Western Horse Show Fashion Clinic 9: Chaps

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.

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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 NRHA 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 are 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 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.
  • Thigh reinforcements. 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.
  • Quality components. Insist on brass (golden) not aluminum (silver colored) zippers for long life. All buckles, D rings and other hardware should be sturdy and attractive.
  • Thoughtful construction. While synthetic suedes are perfect 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.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.Next part > Chap Trim > Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12Writing 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.

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