September 2017 - Dressage Life: Dressage Trends, Part Two
Written by Michele Vaughn
Thursday, 31 August 2017 20:18

Horse performance and pizzazz.

by Michele Vaughn

Trends aren’t only for riders – our horses have their equipment trends, too. Some of those trends are a result of evidence-based scientific studies on equine performance, while others are simply a fun fashion statement.

Riders will try anything to fit their horses better, from the design of their bridles, to the fit of their saddles, to the kind of saddle pads they use. And adding a bit of style to our tack makes it more fun, as well.


Bridles come in a variety of styles, from plain to loaded with bling and patent leather. You can buy a bridle “off the shelf” and customize it with a beautiful brow band, or you can get a custom bridle that you assemble from mix and match pieces in the sizes that best fit your horse.

Back in the day, a bridle was in horse, cob or oversize and your only choices were black or brown, and a regular or drop nose cavesson. Now it’s difficult to find a stock bridle that doesn’t have a crank cavesson, with or without a flash attachment. Wider nosebands have come into style, as they are viewed as more comfortable for the horse. Many of today’s nosebands feature patent leather or welting in a variety of colors to complement the rest of the horse and rider’s look.

Browbands are a fashion statement without limits. You can get browbands with crystals in every color of the rainbow, pearls, gold accents, you name it and it can be made. Matching browbands and stock tie pins can coordinate horse and rider. Browband shapes are another trend with many options, from v-shaped browbands to a relaxed curve. You want to make sure the shape flatters your horse’s face, as well as fits in terms of size.

The Mecklem bridle that is supposed to avoid pressure points on the horse’s face has been a popular new addition to the range of options available, but like everything it depends on what works for each individual horse.

What works for one horse doesn’t always work for another and often trial and error is the only way to find out what works.

The same goes for bits – that could be a column all by itself … or a book! There are more bits that are legal for showing than ever before, and a greater variety of materials and combinations of materials. The trends in bits tend to be more functional than fashionable, with the horse’s comfort and the bit’s effectiveness the primary objective.

It’s great to have so many options that you can find exactly the right bit to fit your horse, but it can be a challenge. Some stores or show vendors will lend a bit for trial, while others will rent a bit for a small fee so you can do more than just quickly see if it fits. Riding in a bit for a while gives you a much better way to find out if your horse really likes it and works well in it.



Trends in saddles combine both fashion and function. There are almost an unlimited number of leathers and colors available on custom saddles, as well as bling in understated or over-the-top amounts. Even some non-custom saddles come with bling now. Crystals, pearls and colored leather appear mostly on the cantle, where the shorter jackets let the designs be seen.

For example, Genay’s black saddle for her black Hanoverian stallion Donnarweiss GGF has an understated design in Swarovski crystals on the patent leather cantle, accented by silver piping. For her chestnut horses, she has a two-tone brown saddle with cream leather piping and alligator on the cantle. Her motto is: complement the horse don’t distract from him.

On the functional side, a welcome trend in saddlery is better customer service, at least at the top end of the market. Saddle reps and fitters are more responsive than ever before, and many are at shows every weekend so you can get adjustments made. Some reps and their companies will sell your old saddle for you when a new one is needed for a new horse or a horse that’s outgrown its previous saddle.

When Genay was competing in Florida, there was even a leather repair guy on site at the showgrounds. You could take in a broken halter or any other tack that needed repair, and get it back the same day. So convenient!
Saddle design itself keeps evolving, with different trees that are based on research as well as experience, and more options for fitting horse and rider. Some saddles are incorporating new materials in their trees and panels, while other focus more on design innovations that offer greater comfort and freedom of movement for the horse. Knee rolls or thigh blocks are available in more sizes and positions on the saddle, and design features such as narrower twists and more padding in the seat cater to rider comfort.

Girths are evolving as well – there’s a configuration for every type of horse conformation you can imagine. A little like bits, you have to try them to find the one that works best for your horse, especially if your horse is more challenging to fit.

Trends in our horses have evolved, too. In the early days of dressage in the US, everyone rode Thoroughbreds, and then warmbloods became the preferred dressage horse for competition. Today, warmbloods still dominate the show scene, but other breeds are popular with many riders, and you can see just about every breed at shows. Baroque breeds are getting more popular, and it’s no longer unusual to see Spanish or Lusitano horses at every level. Friesians, Arabians, Quarter Horses and Paints can be found at any show, not only at their breed shows.

Some breeds are built better for upper level dressage that requires more collection. Those who are built downhill have more difficulty in lowering the haunches and raising the forehand for the upper level dressage movements, but every breed can and does do well in lower level dressage when they are trained and ridden properly. Show scores typically reflect the quality of the ride rather than the breed of the horse.

“The only constant is change” is a popular saying today, and it holds true for trends in dressage as well as life in general. So embrace change and be a little trendy – it’s fun!

Dressage Life author Michele Vaughn is a dressage rider and trainer who earned USDF gold and silver rider medals. She has coached her daughter Genay from her first ride through Grand Prix competition, and now coaches other riders as well. At her Starr Vaughn Equestrian in Elk Grove, CA, she breeds and trains champion Hanoverian sport horses, manages dressage and hunter/jumper shows, and hosts clinics and breed inspections. For more information, visit and