You can expect to spend several hundred dollars for a pair of quality custom chaps. But, just like the right saddle, chaps are an investment that will last for years and enhance your performance. Horse-Canada spoke with two in-demand chap makers, Ian and Jennifer Coxworthy of Richvale Saddlery in Schomberg, Ontario and Lorna Amlin of Tofield, Alberta, to get their take on the importance of a quality pair of chaps.
“All of our chaps are made from full grain leather in weights of 3 to 3.5 ounces,” said Jennifer Coxworthy. “Full grain leather is chosen for its strength and durability.” Amlin added, “I use top grain either in full (smooth) or split (suede) in 3 to 5 ounces. If the customer wants decoration on the tops, I use a 10-ounce tooling leather.”
Insist on brass zippers for long life, said Coxworthy. Amlin uses aluminum zippers if a customer wants to save some costs, but also recommends brass for chaps that are going to be used for tougher work. Zippers should start at the top and zip down on both legs. Schooling chaps, whether English or western, are meant to provide excellent grip and protection to the legs from rubs and the elements. They should fit tightly so they don’t ride up and be made of thick, but soft quality leather for comfort and durability. Cheaper leather can wear or stretch, which will actually cause more rubs than it prevents.
For the western show rider, chaps are arguably the most important element of the winning wardrobe. They cover a fair bit of the body and set the tone for colour and style that the rest of the outfit should complement. A custom fit pair will ensure they are flattering so that you feel good, look slim and fit and ride with confidence. Show chaps should hang snugly off your waist, not the hips, and flare to fit smoothly over the boot tops. They should be long enough to cover the heel of the boot when in the saddle. There are variations for different disciplines, such as with cutting chaps that are buckled on and very long so that they swing and enhance the movement of the horse.
Work chaps can be more utilitarian, but it is still worth investing in a good quality pair. If made for a cowboy who rides, ropes and drags calves to the fire, said Amlin, they, of course, need a heavier leather, that will repel quite a bit of moisture. They usually have fringes or at least a flap to cover the zipper. The chaps should end right at the boot heel so they don’t walk on the bottoms. Recreational riders, who ride on trails and to the mountains now and then or just do a lot of riding, need only a lighter weight leather and this will reduce the cost somewhat.
In general, leather is sold in four forms:
- Full-grain leather refers to the leather which has not had the upper ‘top grain’ and “split” layers separated. Full-grain refers to hides that have not been sanded, buffed or snuffed (as opposed to top-grain or corrected leather) to remove imperfections (or natural marks) on the surface of the hide. The grain remains giving the fibre strength and durability. The grain also has breathability, resulting in less moisture from prolonged contact. Rather than wearing out, it will develop a patina over time.
- Top-grain leather is the outermost, smoothest part of the hide, from which the hair is removed. It’s had the “split” layer separated away, making it thinner and more pliable than full grain. Its surface has been sanded and a finish coat added to the surface and will not develop a natural patina. It is typically less expensive and has greater resistance to stains than full-grain leather, so long as the finish remains unbroken.
- Corrected-grain leather is any leather that has had an artificial grain applied to its surface. The imperfections are corrected or sanded off and an artificial grain impressed into the surface and dressed with stain or dyes.
- Split leather is leather created from the fibrous part of the hide left once the top-grain of the rawhide has been separated from the hide. Splits are used to create suede. The strongest suedes are usually made from grain splits (that have the grain completely removed). Suede is “fuzzy” on both sides.Batwing chaps are cut wide with a flare at the bottom. Generally made of smooth leather, they have only two or three fasteners around the thigh, thus allowing great freedom of movement for the lower leg. This is helpful when riding very actively, and makes it easier to mount the horse. This design also provides more air circulation and is thus somewhat cooler for hot-weather wear. Batwing chaps are often seen on rodeo riders, particularly those who ride bucking stock.Chinks are half-length chaps that stop two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) below the knee, with very long fringe at the bottom and along the sides. The leg shape is cut somewhere between batwings and shotguns, and each leg usually has only two fasteners, high on the thigh. “They originally were used in the hot climates, and the cowboy wore tall boots, with the pants tucked inside the boot, so the leg was still enclosed in leather, but it was a bit cooler,” said Amlin. “Now they are kind of a crossover. Pasture riders wear them, as well as the cattle penner or the weekend rider. I think they are comfortable to wear and still give protection. They could be used to trim the odd hoof, or protect your pants when throwing bales.”
- Half chaps, also known as “chapettes.” are a popular style of equestrian gaiters that extend from the ankle to just below the knee. When worn over a short paddock boot they give the protection and some of the appearance of a tall riding boot, but at lower cost. They are widely worn by children in horse shows and by trail riders. Half chaps usually are made of leather, and have a zipper or hook and loop closure on the outside. They provide grip for the rider, and protection from sweat and the stirrup leather. They are commonly used over the paddock boots of English-style riders in place of tall boots.
- Shotgun chaps, sometimes called “stovepipes,” were so named because the legs are straight and narrow. They were the earliest design used by Texas cowboys, in wide use by the late 1870s. Each leg is cut from a single piece of leather. Their fit is snug, wrapping completely around the leg. They have full-length zippers running along the outside of the leg from the thigh to just above the ankle. The edge of each legging may be fringed and the bottom is sometimes cut with an arch or flare that allows a smooth fit over the arch of a boot. Shotguns do not flap around the way the batwing design can, and they are also better at trapping body heat, an advantage in windy, snowy or cold conditions. Shotgun chaps are the design most commonly seen in horse show competition for western riders, especially western equitation. English riders who wear full-length chaps also usually wear a shotgun style, usually without fringe.