If you’ve ever wondered about those sturdy leather leg coverings you see cowboys wearing, well, you’ve come to the right place. Those are what we in the cowboy class refer to as chaps or leggings, and come from an early form of protective leather garment used by cattle herders in Spain and Mexico. Originally called armas, meaning “weapons”, they were two large pieces of cowhide that were used as a sort of protective apron. Attached to the horn of the rider’s stock saddle, they were spread across both the horse’s chest and the rider’s legs. From this early and rather cumbersome design came modifications that placed the garment entirely onto the rider, when then-style variations adapted by the vaqueros of Early California and Northern Mexico, and later the cowboys of Texas and the American West, refined the protective garments into something with both cowboy purpose and pure buckaroo style.
Not just relegated to cowboys, there is evidence that certain design features may derive from the mountain men of the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, and the Pacific Northwest, who likely copied them from the leggings worn by Native Americans. Over time, different styles developed to fit local climates, terrain and hazards. Designs were also modified for purely stylistic and decorative purposes. And, while the time of actual appearance of this gear on the American cowboy is uncertain, by the late 1870s, most Texas cowboys wore them as the cattle industry moved north. In fact, by 1884, the Dictionary of American Regional English first notes use of the word in Wyoming, although spelled then as “schaps.”
And, like many other bits of cowboy gear, the name is a shortened version of a Spanish word, in this case the word chaparreras, so named after the chaparral (you know, that thick, thorny, low brush?) from which they were designed to protect the legs while riding horseback. Like much of western horse culture, the origin of chaparreras was from that part of New Spain that later became Mexico, and has been assimilated into cowboy culture of the American West ever since.
What are chaps used for?
In the modern world, chaps are worn for both practical work purposes and for exhibition or show use. Modern day chaps are sturdy coverings for the legs consisting of two leggings and a belt. They are buckled on over jeans with the chaps’ integrated belt. But unlike trousers, chaps have no seat, a fact that makes me giggle whenever I hear the oft-used term, “ass-less chaps” because, well, all chaps are, umm, well, you get the idea.
Since chaps are designed to provide protection for the legs, they are usually made of leather or a durable leather-like material. Cowhide, with both the smooth, tanned side out, or the rougher underside (called, the “rough out” side) exposed is the most popular and commonly used material. But, like most else of the cowboy class, there are as many different variations in style, design and construction as the mind can imagine.
Your definitive guide to chap styles
So, you wanna know a bit more about the different types of chaps you may see? Read on my friend.
Shotgun chaps, sometimes called “stovepipes,” were so named because the legs are straight and narrow. These were the earliest design used by Texas cowboys, and were in wide use by the late 1870s. Each leg is cut from a single piece of leather. Now, the fit of stovepipes is snug, wrapping completely around your leg. Modern shotgun chaps have full-length zippers running along the outside of each leg from the thigh to just above the ankle, and in many cases running the entire length of the leg. The edge of each legging is usually 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 if you work in windy, snowy or cold conditions. Shotgun chaps are more common on the ranches of the northwest, Rocky Mountains and northern plains states, as well as in Canada, and are the design most commonly seen in horse show competition for western riders. If you are watching a reining competition or a western equitation show, you’re probably seeing a lot of shotgun chaps.
Batwing chaps are cut wide with a flare at the bottom. Generally made of leather with the smooth side out, they have only two or three fasteners around the thigh, thus allowing you great freedom of movement for your lower leg. This is helpful when riding very actively, and makes it easier to mount your horse. The design of this style of chaps also provides more air circulation and is somewhat cooler for hot-weather wear, so if you’re on a ranch in Texas or other parts of the Southwest, these are likely what you will see. Batwing chaps are also often seen on rodeo contestants, particularly those who ride the glorious bucking stock of bulls and broncs.
They were a later design, developed after the end of the open range. Although by definition the chaps that rodeo contestants wear are considered batwing chaps, most contestants I know do not refer to them as batwings, but rather simply as “rodeo chaps.” You’ll notice a few design differences between working ranch batwing chaps and rodeo chaps. Rodeo chaps are usually more colorful and decorated, whereas ranch cowboys prefer toughness over style. Rodeo chaps have long flowing fringe that can be the same or a different color as the main body, while batwing chaps wear on ranches may be customized with a brand or initials and some floral tooling, but typically do not have fringe.
Chinks are half-length chaps that stop two to four inches below the knee, with a very long fringe at the bottom and along the sides. And since they are usually fringed along the outside edge and bottom, their apparent length can appear up to four inches longer. The leg shape is cut somewhere between batwings and shotguns, and each leg usually has only two fasteners, placed high on the thigh. If you’re looking for chaps that are cool to wear (both figuratively and literally) with a design that is suitable for very warm climates, chinks are for you. They are occasionally called “half-chaps” and likely borrowed from the word armitas. Chinks are most often seen on cowboys in the Southwestern and Pacific states, most notably on those who follow the California vaquero or “buckaroo” tradition.
Armitas are an early style of chaps, developed by the Spanish in colonial Mexico and which became associated with the “buckaroos” or vaqueros of the Great Basin area of what is now the United States. They are a short legging with completely closed legs that have to be put on in a manner similar to pants. Built of deer, elk or cowhide, they are usually a bit longer than chinks, but still stop above the top of the boot. Armitas are punchy, no doubt about it, with fringe on the sides and on the bottom to reach the boot tops, and attached by a fringed belt. If you wear armitas, it’s probably because your daddy wore them, and his daddy before him.
A farrier’s apron is a specialized style of chinks without fringe, also known as “horse shoeing chaps.” They protect the upper legs of farriers from getting scratched or cut up in the process of shoeing or otherwise treating the hooves of horses. Some designs have a breakaway front for safety while working. Farrier’s aprons are also sometimes used by ranch hands when stacking hay to reduce wear on clothing.
From a style perspective, one of my personal favorites are woolies. A variation on shotgun chaps, woolies are made with a fleece or with hair-on cowhide, often angora, lined with canvas on the inside. They are the warmest chaps, and have long been associated with the cowboys of the northern plains and Rocky Mountains. They are thought to have appeared on the Great Plains somewhere around 1887, and were a favorite of cowboys if for nothing more than striking a dashing pose in an early daguerreotype.
Zamorros somewhat resemble batwing chaps, in that the leggings are closely fitted at the thigh and flare out below the knee, but unlike batwings, the leggings extend far below the boot with a distinctive triangular flare. Zamorros are commonly made of cowhide, either plain tanned leather or hides with the hair on. They are popular with aficionados of the Paso Fino horse breed, and are derived from styles seen in Puerto Rico and Colombia. Historically, the word zamorros simply referred to a basic shotgun-like style of either smooth or hair-on chaps worn by Colombian riders.
Ok, so how do you pronounce ’em?
One last matter I should touch on related to chaps is exactly how you pronounce the blasted things! With nearly as much consternation as the great debate over the relationship between chili and beans, the correct elocution of these protective leather garments worn on the legs continues to confound cowboys and city folk, alike. The two main camps are those pronouncing a hard “ch” as in the word “cheese” and those who, like me, prefer the cowboy elegance of referring to my leggings as “schaps.” Truth be told either way is permissible, of course, because cowboys don’t judge others. But for me, “schaps” just sounds cool. It sounds nostalgic. And, it rekindles romantic notions of the Old West. Of course, if you’re the kind to steer clear of such controversies, you might just refer to them as “leggin’s” and marvel at the approving nods from the old timers.
“The world needs less apps, and more chaps.”– Modern Cowboy Wisdom
Whatever you call ’em, and whichever style suits best your requirements, your sole bit of unrequested advice is to invest in a good pair of chaps, well-built and customized for you. Yes, you’ll spend a bit of hard-earned money, but I believe there are some things that are worth the expense: a good 20X felt hat, a comfortable saddle that fits, and a sturdy pair of chaps. You’ll know you have the right pair for you if the first time you put yours on, the words “now, git along little doggie” come out of your mouth!
Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★