It’s All About the Outfits

Riding_Habit_Fashion_Plate_c1847_bvcEven writers who have zero interest in horses, if they’re writing in a setting that features equines at all, can be persuaded to take an interest in the clothes people wear on and around the big scary animals. The history of riding apparel is long, varied, and full of bizarre fashion statements, but at base it is, and must be, functional. Whatever the color, cut, or ornamentation, the outfit has to work for its living, and that means certain essential requirements have to be met.

First of all, horses are large, can be clumsy, and one of those hooves lands on your foot, you know it. So, the rider’s outfit begins with a pair of good, sturdy shoes or boots. Cowboy boots evolved their familiar shape for solid functional reasons. The narrow toes fit easily into the stirrups, but the heels keep the foot from sliding all the way through and getting caught, which can be catastrophic if the horse throws you (getting dragged is not good for any part of the draggee). Most stirrup-using cultures feature a riding boot with some kind of heel, for the rider’s safety. Cultures without stirrups don’t suffer from those restrictions, though bare feet or sandals don’t mix well with horses’ hooves.

The riding boot will tend to be at least ankle height for functional reasons. Slippers or sneakers can come off, but a boot or shoe that goes up past the ankle will tend to stay on. It also supports the ankle and gives the rider more oomph in use the leg to direct the horse. If the rider wears spurs–and a cowboy may wear a highly ornamented set, much like a medieval knight–the boot offers a secure surface to strap the spurs to.

English riding boots–the familiar tall black (or brown) stovepipe style that goes in and out of street fashion–perform a similar function. The stiff, tall leg of the boot goes along with the style of riding, which relies quite a bit on application of the lower leg for direction and stability. The heel is relatively small–half an inch or so–in keeping with the restraint of the overall attire. A modern variation, now even show-legal, is a set of paddock shoes (old-fashioned leather lace-up or pull-on ankle boots) and a pair of half chaps or gaiters–leather or suede leg wraps that slip on over the shoes, are held in place at the bottom by a strap, and zip, button, or velcro up the leg to the knee. The full version of this, the cowboy’s chaps, not only protects his tender bits from the rubbing of the saddle, but also guards his legs against weather, spiny vegetation, and animal attack.

What the rider wears above the boots will vary widely according to taste and discipline, but again, form arises from function. The long, flowing skirt of the old-style riding habit is beautiful and elegant, but it also provides the rider’s legs with full coverage, and is unlikely to flip up at she clears a fence or rides a good gallop. Very important for modesty, that. The heavy fabric serves as padding, because if there’s one thing riding is about, it’s friction. You need a degree of it to stay in the saddle, but beyond a certain point, well, ow.

Those who ride astride will default to trousers of some sort fairly quickly–witness the ancient Scythians and Persians, though the Greeks clung to their tunics with masochistic persistence. The first place a pair of riding pants will wear out is the seat and crotch. Then the knees. Leather breeches, sweat factor aside, make sense in terms of durability. Modern versions have leather seats (deerskin for choice) and fabric everything else, which is a good compromise.

Jeans made the old way, with solid stitching and rivets, were originally designed to ride in. The inside seams can rub ferociously, but that can be got around by going to flat seams. If the jeans are too tight, like any other riding pants, they will split–and in an embarrassing location, too. Modern stretch jeans get around this, as do the many variations of English riding breeches and tights (yes, even men will ride in tights). In older settings, looser cut especially in the crotch and seat allows for the rider’s need to move freely in the saddle.

The rest of the outfit has a lot more scope for variation, since it’s not in direct contact with the horse. Strictly functional shirts, tunics, jackets, doublets, etc. will have a minimum of moving parts and dangling bits, though ceremonial outfits can pull out every possible stop. Like, for example, this. That’s the American interpretation of Arab “native” costume, i.e. bells, dangles, and tassels galore. And then there’s this: modern Western show costume, in which one’s love of sequins, glitter, and bling get to show themselves off–coordinated, of course, with the horse’s coat color and accessories.

Even the relative simplicity of English riding gear has its moments. High-level riders in dressage and eventing will show up in top hats and tails–and although a wild color statement is a navy coat or a set of lavender points on the waistcoat, the rider might sneak in a few discreet colored crystals on the stirrups or the horse’s headstall. You really can’t keep the human love of shiny things down.

And finally, of course, headgear. Culture and fashion will determine what a rider wears on his or her head, from a ten-gallon hat to a formal top hat to an Eastern turban. Modern obsession with safety  means that in the US and in parts of Europe especially, riders wear a variation on the design of a bicycle helmet, designed to protect the cranium from a fall from a much greater height and with correspondingly greater force. Originally worn by race jockeys and cross-country jumpers, the safety helmet has slowly crept through the discplines, so that there’s even a version that fits under a cowboy hat–though the top hats and derbies of the show riders remain determinedly un-safety-fied.


cairo_bvcJudith writes fiction about horses, too. Read the first chapter of A Wind in Cairo free right here on Book View Cafe. The rest is available at as a trade paperback or a PDF download.




It’s All About the Outfits — 16 Comments

  1. Fun read! I do have to quibble with the bit about a full skirt providing padding, though. First off, if you use the wrong fabric (as many today do while trying to look “dressy”), you get less friction, not more. Kind of like walking on ice with a bucket of Crisco slathered on your feet. You get this problem with taffeta, stain, many silks, and most polyesters. Wool, cotton, and linen can make a beautiful skirt, and it’s practical, too!

    As for padding, you only want to be sitting on one layer of skirt fabric. Otherwise, you get uneven lumps from sitting on folds. It will also tend to slip around under you, making an unstable seat. Rather more exciting than it ought to be, and for the wrong reasons….

    Getting more modern, you start getting skirts shaped to hang over the pommels and lie smoothly, and eventually even wraparound aprons that keep you from having to sit on a skirt at all. Some pretty clever tailoring work, there.

    I can’t believe how much detail there can be about one little thing like a riding skirt. Keep up the good work on helping authors with the horse stuff!

  2. One layer of fabric = padding, though I should have been more specific. I had a vision in my head of someone riding in a short skirt, which would ride up, and there would be nothing between the rider and the saddle but, possibly, a pair of undies. Ouch. And I meant to mention the type of fabric per your post–there’s quite a bit there about dirt and durability. It got left out for space reasons. There’s enough there for another post actually. Thanks for filling in the necessary details!

  3. The other feature about riding clothes (and indeed all sports-oriented toggery) is that they don’t allow you to do much else. Unhappy the rider, who is forced to walk five miles in those tall equestrian boots! This is not so important if you have a an assistant at the horse show (or a squire as you are questing across the countryside) carrying a complete change of footgear. But the solitary soldier of fortune has to have some luggage. (One does wonder about Aragorn son of Arathorn. “Strider” implies that he walked a lot; nevertheless he has no difficulty hopping onto a horse. A pair of all-purpose leather boots? And then there’s the carrying of a long but broken sword everywhere he goes — heavy, awkward, and unuseable.)

  4. Teh shiny Western show clothes tends to be a Western Pleasure sort of thing. Reining and cutting is much more traditional, with snap-button, yoked shirts and jeans. There’s also a Western-styled helmet from Troxel that is sturdier than the standard, with leather on it but no hat (I have it–the Troxel Sierra, because it’s a good, sturdy helmet).

    For pragmatic usage, though, lined breeches are hard to beat. I’ve got full seat lined breeches that I wear in Western as well as English, to stay warm. Dang few lined working jeans out there, unless they’re Carhartts. Base layer plus jeans leads to rubbing at the knees.

    Brenda–take a look at endurance racing footwear. Ariat puts out a hiking boot that I think is designed to wear while doing endurance. Makes me nervous because it lacks a heel–but I’ve got to say, it’s a nice little hiking boot. The packer Western boot (very similar to the English paddock boot, but with better soles for walking) is designed to be worn while riding or walking, as they were designed for pack train riders. They do need to be broken in, though.

  5. Actually a good pair of custom or semi-custom books can be quite comfortable for walking and riding. There is a surprising amount of time spent on foot around horses, and most commonly worn boots will become comfortable for both.

    The U.S. Cavalry, spent time marching and maneuvering on foot, and iirc, the Rough Riders actually fought dismounted.

    As always it is the unaccustomed that will bite the character in the end. The recruit with new boots, the character whose mount is always brought prepared, etc

    Even an off the rack pair of boots can be comfortable for the trip to Mordor if they are well broken in and cared for.

    Which begs the question, Horse Gear? Proper care and feeding of?


  6. What Joyce Said. The tall English boots are the formal pumps of the equestrian world. You wouldn’t want to go hiking in pumps, either. That being said, a truly well-made, custom-fitted pair of tall boots is meant to be walked as well as ridden in, and is supposed to be comfortable to wear all day long. I’ve seen teachers and clinicians live in theirs–starting at 5 or 6 a.m. and going till after sundown.

    The bump-around-the-barn shoe for the English rider is the paddock shoe (or the Dansko clog or the Wellies…). You’d recognize it as the all-purpose wearin’ shoe of the nineteenth century. Here’s the line that has eaten the industry:

    They even make a kind of sneaker for riding–not as good as the old Miller riding sneaker, damn them, but it does the job. It’s made like an ankle-high running shoe with a heel:

    Pretty much any decent walking boot or shoe with a decent heel will do for riding. There’s no reason why Aragorn’s walking boots wouldn’t do for riding. I wear my paddock shoes as street shoes–and have seen them sold in the mall as such. I could jump on a runaway horse in the middle of Manhattan if I had to. 8)

  7. Ariat’s Terrain shoes are fine ankle-high riding shoes that are also extremely comfy walking shoes. And a pair of well-broken-in custom boots can be very comfortable for long wear. Your usual horse-powered fantasy world doesn’t often have mass-produced footwear.

  8. Brenda, it’s not about price, it’s more about fit and care, especially for the less expensive ones.

    I have a pair of western roper style boots I picked up for US20 at some shoe discount store. They are leather foot and uppers with an okay sole, and just about my favorite boots ever. But they didn’t start that way, they rubbed at the heel and toes a bit and pinched in the leg.

    What I did to make them so comfy is clean them well with saddle soap, to the point I really soaked the leather, and condition them repeatedly with mink oil, and wear them especially in the rain, within a few months they had softened, the ankle had “broke”, and the foot had stretched.

    The combination of wetting and conditioning really seems to do the trick of making leather shoes comfortable. (Though I have to warn, mink oil, SIGNIFICANTLY darkens the leather)

  9. I’ve been breaking in a pair of custom tall boots of late, and Dehner emphatically urges us NOT to use saddle soap. It’s bad for the leather. Clean water and leather conditioner, they say. And get the boots wet and wear them.

    I was horrified at first. $1000 worth of boots and they want me stomping around in the mud? But yep.

  10. Once in Texas I went once with my mother-in-law to Cowboy City, an emporium which sells vast and unnatural numbers of cowboy boots. She had foolishly promised her grandchildren a pair of cowboy boots each. Diana immediately selected a pair of Harley-Davidson motorcycle boots, black leather with many buckles knee high. (As I recall Simon was disappointed that there was no footwear similar to that of Buzz Lightyear and so chose nothing.) To pass the time I tried on boots too, and found that cowboy boots are Not Comfortable. Too high in the heel, too pointy in the toe, and the shaft is either too big (flapping against your calf as you walk) or too small. I take it that I am a Bespoke girl, probably English. In the meantime Diana wore her motorcycle boots out of the store, where a genuine deluxe Texas cowboy held the door for her and pronounced her mighty fine.


  11. I’ve never got along with cowboy boots, either. Paddock shoes or tall English boots for me. Preferably paddock shoes. Actually I prefer sneakers, but my feet of late are saying No. Phoo.

    I’m always amused when the fashion industry cycles back around to riding gear, and people stump around the cities in knockoff tall boots and fakey breeches. If they only knew, they could find the real thing in all sorts of cool looks and colors. And probably pay less for it, too.

  12. Ah, but when it comes to cowboy boots, there are cowboy boots and then there are Cowboy Boots. A good pair of Justin’s or Lucchese’s will love your feet forever–both pairs of my Lucchese boots are comfortable enough to wear to work (I’m a teacher and on my feet all day). Toes do not have to be pointy but the fit does have to be right. Justin boots for one tend to run smaller than your street shoe size. Height is also not uniform; ropers tend to be lower (and your pants are supposed to be worn OUTSIDE of the boot, not tucked inside).

    But I’ve also had cheap Western boots that hurt my feet. The best tend to be work boots, the sort designed for trainers to wear all day. Lucchese is pretty dang good as well….but definitely not cheap.

  13. I see Beth has already mentioned Ariat Terrains, my boot of choice for daily riding as well as working in the yard. I do love my Terrains. A friend wore hers on a 200-mile hike in England. (I must mention that I tried to wear mine on that same hike, and my feet were dreadfully injured, but that’s only because I didn’t have the right size. I needed a size bigger than normal to accommodate the swelling from the 15-18–mile a day distance we were covering.)

    And yes, the most comfortable tall boots I’ve ever had were cheap off-the-rack ones. I believe they were $60. I wore them for ten years and then they disintegrated. Now I have field boots, not dress boots. They have a laced section from the instep to above the ankle so they’re easy to get on if you have high arches. These are also comfy enough to spend the whole day in and walk all over the horse show grounds.