Ask the Judge -Rule Clarifications

Dear Amy,

I was recently a competitor at a USDF dressage show and I watched some other riders’ tests.  I am confused by some of the rulings for decorating mane braids and tail braids, and for riding with seat covers on the saddle and nose nets on the bridle.  I observed several riders who were allowed to compete and others who were eliminated for using what looked like the same equipment. I cannot figure out why these things are okay for some riders and not for others. Could you please explain the rules?


Dear Confused,

These are great observations. As you noticed, it is clearly quite important to know what is allowed and what is not so as to avoid a disappointing elimination. Let’s take a look at each of rules in question.

1. There are many things to keep in mind when it comes to braiding your horse’s mane. According to the 2020 USEF rulebook DR121.7

• Braiding the mane is not mandatory but definitely looks neat and prepared. It also allows your judge to better see the development of your horse’s neck and topline.

• There is no ruling on how many braids or on which side of the neck the braids should lie.

• All styles of braids are allowed.

• Having a roached mane is acceptable

When you do braid a mane, any decoration – flowers or ribbons or anything extravagant –is strictly forbidden and will entail elimination. At a recent show, a horse and rider were eliminated because the horse had a sweet shamrock pin in its mane for good luck. Even though it looked adorable, according to the 2020 USEF rulebook, decorations such as these are strictly forbidden and so the elimination was unfortunate, but was to be expected.

2. Here are things to keep in mind when it comes to braiding your horse’s tail. According to the 2020 USEF rulebook DR121.7

• Braiding your horse’s tail is perfectly legal although not a common practice in dressage competitions. A loose, well-groomed tail can enhance the look of your horse’s relaxation to your judge. Many riders will bang the bottom of the tail (a straight even cut across the hairs near their tips.) Some riders will trim the short hairs on the sides of the tail near the dock. All this is allowed and will help to give your horse that polished look.

• A red ribbon in a horse’s tail is permitted. This would and should only be used to identify a horse that kicks.

• An interesting fact is that false tails (similar to a wig or hairpiece for people) are permitted in dressage, as long as they do not have any metal parts.

• As with the mane, according to USEF 2020 ruling, any extravagant decorations other than a red ribbon to identify a kicker is strictly forbidden and will entail elimination.

3. What about seat savers – those coverings that go over the top of your saddle to provide comfort, warmth or security? There are a few factors involved with these. According to the 2020 USEF rule book DR 121.7 and DR 121.14

• Seat savers are forbidden in the warm up as well as the show ring. Using one is strictly forbidden and will entail elimination, except:

• Athletes holding a Federation Dispensation Certificate may use special saddlery and equipment as specifically listed on their certificate. A seat saver can qualify as special saddlery

• If you want to use a seat saver, you will need a dispensation letter, which you can request from the USEF. In order to have such a letter issued, you would need to have a doctor’s signature on a statement saying that using one is essential for you to be able to sit with comfort in the saddle. If approved, you would have to submit this letter with every entry. A copy would then be attached to your test for the judge to acknowledge. This is the only way you would be able to show with a seat saver legally. 

• At a recent show, there were two riders who entered the arena using seat savers. One rider had a dispensation letter and the other did not. The first rider did well while the other was eliminated.

4. Let’s look at the regulations surrounding “nose nets.” These are coverings that attach to your noseband and are intended to calm horses that shake their heads while being ridden. There are a few factors to know. According to the 2020 USEF rule book DR121 .9 a and b

• Nose nets are perfectly legal provided the entry is accompanied by a signed letter from your horse’s veterinarian. The letter must be attached to each test.

• The letter must be on the veterinarian’s stationery and must clearly state that the horse has been diagnosed with head shaking syndrome and that the condition is improved with the use of a nose net

• There is a list of approved nose net brands on the USEF website.

• At a recent show, there were two riders who competed with nose nets. One had a veterinarian’s letter and was legal; the other did not and was eliminated.

I hope this brings clarity to your questions. Remember it is always important to know the current rules before competing to avoid elimination and disappointment. Read the rulebook, and if you have any questions about whether any piece of equipment is legal, it doesn’t hurt to ask the technical delegate at the show – he or she is there to help you.

Good luck to you in future competitions.

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