Western Horse Show Fashion Clinic 10: Chap Details

Last time, we talked about the importance of show chaps as the largest visual element in your show impression. Now, let’s look at the fit, fabric and trim that can make your chaps uniquely yours.

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.

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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 redyed to freshen up their color, but delicate shades will be hard to match in redying. Expect split leather to also bleed (transfer 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 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–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 his/her 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 does 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 beautiful equitation. A simple flap accomplishes the same thing for men or ladies: covers the zipper teeth and makes 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 of 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. Remember, you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression, so strive to create a winning impression the moment you step into the ring!Next part > Boots > 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.