Judges Charlene Carter, Brad Kearns, Melissa Hargett Dukes, and 2014 Congress judges Jennifer Lynn Thompson, Holly Hover, and Dawn Clason about their thoughts on western fashion.

The Basics

When asked what every exhibitor needs in order to make a good impression in the show ring, our experts agreed: a well-shaped, quality hat.

“I’m pretty boring because I like to see a nice, well-shaped hat and I like the clothes to fit and be complimentary to the person. You should let your performance set you apart from the group,” cautions AQHA Professional Horseman Brad Kearns. “You shouldn’t try too hard to stand out because of your clothes.”

When selecting your outfit(s) for the show season, the judges recommend to consider not just your taste, but an outfit that compliments both your body type and your horse’s color. “I just like whatever looks nice with the person, their body type, and their horse,” says Melissa Dukes. “Whether it’s a solid color, jewels, or whatever, as long as it’s not overdone and tasteful, but mainly that it matches the horse and looks good on them.”

“Everything needs to compliment your body,” says Charlene Carter. “Whether it’s fancy or plain, elegant or smooth or textured, it has to come down to your body style and the horse you have. I think any of it can look good on a certain person.”

Holly Hover adds, “Riders need to understand that the judge rarely will see you from the front—we see you mostly from the side. As a rule of thumb, I’d stand back and get a picture of how you look from the side.”

For the men, it’s easy to choose their show outfits. A simple starched shirt, well-shaped hat, and well-fitting chaps and pants are the norm for the riding events.

“I want the men to look neat, tidy, clean and prepared,” says Carter. “I really like the Cowboy Couture shirts (available from East Coast Show Apparel) because they seem to be made out of really good fabric that doesn’t get real wrinkly.”

Jennifer Lynn Thompson agrees: “I don’t like a darted shirt (on the men), but I like the shirt to fit and be tucked in tight. A lot of guys have a tendency to let their shirts fall out in the back and it gives them a floppy back look. Tuck your shirts in boys, and that’s as expensive as I get with the men.”

Showing Off in Showmanship

Again, well-fitting clothes and a well-shaped hat should be the norm, according to our judges, but they warn to pay attention to the length of your pants.“My pet peeve—pants that are too short! I see a lot of that in showmanship,” says Kearns, who has coached Nicole Barnes (pictured here) to multiple AQHA World and Congress titles in Showmanship.

“As far as showmanship goes, something that I see a lot pants that are too short. Be sure to wear boots when you go to get your suit tailored—it makes a difference,” instructs Thompson. “I think a lot of people get their outfits tailored without their boots on and, consequently, it makes for too short a pant. It’s not a good look. I like to see them have some length on their pants so that when they go to jog, their pants don’t hike up to their shins.”

Carter adds, “Men really need to make sure their suits fit well and are not too loose. Whatever they choose–it needs to compliment the horse.”

Thompson doesn’t believe you have to spend a lot of money on your showmanship outfit to get noticed in the ring. “In the showmanship, a good-fitting, tailored business outfit is great for me,” she says. “I’ve seen a couple of girls come in wearing business-like outfits and I just think it looks sharp and if they do a good pattern they have just as much of a chance at winning than the girl in the $10,000 outfit.”

In the Saddle

Trying to stay cool this summer but still want to stand out? Carter is a big fan of the new sheer vests that allows women to wear a colored shirt underneath to add a little shimmer to their outfit. “They’re colored, but sheer, and you wear them over a blouse and the color of the blouse comes through,” she explains. “They’re lightweight and not hot and heavy like some of your more fancy stuff.”

But for most judges, the bling of your outfit isn’t much of a factor.

“Sparkle doesn’t do a whole lot for me as far as where I place people. I’d rather see a really good rider in something plain in the horsemanship than I would all ‘ga-gad out’ with the $5,000 outfits,” says Thompson. “I’d rather see us get back to where something real simple like the intercollegiate girls wear—the plain, button down shirt—where you can really tell how they ride, and make it affordable again for the average good rider to get back into this.”

Kearns agrees about the simple cotton shirt: “I like to see people’s personality reflected in their outfit, and I think there are a lot of quality people making outfits that can help you reflect that. I also think that if you are in a budget, I love the cotton shirt. I don’t think you can go wrong with a cotton shirt if it fits. I’m a little old school there, but that’s a trend that I like. I think a cotton shirt that fits well, you can change your color or whatever, but it has to fit.”

And don’t forget how your chaps fit, cautions Carter. She warns that she’s seen too many people wearing their chaps too long or they hang too low on their waist. Make sure your chaps are fitted to your body and the color compliments your outfit and your horse.

More Bling Please

But what if an exhibitor likes to wear outfits that are sparkly and have bling? We asked the judges what they prefer and which events they are more appropriate. 

“I like seeing the bling more in the pleasure classes or the trail, where it’s being judged mostly on the horse,” Dawn Clason states. “When it’s being judged on the rider some times it takes away from their performance and you lose track with all that bling. In the showmanship, you can get a gorgeous showmanship jacket, but sometimes it can be too much because we’re judging you and the horse. In the pattern classes, I like it to see more of a uniform type look. The long fringe can be so pretty, but it’s not pretty in the horsemanship classes with it flying around doing a 360–that’s more of a pleasure-looking outfit. Coming primarily from the hunt seat world, our world is pretty tame compared to the western world. You add a couple of sparkles and we’re like ‘Wow!'”“I think fashion makes a big difference,” Hover states. “It should be complimentary to your body type and your horse. I think you can have more fun with sparkle in the trail, western riding, and the pleasure. I think it’s more frequently accepted in those events than say in traditional horsemanship. I think you can look at the pattern and figure out what genre of judge you’re showing to. If it has a gallop and a lot of turns, you’re probably looking at a more Western performance-based judge, as opposed to a more pleasure-based judge. As a trainer I would keep that in mind when sending an exhibitor in.”

What are Thompson’s opinions about which classes to wear bling? “My preference would be the showmanship and the pleasure because it helps you stand out a little more,” Thompson states. “It’s different sitting in the audience than if you’re sitting like a judge in the ring. In the audience, you’ll say, ‘She’s so beautiful, that’s such a beautiful outfit. But they’re not paying attention to the straightness of her lines and accuracy of the actual pattern. I can see where the outside world would think the sparkles have something to do with the placing, but if you have a well-shaped look, and you execute the pattern, you’re going to be the winner. Do I like sparkles in showmanship? Sure! Are you going to be my winner because you have sparkles? No!”

Carter readily admits that she likes a little bling. “Personally, I don’t care for suits and men’s ties on women in the showmanship. I like a neat, sparkly turned out look and I think that to have a finished polished look that girls should have clean nails. It makes no sense to be completely decked out and then have dirty unkept nails.”

Ever Eye-Pleasing

Ever want to know what judges don’t like catching their eye?

“There’s one trend, and it’s an older trend, but I’m not a fan of the white hat. I’m just not a fan,” says Kearns. “I know some people think it highlights the person’s face and brightens their face, but for me, personally, when I’m judging and I see a black outfit and a white hat that to me is a little bit distracting. You wouldn’t necessarily see a person in a black tux in a white top hat, so why would you wear a white hat with a black outfit? Even if the outfit has some white accents, I think it breaks up the picture for me.”

“I’m not particularly fond of black with sorrels, but some people wear that and it’s okay, but that’s not one of my favorite combinations,” says Carter.

“I think the ‘Star Trek/Darth Vader look’ in the showmanship with the really high flipped up collars or the real super-animated shoulder pads, looks like a ‘Queen Anne type’ of thing, I think that’s ridiculous and it’s distracting,” says Thompson. “I don’t like it at all. I’m not sure why people think that that’s attractive because half the people that wear them don’t have enough of a neck to get away with them. It’s just really distracting.”

Hover cautions that certain bling on clothes are distracting. “I would be careful with any kind of bling changing the rider’s body line. I’ve seen in chaps some of the rhinestones going down along the zipper and it gives the illusion of the leg being out of position. We’re looking for a straight line from the shoulder to the elbow, to the back of the hip, to the knee and the heel, and sometimes those chaps with a ribbon of crystals down the seam of the zipper will make the bend in the leg look over-exaggerated. From a judge’s point of view, I’m critical about the line in the leg. As a trainer I would never send one in with that because I don’t like that look myself.”

You don’t need to load up the horse trailer with lots of outfits and have multiple clothing changes for the day to have quality rides, says Carter.

“I don’t care if somebody only has one outfit and they wear that one outfit all the time,” she explains. “If they just have one nice outfit that color coordinates with their horse and has some sparkle to it, then they will do just fine. Spend your money on one nice outfit than on several average ones.”

The misconception of using your outfit to help yourself stand out and be easily remembered amongst a lot of competitors might be a fashion downfall, Thompson states.

“I can tell you, I know one person in particular that stands out to me for an outfit that they have that is not aesthetically pleasing to my eye, and it’s memorable for the wrong reason. There’s nothing wrong if you want color to bring in color, I’m not saying every person should wear black, but I think if it fits well, it’s tasteful, it fits your personality, let your performance speak for itself.”

Photos © The American Quarter Horse Journal and Eric
Hardesty

About the Author: Megan Arszman is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Ky., and has been covering the equine industry for almost 10 years. She’s been lucky enough to work for AQHA and NRHA’s publications, fulfilling a lifelong dream. A former exhibitor herself, she currently contributes to GoHorseShow.com, American Quarter Horse Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Rodeo News, Western Shooting Horse Magazine, and the NRHA Reiner. She is also the Digital Media Content Coordinator for Neogen Corporation’s Animal Safety Division in Lexington, where she lives with her husband and competes in dog agility.

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