The Savvy Station

What to Wear Horseback Riding: A Beginner's Guide

by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Jan 10, 2024

What to Wear Horseback Riding: A Beginner's Guide

Horseback riding attire is more than fashion. Believe it or not, most apparel is chosen for functionality, comfort, and safety when it comes to horses. As you begin shopping for horseback riding outfits, it can easily become overwhelming with all the options for both English and Western riders. We've broken down the basics you'll need to start with equestrian sports.

What Does a Beginner Horse Rider Need?

Regardless of your riding discipline, you'll need to invest in a few items before getting started. You'll need:

  • An ASTM/SEI-compliant horseback riding helmet
  • Long pants, such as jeans or breeches
  • Boots with a heel
  • A fitted shirt

Each of these items will depend slightly on the discipline. For example, Western riders often wear jeans, while English riders wear breeches.

English vs. Western Horseback Riding

English and Western riding have different origins, tack, and apparel. English riding is a very structured style of riding that originated from the mounted military.  Dressage, jumping, and polo are all English disciplines. Western riding originated from the cowboy culture, when riders were spending long days in the saddle working cattle. Roping, reining, and rodeo sports are all considered Western riding.

When it comes to apparel, Western riders usually wear a traditional cowboy hat, shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. More and more Western riders are moving away from traditional cowboy hats in favor of a Western-style riding helmet. English riders usually wear helmets, breeches, paddock or tall boots, and half chaps, if necessary.

Essential Apparel for Horseback Riding

Riding Helmet or Cowboy Hat

Most English riders prefer to wear a riding helmet. Make sure to purchase a properly fitted ASTM/SEI-certified helmet. Western riders often opt for a traditional cowboy hat, but many are shifting to a Western-style helmet, which is safer but still blends with the discipline. If you are taking lessons, your instructor may require a helmet, regardless of your riding discipline.

Riding Boots & Cowboy Boots

Boots with a small heel are important for safety on and off your horse. The heel prevents your foot from sliding through the stirrup, putting you at risk of being dragged in the instance of a fall, and the tough leather exterior protects your toes. Select a pair of breathable, comfortable, and durable boots. Synthetic soles with traction are a good durable option and tend to hold up better than leather soles. You will be walking in these boots a lot, so make sure to break them in before heading to the barn.

Cowboy boots are the main option for riding western. They come in a variety of styles and costs. If you plan to use your boots for barn chores, you may want to look for a waterproof option. English riders have two different styles of boots to pick from. Tall boots or dress boots are traditional and go up to the knee. Paddock boots and half chaps (to prevent leg rubbing on the saddle) are another great option for English riding. Paddock boots are a bit more versatile and can easily be used for riding or barn chores. Make sure to break in your boots and keep them clean to ensure a long usable life.

One more safety feature to take note of; although lace up boot variations are increasingly popular, when riding in a Western saddle, it’s advisable to wear boots that slide on and off.  Western saddle fenders do not detach from the saddle, so in case of a fall where your foot did get hung up in the stirrup, you would want your boot to be able to slide off your foot.  English stirrup leathers slide in and out of a stirrup bar as a safety feature to help prevent this type of accident.  

Riding Shirts & Pants

"Official" riding shirts are available from any equestrian apparel brand, but it's less critical for shirts to be strictly horseback riding shirts. A form-fitting or athletic shirt is a great option for horseback riding. Select a moisture-wicking fabric for summer riding to avoid fabric sticking to your skin. You want to avoid a loose-fitting shirt or loose jackets in cold weather, as they can get caught in your tack as you mount or dismount.

Many Western riders still ride in long sleeve button down shirts, both for the look and for the protection they offer.  If you plan to compete, be sure to check your sport specific requirements, as many Western spots require long sleeves in the arena.  

Jeans are classic and functional riding pants. Most bootcut jeans can be used for horseback riding. You'll want jeans with some stretch, flat inseams, and long enough to cover your boot while mounted. There are also riding jeans available, specifically cut to flex while in the saddle.

Most English riders prefer breeches, which come in a variety of colors and cuts. Full-seat breeches have synthetic grip or suede on the seat and down the inner leg to help secure the rider in the saddle. Knee-patch breeches offer the grip in the inner knee area only.

Chaps or Half Chaps

Many Western riders wear either chaps or chinks, especially during events and shows. Chaps and chinks are designed for protection working cattle and riding through brush, aka chaparral, hence the name.  They provide extra grip and protect your legs and are still widely used on ranches and in competitions in a variety of locations today. Half chaps are an English riding item and are paired with paddock boots. Half chaps are made of leather or synthetic material and cover the calf. This prevents your legs from chafing.


Both English and Western riders wear gloves at various times. Riding gloves help you grip the reins and will keep your hands warm in the winter. Riding gloves come in leather and synthetic materials. Make sure to use riding gloves and not regular work or winter gloves when riding. Riding gloves have a special grip, while other gloves can be slippery on the reins.

What NOT to Wear Horseback Riding

While it can be tempting to pull anything out of your closet to go horseback riding, there are a few things to avoid when getting in the saddle.

  • Shorts - While shorts may be cooler on a summer day, your legs will chaff on the saddle
  • Yoga pants or leggings - Yoga pants are great for yoga but can be very slippery on a smooth leather saddle. They also don't provide any leg protection.
  • Tennis shoes, sneakers, or sandals - You need a small heel when riding to prevent your foot from sliding through the stirrup. Exposed toes in the barn are also at risk of being stepped on!
  • Loose, flowy shirts - These might look great during date night but can easily get snagged on your tack.
  • Poorly-fitting boots - Make sure your boots fit and are broken in before heading to the barn. Loose boots cause blisters faster than you think!

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