Talking Hats

By Cindy Butler from WDAMI

Your Western (Cowboy) hat tells a story about you.

Cowboy HatsAll Western hats are not the same.  I tell my riding students, you can scrimp on your outfit and still be properly attired for a horse show, but buy a good hat!  The judge will know who you are from a glance at your hat.  Show that you are serious and in it to win it.

That said, I acknowledge that a helmet is always a good option and definitely a safer one for riding.  However, the Western hat is part of our Western heritage and culture.  Many of us proudly wear our hats in the tradition of our disciplines to show or participate in Western activities on and off our horses.  We can tell the wanna-bees from the real McCoys by their hats.  Sometimes, we can tell what breed you ride, what discipline you ride, where you’re from, if you are detail-oriented and serious, or if you are classic, trendy or stuck in the Stone Age.  One thing we can always tell is if you don’t have a clue about hats!

You don’t have to be a hat snob to hear what some poor hats scream about their owners.  Do I even have to say; if there’s taxidermy on your hat, you might be a redneck?

As a judge, when I see an exhibitor enter the ring, I make a quick scan for illegal equipment and note their horse’s frame, expression and carriage before I go on to evaluate anything else.  I don’t really notice the silver on the saddle or the clothes, as long as they’re all legal, but I can’t help subconsciously noticing the hat.

How do you know if you’re wearing the right hat?  A good trainer or riding coach wilI tell you.  I ask my students to let me advise them prior to purchasing show hats.  Once, however, one of my students returned from a vacation adorably adorned in a fancy, new hat.  Unfortunately, it was not the kind of hat horsemen wear.  I told her it was great for night clubs, but not for horse shows.  “But it was expensive and I bought it at a real Western store”, she said.  I am sure Richard Petty and Bret Michaels bought their hats at “real Western stores” too, but no self-respecting, legitimate horsemen would be caught dead sporting the atrocities on their heads.

Yes, all western stores cannot survive on business only from horsemen.  Some must also cater to the desires of race car drivers, rock stars, boot scooters, sun worshipers and grandmas looking for Cowgirl Jessie, fringed, toy hats.  They also sell peacock feathers, rattlesnake tails and all kinds of gawdy hat paraphernalia for Western hats.  Wearing these things to horse shows is like wearing a clown suit to high school.  You can do it, but is that who you want to be?

The right hat doesn’t have to be the hat with the most X’s (the highest quality and the most expensive), but it has to be the right style and shape for your discipline.   If you don’t know what that is, look at your most recent breed or discipline magazine or observe what the winners are wearing at national level shows.  Take pictures!  If you notice, you will see barrel racers wear blingier hats, Western Pleasure riders wear taco-shaped hats and Paso Fino riders wear stove-pipe crowns with flat tops and smaller, rolled brims…  Find your breed and your discipline.  Consult with your trainer or successful showmen in your area.  Also, consider what looks good on you (a shorter lady may like a shorter crown and smaller brim).

There are felt hats and straw hats.  Felt hats are generally more formal and can be worn anytime.  Straw hats are less formal and reserved for warmer months.  If you only want to buy one hat, you are best informed to buy a classic style felt in black or near white.  You will be able to wear it with different outfits and have the brim re-shaped if styles change a little.  And, of course styles do change…

When buying a new hat, go to a reputable retailer where there is a designated hat salesman with horse show experience.  This person will custom shape your hat. Show him/her the pictures of the shape you want and don’t check out until your new hat fits perfectly (tight enough not to blow off in the wind, but not so tight that it gives you a headache) and is symmetrical.  This may sound odd, but shaping hats is not easy and you must make sure that the brim is even on both sides and straight across the front and back.

Also, buy a hat can to store your hat in and a hat brush to clean it.  Why go to all the trouble of getting the shape perfect if you are just going to throw the hat in your trailer and let it get knocked around?  Hats are delicate and they will tattle to the judges if you mistreat them.  Never set your beautiful new hat on its brim!!!

I never feel more sympathy for anyone as I do for showmanship kids who come into the ring with smashed up, crooked hats.  Come on moms, those hats are crying to the judges; “Save me”, “Please, just put me out of my misery” or worst of all “I just want to be clean”!

Western Dressage is a melting pot of Western styles because it welcomes all horse breeds and riders from all other disciplines.  Because it is a very young discipline, it doesn’t have it’s own fashion identity yet. Most Western Dressage riders stay true to their breeds and backgrounds.  Many wear cattlemen’s creases and four inch brims (or a quarter inch smaller for smaller faces) with conservative, classic shapes.

At first, the language of the Western hats can be a little confusing to riders coming to Western Dressage from traditionally English-style breeds and disciplines.  They are new to the ways of the West and there may be no examples of Western style from their breeds to emulate.  When I was in Italy, the trail guide told me she was an English rider with an “American Cowboy hat”.  She had on a canvas “Crocodile Dundee” hat…

Hat styles of winners and trendsetters will influence the hat choices of future Western Dressage riders and one day there will be a signature look that announces Western Dressage riders to the World (except for trail guides in Tuscany who don’t get out much). Someday, a judge will look at a hat and think, “Well now, there’s a Western Dressage rider”.

In the mean time, if you don’t know what your hat is saying about you, find out.  It might be time for an upgrade.  Darned those talking hats….