Q: At hunter/jumper shows, when is it appropriate to wear a shadbelly coat? When is it inappropriate? When is it overkill?
A: To decide when it is appropriate to wear a shadbelly (a riding coat with tails), consider its use in the context of the sport’s history. Centuries ago, for the most formal foxhunts (opening day, joint hunts, holidays, etc.), gentlemen wore scarlet coats known as “pink” coats because the early ones were made by London tailor Thomas Pink. Individual hunt clubs also had their own colors, which riders earned and displayed on their coat collars to denote which hunt they belonged to, as an alternative to wearing pinks. On these special occasions, because ladies did not wear pinks, they wore the formal female equivalent, a style of coat called a “swallowtail,” which eventually morphed into the shadbelly.
Foxhunters accompanied formal coats with tall, black boots, light or white breeches, dark gloves and a white stock tie. From the beginning of the sport, every article of a rider’s attire had a specific purpose. The stock tie, for example, could double as a bandage if your horse was injured. You would secure it with a simple gold or silver safety-pin-type stock pin. (That is why fancy brooches make inappropriate stock pins.) Riders wore string gloves on rainy days—because they provided better grip on the reins—and rust breeches with brown field boots for bad weather and lower-key weekday hunts. They reserved their best formalwear for the most important occasions.
Today, female foxhunters wear shadbellies for special foxhunts, such as Thanksgiving Day hunts in the U.S. Underneath them, they typically wear vests, historically in canary or tattersall, but now available in many colors and patterns.
In the horse-show world, shadbellies first appeared in appointments classes, which were designed to represent the most traditional aspects of foxhunting. They spread to hunter stake classes, derbies, classics and, eventually, junior and pony-rider classes. In all cases, shadbellies continue to symbolize the most traditional, formal occasions in foxhunting. (That’s why you see them only in hunter classes, not jumpers or equitation.) Even today, only women and girls wear them, although men and boys rarely wear their formal equivalent, colors, at horse shows. Scarlet, or pink, jackets have taken on a new meaning, now denoting a rider’s experience representing the U.S. team in international competition.
Shadbellies are not required by U.S. Equestrian Federation rules, but they do fall under the category of “formal attire,” so are acceptable whenever that is included in a class description. Although they are most common in big headliner classes, such as hunter classics and derbies at A-Circuit shows, you can wear one in any significantly notable hunter class—say, a sponsored or highlighted class—at any show, regardless of its rating. Even a local show in a farmer’s back field can host a special hunter class in which shadbellies and other formal foxhunting attire would be appropriate.
If you do wear a shadbelly, keep in mind that you are competing in a very traditional sport. As a judge, I’m mostly watching how well the horses jump, but I do like to see an elegantly turned-out rider. Even more important, though, your attire should be clean and properly fitted. Don’t wear a shadbelly that’s several sizes too big or too small. The available styles and cuts of coattails vary somewhat (dressage riders, for example, wear longer tails than hunters) so, if you’re buying a new shadbelly, ask a salesperson to help you choose one that best flatters your figure.
When choosing a color and pattern for the tail lining and accompanying vest, try to stay on the conservative side. I understand that U.S. riders love their bling—and these parts of the wardrobe generally don’t amount to much material—but your appearance should never distract the judge from your horse’s performance.
USEF judge Fran Dotoli enjoyed hunting with the Norfolk Hunt Club in Dover, Massachusetts, for more than 20 years. She and her husband, Joe, have also trained numerous hunter and hunt-seat equitation champions. They owned and operated Young Entry Stable in Medfield and Hamilton, Massachusetts, from 1970 to 1992 before managing Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Connecticut, for more than a decade.
Fran currently serves on the USEF Licensed Officials Committee and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Judges Task Force and Zone 1 Jumper Committee. She and Joe continue to judge and give clinics around the country. They now live in Chepachet, Rhode Island, and operate Tibri, a training and sales stable, with their daughter, Annie, and her husband, Aster Pieters.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.