Performance Show Coats

We found a new meaning to wash and wear.
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We found a new meaning to wash and wear.

A tailored show coat that is also washable: It almost seems too good to be true. Almost. However, advances in performance fabrics over the last few years mean it’s now harder to buy a natural-fiber coat that requires dry cleaning than a coat that trumpets “Machine Washable!” on its hang tag.

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We weren’t convinced, though, so we set out to see for ourselves with moderately priced coats. At the same time we talked to riders at shows and sales people at tack shops about higher-end coats.

We found one serious disconnect—when riders pay a lot of money for a nice show coat, which can easily run from $400 to over $1,000, they’re reluctant to throw the coat in a washing machine. They then wait as long as possible and haul the now smelly dirty coat to the dry cleaner just like before.

No need. We found several riders who were happily washing their coats, even in their motel room at night on a show weekend. And we found numerous tack shop reps who emphasized that indeed their customers were washing their coats and reporting no problems at all.

Even so, we approached our own Maytag with trepidation. Wonder of wonders, the coats in our survey all emerged looking like new. Some we also hand-washed and then rolled in a towel. And gee, they still were dry and wrinkle-free in less than half a day.

We noticed that the “soft-shell” coats looked wrinkled at first but hung out flat by the time they were dry. The coats with a looser weave, even a dressage shad belly with heavy lined tails, were also dry and ready to use again overnight.

While our main focus was washability, the same “performance” qualities that allow a coat to be machine-washed rather than dry cleaned means they also have other desirable qualities as well. Most contain stretch fibers, are cooler than wool blends, and are dirt and water-resistant. This matches similar qualities we reported about for riding shirts in last month’s issue.

Although we rode in all our test coats in spring and summer temperatures, we couldn’t really get them dirty and smelly enough to justify cleaning. All the shorter coats (not the dressage shadbelly!), we then dumped in the wash stall and stomped on them, then left them in the trunk of the car for a couple days and finally washed them. We were impressed.

We found only one real area of concern, and it relates to weave. Some coats labeled as “soft shell” have a fabric that is molded rather than woven, or else has a tight weave. The result is that they’re hot to wear, like an old-fashioned windbreaker. On the flip side, these coats are great in stormy weather as long as it isn’t too warm.

Shopping. With all the stretch fabrics available, fit is not quite as great a concern as before, when we might have selected a coat that was a little big through the waist or long in the arms to make sure we were never restricted through the shoulders. Some of the newer coats come as tailored as before, while many look “draped” on the hanger and then rely on the stretch quality to be form fitting.

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Because of this, closures other than buttons are often now used, including zippers and snaps. You can find models as traditional or as out there as you wish including with more adventurous colors because stains just don’t stick. Be aware, though, that some don’t contain stretch fibers even when they’re washable. If you want stretch, check the fiber content for Lycra and not just polyester.

The greater concern is breathability, and don’t just go by the hang tag. There are no industry standards for the term “breathability,” so manufacturers can make any claim they want. And, on some coats, the outer layer may be fine while the lining could prevent sweat from escaping. Inspect the weave. If it’s fairly loose or see-though (some of the new coat fabrics are thin but tough), it should be OK. Look for mesh inserts in the lining.

Finally, put on the coat and wear it for a while, preferably in the direct sun. You should be able to tell fairly quickly if the coat will trap perspiration rather than allowing it to escape. At the very least hold the coat fabric up to your lips and make sure you can breathe through it.

Choices. Interestingly, the choices for washable coats are much more extensive in dressage lines than they are for hunter/jumper. Of course, a dressage rider will have to wear her coat for a lot longer in a dressage test than a hunter rider will over a course of fences. The options in colors and trims are rapidly expanding in dressage coats but still conservative in hunt coats.

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If you want to go with a custom-fitted coat, the price for ready-made short coats is around $400-$500. If you go custom, you can also get special features and interesting colors along with a tailored fit.

Higher-end shadbellies run $800 and up, although Jo McCracken of Mobile Horse Supply in York, S.C., says her custom-fitted shads are $595. She said that her customers haven’t reported any problems with washing their coats, nor has she heard of any difficulties with tack-shop coats. “Certain companies did a ton of tests,” she said. “They’ve done the research.”

“That’s all I carry any more,” said Beth Haist of The Horse of Course tack store in Claremont, Okla., about washable coats in high-performance materials. 

Care. Haist said that most coats can be swished in a bathtub, rolled in a towel and hung to dry, so they’re fresh for the next day.

Follow the instructions on the coat label, of course, but you likely can use a washing machine on gentle cycle and hang to dry. If you want to be super careful, you can put the coat in a mesh bag and eliminate the spin cycle. In that case, however, the coat will take longer to dry. We actually bashed the coats we washed with a center agitator and used the spin cycle.

Bottom Line. We feel you can accept the “washable” claim on show coats with confidence. Check for yourself that the coat has enough stretch and is light-weight enough for your needs, no matter what the coat tag says. And really check to make sure both the outer fabric and lining are breathable—some of the washable coats are actually warmer to wear than the old-fashioned wool and wool-blend coats. If you can’t find the colors and features you want online or in a catalog, check with a custom coat maker and compare prices as well. You could be pleasantly surprised.

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With the moderate-priced coats we wore and washed, we were most impressed with the Ovation dressage shadbelly and short Performance Coat. They were easy to launder and more comfortable to wear than natural-fiber versions.

Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman.