Chaps are, quite simply, the most important element of a winning western show wardrobe. They cover more than half of your body, and set the tone for color and style that the rest of your ensemble should compliment. Your chaps should be the most flattering garment that you own, as they'll very likely be one of the most expensive! But, like just the right show saddle, chaps are an investment that will last for years and enhance your performance every time you enter the show pen.
Does everyone who shows in western riding classes need chaps? No. There are a few breeds of horses that are shown with western tack but chaps optional. As well, chaps may be optional in some local shows and, surprisingly, in N.R.H.A. reining competitions. However, if your competition is wearing chaps then do so yourself. Even in classes for young children, outfit your little ones in chaps if the majority of other exhibitors will be wearing them. It's a horse show, and you will judged on how you look.
Did you know that chaps have their origin as protective clothing? Working cowboys in the far west, called Vaqueros (today's buckaroos) wore leather leggings to keep brush and thorns, as well as angry horns, from tangling in their stirrups or injuring horse or rider. Though today's show ring models, often called shotgun chaps because their full-length fitted zippers make your legs resemble a shotgun, are just for show, other styles of chaps still have practical uses. Batwing chaps (fitted at the thigh and loose below) chinks (like batwings but in a shorter shin length) and schooling chaps (fitted chaps worn by English and trail riders for daily protection) all have a place in a well-appointed tack room, but let's focus on the requirements of riders in western pleasure and similar classes.
For most western show events, a perfectly fitted pair of shotgun chaps should be your goal. Your chaps should make you look slim, feel good, and ride with confidence, which won't happen if they don't fit flawlessly. Show chaps should hang snugly off your waist, not your hips, and should cover some or all of your pants belt when you are mounted. They should fit smoothly through the thigh and hip, with almost no gapping at the front of your thigh.
Show chaps should start to zip up high on your seat to reduce gapping—picture your zippers starting on the outside lower edge of your jeans pocket—and those zippers should fall not down the side of your leg, nor the back, but halfway between those two points. Show chaps should be fitted to the knee with slight ease for comfort, then flare to fit smoothly over your boot tops with no twist to the leg. Your show chaps must be long enough to cover your boot heel when you are in the saddle.
Chap style and construction will vary with the chapmaker's experience and sense of style, but look for the following:
Heavy Shaped Yokes and Cuffs
Yokes, around your waist, reinforce the chaps and minimize stretching and add a decorative effect. Yoke designs should sandwich the top edge of the outside zipper too, as this point receives tremendous strain. Cuffs add weight to the bottom of your chaps and help them fit tidily around your foot in the stirrup.
The long, curving expanse of the chap's upper leg is susceptible to stretching and should have a second layer of material sewn to it to minimize stretch. This reinforcement is invisible sewn to the inside of the chap leg: why many chap makers put it on top of the leg to create an unsightly stripe around the thigh is a mystery.
Insist on brass (golden) not aluminum (silver colored) zippers for long life. All buckles, D rings, and other hardware should be sturdy and attractive.
While synthetic suedes are uniform throughout the piece, natural hides have stronger and weaker spots. Leather chaps must be carefully laid out and cut to maximize more attractive leather for the yokes, cuffs, and outer legs, with fuzzier or softer parts of the hide used under the rider's thigh or in the lower leg. Of course, all chap hides should be of excellent quality and large enough to eliminate holes and excessively weak spots from the finished chaps. There are no perfect hides, however. Small scratches, color variation, and other marks will always be in genuine leather.
Expect to spend several hundred dollars for a great pair of chaps- and consider your needs before you go chap shopping. Though chaps come in many materials, colors, and trim combinations, basic black with fringe is far and away the most common purchase. If your budget only dictates one pair of chaps, put your money into flawless fit rather than silver accents or exotic leathers. Chaps will last for many years (providing your weight stays within about a 20 pound range) and it's well worth it to buy quality basics rather than cheap, trendy chaps. Second-hand chaps are also often a bargain, again provided they fit you like that proverbial glove.
Today's show chaps are made from various types of animal hides and some synthetics. You should know the advantages and drawbacks of each before you purchase chaps, and match your chap choice to your riding needs, comfort and color requisites, and your budget.
Split leather has a fuzzy sueded nap on both sides. It comes in a wide variety of colors but, like all leathers, is susceptible to sun fading. Leather chaps can be washed and re-dyed to freshen up their color, but delicate shades will be hard to match in redying. Expect split leather to also bleed (transfer some color) onto your pants and saddle. Split leather is the thickest of the show chap materials, which makes them hotter and bulkier around your legs, but some riders prefer split leather's grip against their saddle. Because this material is firmer than some other leathers or synthetics, split chaps must be especially carefully fitted to prevent gapping, and may not fit curvy figures as well as softer, drapier materials. Split leather chaps are less expensive than most other leathers and synthetics, the most durable of show chaps, and a practical choice.
Garment leather- also called glove tan or top grain, this leather is sueded on one side and smooth on the other, so the material can be used to make 'smoothie' (shiny side out chaps) or traditional sueded chaps. Softer, more pliable, and slightly cooler than split leather, garment chaps will tend to stretch more than the firmer leathers—which can be an advantage if your weight increases through the show season! Smoothie chaps are almost maintenance free—just wipe the dust off with a towel—but rough out chaps will sun fade, especially along the upper thighs. Garment leather is considerably more expensive than split, and the hides also tend to have more scratches, rough grain, and flaws than splits. If you invest in these beauties, make sure your chap maker knows their business.
Synthetic suedes made their appearance about 20 years ago and offer several advantages over leather. They are cooler, come in a rainbow of colors, are more colorfast than animal hides, and can be machine-washed. All synthetic suedes, however, are not created equal. Only genuine Ultrasuede (the trademarked name for a patented product made in Japan) is recommended for chaps. Though Ultrasuede is much more expensive than competing products (in fact, more expensive than most leathers) it holds up to the abrasion between a rider's legs and the saddle, where many 'fake suedes' simply shred apart. Beware: Ultrasuede comes in three thicknesses, and the lightest is absolutely unsuitable for chaps. The regular weight is adequate, and the heaviest and most expensive, called Ultrasuede HP (High Performance) makes superior chaps.
Go to an expert if you want Ultrasuede chaps. There are many tricks to making this material look and hang like leather, and though home seamstresses are often tempted to use this fabric store splurge item for chaps, they're usually disappointed when they create wrinkly, fake-looking leggings. Though Ultrasuede is not as durable as leather, it's a good choice in hot or humid climates, for children, and for pale colors that get soiled easily. Ultrasuede is not recommended for men. If you do rough events like working cow horse and reining, think twice about Ultrasuede for your only pair of chaps. For most pleasure events, though, Ultrasuede can provide comfort and ease of care simply untouched by leather.
Now that we've considered fit and fabrics for chaps, let's ponder trims. The biggest choice here is leg trims: traditional fringe, feminine scallops, or a tailored plain flap. Fringe is the hands-down winner in leg trim popularity, but it does jiggle as you ride and it can annoy when it constantly gets twisted into the zipper. Small flat half-loops, called scallops, are a delicate way to avoid fringe's drawbacks, and can spectacularly highlight a showgirl's beautiful equitation. A simple flap accomplishes the same thing for men or ladies, covering the zipper teeth and making the rider's leg look long, lean, and business-like.
Now it's time for the frosting on the chaps: silver buckles and conchos. Chaps can be designed to accommodate a wide range of silver including round and novelty conchos on the back, small buckles on a front strap with or without coordinating conchos, and the trendy reiner-style chaps that have a small front buckle and a big (usually 1 1/2") buckle set in the center back. Everyone has their own preferences in silver trims, but here are a few pointers:
• Silver draws attention. Put it where you want a viewer's eye to travel- say, a single concho in the small of your back—and not where you want to minimize movement, for instance on your heels if your horse requires a lot of leg aids.
• Silver shows on dark colors. Don't spend a fortune on silver for a bone colored pair of chaps—it won't show from across the arena. Use silver sparingly on pale colors and go for a dramatic contrast between silver and chap on dark colors.
• Silver requires care. Be sure to remove your silver from chaps before cleaning so you don't transfer tarnish or silver polish onto the chaps.
• Silver adds weight. More elaborate silver buckles, conchos, and waist trims will thicken your waist and add the illusion of width. To most effectively minimize your waistline, use invisible Ultrasuede or leather covered button conchos.
Chaps are the starting point and primary element of your show wardrobe. Carefully consider your needs and desires before committing to chaps, and insist that custom chaps be exactly what you ordered before accepting them.
Writing or riding, Suzanne Drnec enjoys horses and their people. Drnec is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Company, a show apparel manufacturer, and also the caretaker of an assortment of lawn ornaments including a Paint, a Quarter horse, and an antique Arabian.
Copyright 2002 (c) Suzanne Drnec reprinted with permission. Please visit www.hobbyhorseinc.com to find a retailer near you.