Friday, May 22, 2015

Sparkles on My Shadbelly

Yesterday I wrote about Lauren Kieffer, and how her elevation to Team USA gives her the right to wear a red coat for the rest of her life. It does. But red coats are for showjumping, phase three of our sport, eventing, which is basically a riding triathlon. For phase one, dressage, Lauren gets a little USA patch to sew onto her shadbelly. (For phase two, she gets a team crash vest. Not kidding.) Shadbellies are formal coats with long tails that extend past the saddle. They're only worn in international-level competitions--they used to be worn with top hats until people got smart and started wearing their crash helmets in all three phases--and they're gorgeous. Away with the naysayers that say we should dress as though we're athletes, not ballroom dancers. I say ballroom dancing can be athletic, too, and I covet a shadbelly with all my heart.

I was reminded of the Team USA shadbelly patch today because I read an article over at The Chronicle of the Horse, written by someone who'd had a very uneven weekend competing--as in, the footing at the water jump was uneven, and she fell into it. The main point to the article is that eventing is a community; when the author realized in panic that she'd left her shadbelly at home, another rider immediately loaned her hers. That rider was Jan Byyny, a team rider, so carried the Team USA patch. The non-team rider wore it anyhow. I would have too.

(Eventers will loan other competitors, even complete strangers, absolutely anything. I've loaned my hammer, studs, medical armband, pitchfork--I've borrowed crops, hole punches, a show coat, pitchforks...)

There are six recognized levels of eventing in the US, Beginner Novice through Advanced (overseas the names are different), and four international levels, one-star through four-star. The fourth US level, deceptively named preliminary, pretty much correlates to the one-star level, although a one-star event will always be difficult--a prelim on steriods, if you will. I would love to go prelim, but really doubt I will ever go higher. So a one-star is my only shot at wearing a shadbelly. Mmmm.

I went shadbelly window-shopping at Rolex. Time was, you could only get your shadbelly in black, and the little points that stuck down over your waistband, to give the impression you were wearing a vest underneath, only came in traditional hunting canary. No more. Shadbellies have exploded into a plethora of patterns, colors--okay, mostly variations on black or navy--even crystals. Some shadbellies sparkle. My magpie self swooned.

Ellie MacPhail, who I consider a friend even though she's young, lithe, gorgeous, and talented, rode her first Rolex in a dove-grey shadbelly whose soft blue collar was outlined in crystals. Her horse was a grey, so the whole picture was unbelievably lovely.

My trainer, Cathy, is a staunch traditionalist whose shadbelly you had better damn well believe is straight black. She was doing commentary for showjumping at Rolex; on a break, my daughter and I ran into her. "I want crystals on my shadbelly," I said.

Cathy said, "No."

Mmmm. I figured I had a few years to soften her up. But then I was at a riding clinic a few weeks ago and again expressed my desire for a bedazzled shadbelly. One of the instructors shook her head. "You've got to be damn good to get away with crystals on your shadbelly," she said.

That's true. One of the unspoken rules of eventing is that you can only get away with sartorial extremes if the community feels that you've earned them. I once saw a woman ride her dressage test in a daffodil-yellow shirt and identically-colored breeches (coats had been waived). She was a former Olympian, which made it okay. Ditto the woman in a pink helmet, or anyone with the guts to wear white gloves in dressage. Me, well--black hides a multitude of sins.

Still, I have two options. One is that it will take me so long to earn my shadbelly that crystals will have become passe, even de rigueur. The other is to "forget" my shadbelly, and borrow Kieff's. The one with the patch that reads Team USA.

Edited to add: just received word from a secret but wholly reliable source that Lauren Kieffer's shadbelly, the one onto which she is even now sewing her new Team USA patch, has a secret interior glittery ribbon. Now all I have to do is lose 40 pounds--and qualify for a one-star--so I can fit into it.