From the most decorated Olympians to lead-liners at the county fair, equestrian competitors generally all train their eyes on the same prize: the coveted first-place blue ribbon in a class or division. Why is it that we passionately pursue the blue? We pose this question not as a means of reflecting on why we invest so much time, money and energy into what outwardly appears to be a lowly reward (the ribbon itself, and not the accomplishments, to be sure!), but rather quite literally, why are championship ribbons blue, and not purple, lime green or striped black and white?
Among the possible answers, the most plausible traces back to the Knights of the Holy Spirit, an order of chivalry founded by Henry III of France in 1578. Admission to this elite group was exclusively by the king's appointment, with members limited to high-ranking clergy, princes and powerful nobles. Knights of the order wore specific vestments, including a Maltese cross hung from a long strip of blue fabric, which in French translates to cordon bleu ("blue cord"). The knights became so associated with this ornament, that they actually became collectively known as Les Cordon Bleu, and then, over time, this expression was extended to refer to other distinctions of the highest class.
The Knights of the Holy Spirit were abolished and revived a few times until eventually the French monarchy was completely dissolved. But their influence lived on. The Blue Riband, an unofficial accolade given to the regular-service passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean fastest, took its inspiration from the cordon bleu. The spelling blue riband, still encountered in many English-speaking countries, was altered to blue ribbon in the United States, and blue ribbons came to be commonly awarded for first place results in competitive endeavors well beyond ocean crossings.
So next time you come out at the top of your hunter, jumper, dressage or other equestrian discipline competition, congratulate yourself for the fruits of your hard work and dedication, and celebrate your de facto entry into les cordon bleu, a few centuries late!