In which Endurance 101 covers rider clothing, with details

Endurance 101 : what to wear, what to wear?
Years ago, the Cascade Challenge endurance ride was held on the Memorial Day weekend at a popular horse-camping  site in the mountains of Washington State.  I went a day early to help ride management get ready for the ride, so I was in a prime spot to watch everyone roll in for the weekend.  What a show it was:  our familiar endurance rig village was amplified by heaps of local “backcountry” riders, out for a weekend of cowboy-esque riding adventure. 

The cowboy rigs looked a lot like our rigs (maybe a little cleaner, since our season had started 3 months earlier and the places we’d been camping were not exactly the paved streets of a KOA campground); it was the attire of the riders that afforded me endless amusement. 

These cowboys were dressed in their finest worked-leather apparel:  elaborately tooled-and-embossed batwing chaps and chinks with full leather fringe, hide-on leather vests with a convenient star-shaped pocket to hold a cell phone or a hip flask.  Long-sleeved patterned cowboy shirts with pearl-snaps for the gentlemen, and plenty of bling accents for the ladies.  The boots were breathtaking, and the hats!  I could pay my kids’ first year of college tuition by selling off a few of those beautiful Stetson ten-gallon wonders.  These folks were dressed for a parade, and as they moseyed past my camp, they even smiled and waved.  I waved back:  I knew I’d see them all back in camp really soon.

Sure enough, not much more than an hour went by, and the parade came through the other way, the horses still perky and beautiful, with their manes and tails un-mussed by strenuous work, and the riders looking a little wilted in their beautiful gear.

Did I mention that temps were in the high 90’s that weekend?  Oh, yeah.

The cowboys were obviously as astonished and amused at the attire chosen by the endurance riders as we were by the chaps and chinks.  Endurance riders are famous in equestrian circles for our collective lack of fashion sense, and surrounded by the beauty of the embossed-leather crowd, our signature dress-from-the-top-of-the-laundry-pile style was more motley-looking than usual. 

The afternoon before an event, most distance riders saddle up and take a horse out for a quick spin—ten miles or so, covered at a nice walk or easy trot so as to loosen up the muscles, tighten up the brain cells, and not tire out anything that might be needful during the next day’s competition.  We don’t dress in our finest gear for a shakedown ride.  We choose riding tights that are still useable but are a bit threadbare, t-shirts that are souvenirs from other events, and any other needful accessories that are clean but aren’t necessarily color-coordinated.  We strap on our helmets, ride for a couple of hours, and come back to camp.  The horses aren’t exhausted, but they have definitely broken a sweat—and so have the riders.  If the trails are dusty, as mountain trails often are,  folks come back with an interesting skin coating, since perspiration + dust = mud. 

Compared to the cowboys?  We looked like hobos on horseback.  

The cowboys could accept the t-shirts.  They could ignore the helmets.   But it was obvious that most of them just couldn’t get used to the idea of riding tights.  Some of them made appreciative sounds when a shapely endurance lady in tights trotted by, but they were gobsmacked at the appearance of men in tights.  (I do know several endurance riders who can sing all the verses to the title song from the film Robin Hood : Men in Tights, and they will sing them all if you ask nicely).

Lew Hollander was the fellow who broke the ice between the cowboys and the endurance riders.  At thet time, Lew was in his early 70’s, and had been winning Ironman competitions for more than a decade.  Nobody can look at or talk to Lew and think, “this guy is a sissy,” even if he decided to show up in camp wearing a tutu.  He is also a heckuva nice guy.  (Lew is now in his early 80’s, and still winning Ironman competitions against fellows significantly younger than himself).  Lew struck up a conversation about horses (of course) with one of the cowboys, and pretty soon there were friendly conversations about horses between the two factions happening all over camp.  It was a beautiful thing to watch.  I even saw some of the cowboys wander into Henry Griffin’s mobile endurance tack shop to finger (and purchase) some of the gear he had for sale.

The next morning, just as the sun was rising, the endurance riders pulled on their newer, shinier tights, their newer, more color-coordinated t-shirts and their faithful helmets, and headed out on the trail to enjoy miles and miles of beauty.  When we returned to camp, the cowboys were there, dressed in their fancy leather, clapping and cheering for us as we crossed the finish line.

I guess the moral of the story is that horse people are horse people, it’s just that endurance riders are less wrapped up in the equestrian fashion industry.  Beginning endurance riders want to know what they should wear, hoping for some recommendations of styles and brands.  In a theme that I think is becoming familiar to readers, my advice is, as much as possible, to use what you already have.  It’s okay to ride distance in jeans, if that’s comfortable for you--some people wear pantyhose underneath their jeans to minimize the chaffing, so try that if you are self-conscious about wearing lycra on your bum. 

If you are, or have ever been involved with sports like walking, running, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, road biking, or other strenuous but low-impact sports, much of your gear for those sports will cross over readily into endurance riding.  My riding boots are the same boots I used for snow shoeing because they are comfortable, sturdy, and waterproof.  The raingear requirements for Volkswalking and riding a 25-mile distance ride are pretty much identical.  And no matter what, you’re going to need sunscreen, so make sure that your clothing includes a pocket where you can stash a tube of it.

f you are more interested in comfort than in the current styles in Paris (and more importantly for ladies like me who are of a certain age: if you have no full-length mirror in camp), tights or breeches are a good choice because a good pair of tights will minimize clothing rubs and burns that are commonly experienced with riding clothes.  There are many good styles and brands of tights available, and they even come in colors that will match your tack if that kind of thing is important to you.  Tights are also available with knee and crotch padding, which may be worth the extra cost for you.

Boots or sneakers, as mentioned above, should be comfortable and sturdy, and the same goes for socks—use good-quality socks that won’t bunch up or wrinkle inside the shoe.  Raingear should be lightweight and allow you to move when you wear it…and ideally, will fit loosely enough that you can put warmer layers under your waterproof layers if you are riding in a location (like the mountains) where the weather can dramatically during the course of a day.

“Foundation” garments need special attention.  Ladies: the bra you wear to the grocery store may not be adequate for hours of posting the trot.  Gentlemen: supportive undergarments will make trotting down the trail for hours on end much more enjoyable.  Stores that supply equipment to runners and bicyclists are your best bet when shopping for supportive underclothes.  When trying on support clothes in the store, don’t be afraid to jump up-and-down in front of a mirror to test them.  It looks silly in the store, but this simple exercise will help you select appropriate clothes that will keep your jiggle-y body parts stable.  Minimize rubbing and chafing from your foundation garments by using products available in the same running and biking stores, especially Anti-Monkey-Butt Powder, Body Glide, or even baby powder.  If you do get a chafed body part and still have a few miles to go, Desitin or a similar product will ease the discomfort.

Last of all, I want to encourage each of you to wear a helmet every time you get on your horse.  Emergency room statistics nationwide show conclusively that the most serious, life-changing injuries that happen to equestrians are head-wounds.  If you’ve never spent time with a brain-injured person and experienced their frustration with an inability to express him- or herself properly, I recommend that you watch the short documentary film Every Ride, Every Time produced by the Washington State University Extension and the Washington State 4-H Foundation.  You can watch bits and pieces of the video on You Tube (beginning HERE), or you can order the video or DVD HERE  for only $15 including shipping.  Why not buy a copy, watch it, and then pass it along to your local 4-H group?

AERC rules do not require the use of a helmet, except by junior riders.  However, as I tell my junior riders, it only takes a single bee-sting to turn the best broke, gentle horse into a bucking bronco.  Given the hours and hours that you will spend training and competing on your horse in the sport of endurance, you will have plenty of opportunities to encounter that single bee…and I hope that when you do, your helmet is strapped on tightly.


  1. omgosh aarene i have photos from that very day!

    also, you know, right, about the real men in tights?

    you are friends with one of them!

    i've been waiting to do a post about the men in tights so please don't spoil it for me!

  2. I always thought that endurance riders dress the way they do because they get dressed in the dark to make it to the start on time.

  3. "Hobos on horseback," left me in stitches. This season has been my first season in the LD world and I've been learning a lot about what to wear for all conditions. I'm still working on a comfortable semi-attractive attire collection that doesn't leave me looking remarkably like an angry homeless person on horseback for the ride photographer like I did last weekend. Dressing in the cold and dark though probably doesn't help though. Thanks for the giggle!

  4. I know that one bee! I've met him! Last summer I worked as a carriage tour driver on Mackinac Island, driving both the gentlest draft horses ever seen and the newbies, because of my experience driving (scary fact:most drivers are driving around that crazy place within three days on their own having never seen a draft before). One day I drew a team that was luckily placid as they come. Halfway up the big hill the younger mare completely flipped out, bucking and rearing in the traces and screaming. It was the worst possible place for a freak out, halfway up a big long hill with a carriage full of wedding guests. Luckily I was able to keep control until we reached the barn at the top of the hill (all the while trying to keep the wedding guests from freaking out) and drop that team at the barn. Turns out, the mare had been stung right beneath the brichen (the part around the horses behind parts) and every time she moved the leather pinched the bee sting. I had raw hands for days after that incident, because I hate wearing gloves to drive and have you ever tried to hold back a panicking Percheron/Belgian cross?
    That said, I think I could fit right in with the endurance fashion crowd, since I hate little in my now domestic life so much as putting laundry away in proper drawers.

  5. OK--I've got to say something in defense of "cowboy" backcountry riders--cause I was/am one of those. First off, my gang wore T-shirts, ball caps and jeans--not a fancy vest, Stetson hat or bit of bling amongst us. Second, we didn't do 50/100 mile days, no. But we didn't come back in an hour either. In actual fact, unlike you endurance folks, we didn't come back to the rig for a week or two. Thirty miles was a long day for us, leading our pack animals at a steady walk, but at the end of that day we made camp beside a pristine mountain lake without another soul around and drank our cocktails as our horses grazed in the meadow. I imagine ridecamp has its pleasures, but you're not gonna get that particular pleasure, which in my view is one of the sweetest things on earth. And finally, when we did come back to the rig, after ten days crossing the Sierras and then back again, we looked every bit as disreputable as any endurance rider possibly could, as baths were limited to swims in chilly lakes and the occasional shampoo with a kettle heated over the fire. Not to mention we didn't have room to pack much change of clothes. Yep, we were FILTHY. But very happy, having seen some of the loveliest country on earth. And having had time to sit down and relax with it in peace and quiet, and our horses, too.

    Now Aarene, I am not running down endurance, and it sounds like you have a blast (I also appreciate your sense of humor), but just remember that all backcountry riders are not quite the dudes you describe. Some of us have a little knowledge, know how to pack a horse, and are not into looking fancy, just wanting to get away from the crowd and enjoy the mountains.

  6. LAURA makes the excellent point that backcountry riding groups don't normally dress up in fancy leathers and ride for an hour at most. It's true: in fact, the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington (State) are responsible for building and maintaining miles and miles of highcountry trails in my region. They are, on the whole, excellent riders, marvelous people, and hard workers. They are NOT all "men", despite the non-inclusive title of the organization. When I see them riding the high country trails, they are usually dressed in jeans, shirts, and hats--practical, hard-wearing gear. They don't normally trot down the trails at speed, but they do spend a good long day in the saddle during their organized mountain rides, and I know one group that makes the finest campfire chili I've ever tasted in my life.

    THIS particular gathering, as lytha will attest (she's got pictures!), was not a "ride" as much as it was a long-weekend party with horses. They were dressed to party, not to ride, and they really looked fine (but also uncomfortable in the heat). It was the distinct contrast between the beautiful tooled-leather gear sported by the "cowboys" and the raggle-taggle garb of the endurance riders that made me laugh. They really did look at us like we were a bunch of pansies, until Lew showed up. I think we would've gotten along okay without Lew, but he speeded up the friend-making process. Some of them even tried out our "novice" ride (12 miles) and earned a t-shirt...and we clapped like crazy for them at the awards dinner. By the end of the weekend, we were all swapping hip flasks and comparing tattoos and scars as if we'd been partying together all our lives. Ah, good times.

  7. Excellent advice Aarene!

    And I enjoyed this post immensely!
    I imagine that sitting beside a fire listening to you tell stories about some of the rides and people you've met, would be very enjoyable.
    Perhaps someday....


  8. Oh and I forgot to mention that I live in Cowboy Country.

    Wearing helmets and riding tights is a sure way to not fit in.
    And that's just the way I felt for a long time (still do sometimes with the hardcore western garb wearing folks)

    When I first started wearing a helmet a few years ago, not only was I practically the only one to wear one in my riding circles, but I got teased about it unmercifully....basically telling me that "to wear a riding helmet is to ask for trouble to happen".

    I started wearing colorful helmet covers because I figured if I couldn't fit in with the western wear, I would just make my own style and have fun with it. Plus, my white helmet was just too boring.
    Soon after I had folks asking me where I found my helmet covers. lol!

    And when I started wearing riding tights and breeches about 2 years ago I was laughed at!
    I was so happy to not be wearing jeans anymore and having to bunch everything up just to mount and having to adjust everything once in the saddle (I'm sure my horse appreciated not having my butt grinding and shifting all over her back, too!), and not to mention, not not having indentations in my skin from snaps, zippers, seams, and wrinkled denim.

    But it wasn't until I started wearing more colorful tights by the Tights Lady, brown faux leather with western fringe built into the side seams or purple, or leopard print! And with a padded crotch built right in.
    I soon folks asking me for info where to get their own riding tights pretty quickly.

    And now I see more western riders wearing helmets and riding tights...and I finally fit in. lol!!



Post a Comment

To err is human. To be anonymous is not.

Popular posts from this blog

In which we take (metaphoric) coals to Newcastle by boat and barge

In which it's that time again: we're headed for Sawmill Flats to build trails