Rider John Anderson competes in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on March 20, 2016.
Rider John Anderson competes in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on March 20, 2016.

The topic of appropriate attire surfaced at HITS Thermal, California on Sunday, March 20th, when show organizers offered riders the choice to wear short-sleeved, polo shirts instead of the traditional hunt coat during the West Coast winter circuit’s finale class, the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix.

When roughly one-third of the class rode through the ingate wearing white, blue, green striped, bright red, or bright pink polo shirts, it sparked a fierce debate between those who believed the casual wear acted as a sign of disrespect to the sport of show jumping, and those who thought the heat of the day, combined with acting in support of the class’s sponsor, warranted such an exception.

While it’s not unheard of for hunt coats to be waived due to excessive heat, it was a highly unusual move by show managers to relax the attire rule and to allow polo shirts to be worn for this level of grand prix competition. The $1 million class stands as the West Coast show jumping industry’s largest prize money class—and one of the most competitive classes held in North America.

HITS Thermal Desert Horse Park is located east of Los Angeles in an arid, desert climate. By mid-March, temperatures regularly climb into the 90s, and by Sunday afternoon, the temperature was at a high of 95 degrees under a cloudless sky.

Nicole Peterson competes in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on Sunday, March 20.
Nicole Peterson competes in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on March 20, 2016.

Before competition began, class sponsor AIG provided all 33 riders entered in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix with logoed polo shirts in a variety of colors and gave them the option to wear the shirts.

However, with the addition of breathable, high tech, stretch fabrics into the sport, the heavy wool hunt coat has long been a torture device of the past. Riders in hot climates around the country now benefit from formal attire constructed of materials that are designed to be non-restrictive and light—to move with the athlete in the saddle, without trapping the suffocating heat that its precursor was sure to hold inside.

That was the argument set forth by those who soon after voiced that competing in a hunt coat (and for male riders, a tie) is critical towards maintaining a professional image for the sport of show jumping—especially so during a competition with as of a high profile as the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix. The nationally-sanctioned grand prix was governed under the rules of the United States Equestrian Federation, which requires “proper jumping attire” to be worn in competition. See the definition of proper jumping attire here.

McLain Ward competes in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on Sunday, March 20. Ph. Bret St Clair
McLain Ward competes in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on March 20, 2016. Ph. Bret St Clair

Show organizers and riders who chose to compete in polo shirts countered that their decision stemmed from the combined respect to the class sponsor, AIG, and the sweltering, desert heat. AIG representatives were on hand at the Thermal Million to personally connect with the competitors. It was from their encouragement to wear the polos—which featured a small AIG $1 Million logo on the right sleeve—that pushed many riders in the direction of opting for the short-sleeved alternative.

For what it’s worth, McLain Ward won the $AIG Million Grand Prixwearing the proper jumping attire of hunt coat and tie. Richard Spooner warmed up in a short-sleeved shirt and put his hunt coat on at the ingate. Eric Navet delivered a crowd-cheering performance in a black jacket and promptly removed it as he exited the ring. All three riders are international, highly accomplished veterans of the sport, and by presenting themselves in formal attire, their professionalism carried over.

And if those three examples fail to convince critics that hunt coats are viable options in Thermal weather, one only needs to look to Karl Cook, who rode in a leather and cashmere jacket that he designed.

Charlie Jayne, who placed 2nd, and Jonathon McCrea, who placed 3rd, wore polo shirts. As photos would later reveal, the shirts came loose and untucked from the vigorous, athletic efforts required by the sport.

At the end of the day, no rider’s attire made him or her more or less competitive–after all, show jumping is a objective sport, and all that really matters is jumping the fences clean. But in terms of image and presentation, especially so when the event is marketed and promoted to an audience that reaches around the world, show managers may want to think twice before allowing a change in appearance so dramatic that alters the image of their event, and sparks a heated debate. If nothing else, this year’s AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Thermal created an interesting flashpoint on the meaning of respect for a sport that is steeped in tradition.