Here’s a photo of yours truly in 1977, I believe, on one of my first great show horses, March Wind, who was a champion racehorse before I took him on as a show ring hack and hunter. I’m wearing a green coat with yellow lining I bought to show in with a chestnut horse…..this was a popular color in the 70’s. It had gold buttons and was cut in a frock style, a single vent in the back, and fit me beautifully, and I wore it for probably ten years at least. (Not a shadbelly – I’ve never owned one – but it was a lovely coat nonetheless.) It went into my closet, and with my very best clothes, tucked away, and it’s moved with me for over 40 years now. It’s been in Washington, British Columbia, Alberta, California, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Delaware and Virginia. I still have it. I can’t fit in it but I hope to this year as I start my journey to lose weight and get fitter.
This coat is a symbol of the simplicity of what I had in the past and a reminder that it is simple and not complicated to get happy in the future. It’s safeguarded in my closet. I’ll bring it out to look at it once in a while. It will keep me inspired. I’m going to fit in it again.
Shadbellies, because they are expensive and tend to be difficult to purchase, have a tendency to live for a long time. They are only worn on special occasions for championship, international, or special classes so only a really tippy top rider ever has enough opportunities in their life to wear out a shadbelly. My green coat that I love so much is a long-traveled coat, but most shadbellies I know have wonderful stories of world-wide trips and incredibly special competitions that define a life in sport horses.
Unlike a helmet, or a pair of gloves, a coat looks like nothing sitting there on the hanger, but it is a large part of a photograph of a rider and has a feel to it that a rider never forgets when you take it off the hanger and put it on. Just pulling on the sleeves and buttoning the double breasted front makes you suck in your breath — it’s about to get real! Shadbellies have memories all of their own. Horses come and go, husbands and boyfriends come and go, farms and stables come and go, but shadbellies sort of live forever.
A friend posted a picture of a shadbelly for sale recently that was labeled a “Lucky Shadbelly”. Funny thing is, I remember this shadbelly because my former coach, Bonnie Mosser, wore it when she was competing in Europe at the four-star level and at Rolex a few times. The shadbelly was third at Burghley after dressage and it got around 8 four-stars. Lucky indeed. I know a Rolex rider who wears a 25-year-old shadbelly purchased second-hand for $50. It got her around Rolex a few times and to Europe for nearly a year-long riding education. The Second-Hand Shadbelly that provided a first-class experience. I know a shadbelly that was accidentally left at a horse trial in the warmup, and given up for lost, yet retrieved by the show management and returned, all via Facebook posts that had everyone looking for it. The Facebook Shadbelly.
What a curious name – “shadbelly”. It actually came from the era of formal dress standards, and is several hundred years old. In the 1600’s, mens’ coats were “cutaway”, or the long flaps cut back in the front so they could mount a horse. This style became a formal daytime fashion, and such “cutaway” coats became “morning” coats, or coats gentlemen would wear in the morning to take horseback riding exercise. The style had several different cuts throughout the succeeding centuries. In America, the Quaker religion dressed conservatively, always in black coats with the tails cut back from the center, following what was said to be like the ventral line of a shad (a fish) belly, or underside. Hence the name, “shadbelly”. A similar name, “weaselbelly” was thought to have developed also to describe this type of coat but perhaps referred to the soft and short fur lining on the tails to protect the wearer from cold carriage seats. Yet another name for a type of this coat is “swallowtail”, which I think is where the tails are cut squarely or tucked upward on the bottom, like the tail of the swallow. I think pretty much “shadbelly” today refers to the coats now worn by equestrians (primarily women) and are almost alway cut high on the waist with rounded ends to the tails; they are usually double-breasted; sometimes cut with a variety of different types of collars; and sometimes with or without vest points. Cutaways and morning coats are also still worn socially, but usually for formal social occasions such as weddings or balls. There is not a lot of definitive information on the way the shadbelly sort of ended up being equestrian formal wear, but it probably came from the foxhunting tradition, which came from English genteel society (think “Downton Abbey”).
Check Ebay, you’ll find lovely old shadbelly coats for sale, some used, that were worn long ago by a rider who has long since given away her riding things and sold her horse, or a shadbelly worn recently but no longer needed. There is of course an etiquette for wearing a shadbelly; in eventing they can only be worn at the upper levels, and in the hunter ring, are appropriate only in “formal” classes, such as the Classics, Derbies or championship classes. In dressage they are saved for the upper levels as well. There is something elegant about the tiny waist of the beautiful rider, with the double breasted jacket crossed over her front with the brilliant white stock around the neck. Good shadbellies have sweat-resistant lining, and a little weight sewn in the bottom, of the flaps, to keep them down, and from errant flapping as you ride. More than one hot horse has jumped through a lead change when they felt the tails slap their flanks! The vest points under the front of the shadbelly used to only be canary yellow, but today come in all sorts of interesting patterns and colors. The dressage and eventing riders at the international level can put some logos and sponsor buttons as well as country colors in a small way upon the coat, but these are restricted by the rules as to size and placement.
You can find them priced from a low of $180 for a gently used one, to $2,500 or more for a custom-made one. They are only made by a few companies worldwide, and usually of very finely woven cloth, the kind that drapes like a king should wear it. They are always dark, either midnight blue — which is a very dark navy — or black, but sure enough, as soon as you say that, someone comes up with one in a different color! Formal rules of sport mostly follow the dark colors directive, however. It is very rare to see them in any color other than midnight or black.
Below I’ve posted a picture of Boyd Martin and Buck Davidson wearing the shadbellies they wore at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy. They were custom made for them by Hermès, who updated the coats with great looking fabric and an uber-cool slim fit, and the neat blue collars and vest points for trim just really pull the whole look together. They are only a few months old and already they are world travelers with stories to tell!
Funny thing about a great coat, the minute you pull it on over your shoulders, you know if it fits you and if it must be yours. That’s how my green coat felt at one time. I long for that feeling again.
What’s your coat got to say? Do you have a wonderful old coat or shadbelly in your closet? Tell us its story, and send us a picture of you or someone you know wearing it. I know it has one to tell!