Throughout history, the cowboy lifestyle has been decorated as exciting and iconic. The portrayal of cowboys has been glorified in television, books, and epic stories which unfold countless legendary adventures dealing with gun-slinging outlaws, free-range cattle, and harsh weather conditions.
Today, the role of the American cowboy has changed quite a bit, but their robust qualities remain. The fascinating character of a cowboy makes one think of horseback riding with a wide-brimmed hat, cowboy boots, blue jeans, and chaps.
Are all these western garments just for show to fascinate women of the 21st century or is there a practical purpose to each of these pieces of cowboy apparel? Let’s explore ranch chaps in detail and learn about how they are used and the history with them.
What are chaps?
Chaps are leg coverings that consist of a sturdy material held together by a belt and are worn over trousers. Although, unlike other trousers, they do not have a covering at a person’s bottom or crotch area.
Equestrian chaps are commonly made from cowhide leather except for a few historic styles made of sheepskin, goatskin, bear, or buffalo. For entertainment purposes, there are also chaps made of lighter, synthetic materials such as vinyl or Ultrasuede, although, these would likely be found in horse shows rather than out on the dusty trail.
Are ranch chaps just for show?
Despite their stylish appearance, they are useful for adding a protective layering to the legs of cowboys for various reasons. The cowboy lifestyle can often require working and riding in difficult circumstances and chaps prove to be useful when riding in thick brush and dealing with various weather conditions that may come up within a single day. Having the extra layer of leather protection for the legs was useful for daily activities. In fact, the word “chaps” is derived from the Spanish word chaparehos, which meant leather britches or “legs of iron”.
Another purposeful use of chaps is to protect the rider from horsehair while also protecting the horse from the rider’s legs. They have also served many cowboys with protecting from rope burns when dealing with cattle, horses, or other livestock. Chaps have also been useful when working closely with livestock as the extra protective layer on the legs helped if there was any kickback from a live animal.
While the extra layer of protection provided by chaps began with the cowboy culture, it is now used for many different situations including professional work with a chainsaw and riding motorcycles (often seen with Harley Davidson riders).
History of Cowboy Chaps
The chaps we see today have gone through many changes since the design was first originated. In the early 1500s, when the Spaniards were importing cattle from Cuba to Mexico, the first Western cowboys needed a solution to protect their pants and legs when capturing escaped cattle.
The first design began as what the Spanish called armas, which was a permanent large leather cloth fixed to each side of a horse’s saddle pack. Another design originating around the same time, armitas, were hung from the belt and made from two pieces of buckskin. They were then tied down around the legs with leather straps.
These armitas (meaning “little armor”) have evolved into the style of leg coverings today known as “chinks”.
Many modifications were made to the leg coverings to fit the environmental conditions as the Spanish ranchers made their way up north, but the first true style of chaps was founded by Texas cowboys in the early 1800s.
Different Styles of Chaps
This style had a closed leg position, similar to seatless pants, and was made of two leather pieces held by a belt. Often, they included outside pockets for the riders. They were also referred to as “shotguns” since they resembled a double-barrel shotgun in appearance.
The “shotgun” chaps, also called “stovepipes”, were originally created to be loose fitting for comfort but today are commonly seen at horse shows as having a snug fit. These chaps are better at trapping body heat, helping to keep the rider warm in snowy or windy conditions but are not meant for humid weather.
There was another variation of this style that was called “woolies” which were thicker and made of fleece or cowhide hair. These were used during cold, harsh winters to keep the legs warmer and were often seen in the Rocky Mountains or Northern Plains.
This style allows a rider to have more freedom in movement by having a wide cut at the bottom and are fastened at the thighs. The batwing chaps are more practical for hot weather since they have better air circulation than other styles. This design is more commonly seen on working ranches in Texas and rodeo shows.
The bat-wing style chaps seen in rodeo shows often have a good bit of flair compared to designs seen on a working ranch. They will often be colorful and even decorated with long fringes, which are more for entertainment rather than practical purposes.
Chinks (Half-length Chaps)
Another popular style of leg covering found in the West, “chinks” stop below or above the knee and have a long fringe at the bottom and sides. They are more suitable for warmer climates such as the Pacific and Southwestern States. Chinks have a leg shape cut that is between batwing and shotgun chaps and are usually fitted with straps placed high on the thigh.
Chaps: An Essential Piece of Cowboy Attire
Chaps have changed quite a bit since the Spanish began driving cattle up through Mexico and modern-day Texas in the early 1500s. In fact, chaps vary a bit from different regions since they have evolved to fit the weather and working conditions of various areas.
Today, chaps can be both flashy and decorative for showmanship or practical for a working environment- either way, they play an important role for the modern-day cowboy.