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Western Fashion: Head to Toe

Chapter 7
CHAPS

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Chaps are the starting point and primary element of your show wardrobe.
By
Suzanne Vlietstra
Hobby Horse Clothing Co. Inc.
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 complement. Your chaps should be the most flattering garment that you own, as they'll 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.

Do you have to wear chaps when you show in western classes? Not necessarily. There are some 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 you should too. Even in classes for young children, outfit your little ones in chaps if the majority of other kids will be wearing them. It's a horse show, and you will judged on how you look.

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Chaps cover more than half of your body, and set the tone for color and style that the rest of your ensemble should complement. Shown: Simplicity Leadline Show Chaps
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 the horns of wild cattle, 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 the standard in ranch horse events) 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 beautifully 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.

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Your chaps should make you look slim, feel good, and ride with confidence, which won't happen if they don't fit flawlessly. Shown: Ultrasuede Fringed Show Chaps
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.

Your chaps should start to zip up high under 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.

Cuffs add weight to the bottom of your chaps and help them fit tidy 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.

Quality Hardware
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
Leather chaps should be carefully laid out and cut to maximize the most attractive part of the hide for the yokes, cuffs, and outer legs, with fuzzier or softer parts of the skin used under the rider's thigh or in the lower leg. There are no perfect hides, however. Small scratches, color variation, and other marks are normal in genuine leather.

Innovative Styling
Today’s show chaps may include elastic inserts to provide a trim fit with great comfort, and spur slots which allow the legs to zip down to the heel without interfering with spur use.

FREE DOWNLOAD! It's show time... and time to look at what to wear this year. Use Hobby Horse's FREE Personal Fashion Worksheet to vet your wardrobe and get Ready-to-Win!


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Today's show chaps may include elastic inserts to provide a trim fit with great comfort, and spur slots which allow the legs to zip down to the heel without interfering with spur use. Shown: Split Leather Classic Show Chaps
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 a good investment 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. There are advantages and drawbacks to each material; 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 of the hide. 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. Split leather may 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. Split leather chaps are less expensive than most other chap materials, are 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 leather 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 30 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. Genuine Ultrasuede (the trademarked name for a patented product made in Japan) is recommended for chaps, along with proprietary synthetics, developed especially for making chaps.

Though Ultrasuede and chap-specific synthetics may not be as durable as leather, they can be a good choice in hot or humid climates, for children, and for pale colors that get soiled easily. Synthetics are not recommended for men. For most pleasure events, specialized synthetic suedes can provide comfort, colors, and ease of care unmatched by leather.

Now that we've considered fit and fabrics for chaps, let's talk 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 gets twisted into the zippers as you put your chaps on.

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 narrow tapered 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.

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Silver shows on dark colors. Use silver sparingly on pale colors and go for a dramatic contrast between silver and chap shade on dark colors.
Now for the frosting on the chaps: silver buckles and conchos. Chaps can be designed to accommodate a wide range of silver accents around the waist, 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Silver shows on dark colors. Use silver sparingly on pale colors and go for a dramatic contrast between silver and chap shade on dark colors.
  3. 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.
  4. Silver adds weight. Elaborate silver buckles and conchos can thicken your waist and add the illusion of width. To most effectively minimize your waistline, use almost-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 chap shopping, and insist that custom chaps be exactly what you ordered before accepting them.

Show Chap Care
For more information on how to add years of life to your chaps, including washing and re-dyeing, click here.

Next: Chapter 8 - Boots


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© 2017 Suzanne Vlietstra
Hobby Horse Clothing Co. Inc.

About the Author: Suzanne Vlietstra is a horse parent, show clothing designer, boarding stable owner, and writer. Her current horsehold includes a Haflinger and a pinto pony. Comments? Reach her at suzi@hobbyhorseinc.com