A pair of chaps is an essential piece of every rider’s attire. In the show ring, chaps create a crisp, professional look and offer extra grip in the saddle. On the trail, they offer protection from brush or tree branches, and on the ranch they shield a rider’s legs from cattle’s horns. Ranch riding competitors wear chaps or chinks for all the same reasons, but these riders also strive to portray an authentic Western look traditionally seen on working ranches.
Given that chaps or chinks cover nearly half your body, contributing to a significant portion of your turnout, it’s important to choose wisely and consider the purchase a long-term investment. High-quality chaps start at a few hundred dollars. Custom-made chaps start at $500, and the price increases depending on the materials and level of customization. One pair can be quite the investment, but can last a lifetime.
We asked four experts from different disciplines to share their shopping advice to help you select your next pair of chaps or chinks, depending on what you do with your horse.
Expert: Julie Goodnight, Poncha Springs, Colorado.
Purpose: “For trail riding” Goodnight explains, “chaps provide leg protection, which is more important than helping you ‘stick’ to the saddle. On the trail your knees, thighs, and lower legs can be scraped, poked, and rubbed by branches, brush, ropes, fence posts, and tree trunks. A tougher leather protects your legs from that impact and is more durable in a variety of weather conditions.”
Choose: High-quality leather and outstanding craftsmanship. “I prefer a smooth outer finish, which is plenty of friction for me. Select a pair that’s easy to put on or take off and allows for adjustability as your fit changes over time.”
Avoid: The clinician advises against baggy legs or a lot of bulk that wads up under the knee; chaps that you have to be a contortionist to buckle, snap, or zip; and full-length chaps that are too short.
Material: “Working cowboys who drag calves to the fire or bushwhack down the trail need tougher, thicker leather that’ll take a lifetime of abuse,” Goodnight warns. “I don’t do a lot of hardcore work in my chaps, so I prefer a softer, high-quality, split leather that’s soft and pliable so it can be well-tailored to my leg. Stay away from the ultrasuede and synthetics if you’re using your chaps for daily riding or rough use.”
Fringe: “If you’re looking for function only, working chaps skip the fringe,” Goodnight says. “The decorative accent makes it harder to zip them.”
Color: “Working chaps will get scratched and stained,” she says. “Natural colors better disguise wear marks than other colors. When choosing a color, consider the climate you live in. In colder climates or seasons, dark colors are fine and can provide added warmth. In hotter regions, darker colors can lead to overheating.”
Biggest Faux Pas: Goodnight advises avoiding chaps that are too glitzy/blingy and divert from functional equipment and leather so thick and poorly tanned that it looks like cardboard.
Shopping Advice: A good pair of chaps can last you a lifetime, so don’t be cheap. “Even though I’ve put three pairs of zippers in them, I still have and wear my very first pair of chaps from when I was 14,” Goodnight shares. “Fit is also really important. Avoid chaps that are too baggy are uncomfortable under the knee and those that restrict your ability to get on and off your horse.”
Expert: Brian Henry, Fruita, Colorado.
Purpose: “In all-around events, chaps create a smooth, sleek silhouette,” the all-around trainer shares. “Judges look for the rider’s body line to be straight and clean with nothing unnecessary around the waist area. Chaps contribute to creating one continuous line from the rider’s ear to her heel.”
Choose: “Chaps are like a good hat: Both are a big investment,” Henry states. “Pick a style that you like and feel confident in. You can’t fake confidence, and when you feel proud of how you look, it will show in the arena.”
Avoid: Flashy silver in the front or back buckle areas, specifically for horsemanship. “I encourage clients to choose the smallest buckle possible for the front closure and a concho in the back,” Henry shares.
Material: “Split leather,” he asserts. “It lasts longer, has a little more stretch, and it looks better overall. In a quick glance, I can see the difference between split leather and ultrasuede chaps.”
Color: “In horsemanship classes, I believe the outfit needs to be one continuous color,” Henry says. “Black is timeless and slimming. If you’re going to opt for fancy, colorful tops, black will match any top. And, you can always find black boots. If you pick another, brighter color it can be difficult to find matching boots unless you have them dyed to match. Brown and other natural colors can work well, but don’t suit every color of horse. The reality is we show in a dirty, dusty environment. Darker colors conceal dirt better.”
Fringe: “Fringe is a nice accent, but I’m not a fan of long fringe that flaps around like motorcycle fringe,” he says.
Biggest Faux Pas: “Especially for all-around events, avoid ill-fitted chaps that are too tight or too loose. They should fit like a comfortable pair of jeans. I don’t like smooth-leather chaps, but they’re making a comeback and some riders really like them.”
Shopping Advice: “Unless you’re shopping for a youth rider, chaps are usually a one-time purchase,” Henry advises. “Buy the best quality your budget will allow so they last. If you have it in your budget to splurge, go all out.”
Expert: Tanya Jenkins, Temecula, California.
Purpose: “In reining events, appropriate and well-fitted chaps convey a professional, polished look to the judges,” says the reiner with earnings in excess of $475,000.
Choose: Chaps that are supple enough so that you can still “feel” the horse and allow you to move your legs with ease. “I’ve found that trying to buy chaps from a catalog just doesn’t work for me,” she shares. “I want a pair of custom-fitted chaps that are measured specifically for me.”
Avoid: Material that will stretch. “When the leather stretches, the chaps no longer depict the polished look that judges want to see in the show pen,” Jenkins says.
Material: “This is largely up to the individual, but I prefer split leather,” she shares. “Split-leather chaps hold up really well and are easy to clean.”
Color: Personal preference carries the most weight. “I’m always drawn to a great pair of chocolate, black, or tan chaps for the reining pen.”
Fringe: “The fringe must be cut correctly so that it hangs well when the rider is on the horse,” she advises. “I’m not too sure about the double colored fringe, only because it may take away from the overall clean look that I desire when showing my horses.”
Biggest Faux Pas: “A pair of chaps that just don’t fit well,” she says. “It takes away from the overall clean look that we all strive for.”
Shopping Advice: Invest wisely. “Chaps are a staple component of our show attire,” Jenkins says, “and it is well worth to investment to have a quality pair made specifically for you.”
Expert: Debbie Cooper, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Purpose: “Exhibitors in ranch riding events are bringing back the traditional Western look,” says the multi-carded judge. “Chinks are as acceptable as chaps and are also designed to keep the rider’s legs from getting scratched. Like anything else, people are putting a fashion twist on them.”
Choose: What works for you. “Exhibitors enjoy ‘feeling western,’ so have fun with what you choose,” Cooper says. “Both chaps and chinks have endless options of how they are secured in the front and the back. When choosing chinks, be aware that there are many options. For example, the legs can zip, snap, or use hook closures to secure them around your legs.”
Avoid: “Chaps that are too short,” Cooper warns.
Material: “Many of the chaps and chinks you’ll see at the national level look like a leather sofa, meaning the smooth side of the hide is visible,” she says. “It’s equally acceptable to have the rough side out. In ranch riding there are more natural textures, and some riders wear chaps or chinks made of actual cowhide.”
Color: “Neutral tones such as blacks, browns, and tans are most common, but choose a color that you like and that makes you feel good,” Cooper advises. “It’s unlikely you’ll see greens, golds, or bright colors you’d see in the pleasure or horsemanship classes.”
Fringe: “The fringe tends to be longer on chinks than chaps,” Cooper states. “Double fringe with two different colors that are twisted together is also popular. Some of the chaps and chinks I’ve seen in ranch events are more like pieces of art. It’s not uncommon to see hand-tooled designs that reflect the rider’s personality. If you love yellow roses, you can add them to the yoke. I’ve seen a rider who loves dolphins wear a pair of chaps with dolphins in the tooling. The key is that these embellishments are discrete.”
Biggest Faux Pas: “I don’t really think there is one,” Cooper says. “In ranch riding events, riders are choosing to preserve tradition, so you’ll see fashion trends that were originally popular in the 1950s and 1960s. That often includes accents such as buckstitching, whip stitch, conchos, and double fringe.”
Shopping Advice: Have a little fun choosing your chaps or chinks. “Riders have a lot more flexibility in ranch riding events as compared to other events, but it’s important to remember that a phenomenal outfit will not supersede a performance,” Cooper says. “At the same time, judges still expect riders to look put-together and well-groomed.”