The job of cowboy has retained many of the traditions that started with the vaquero (cowboy) of Mexico. The early cowboys worked on ranches and periodically showed their skills at “roundups,” precursors to today’s rodeos. Stories of their doings have become legendary, but they often obscured the realities of the work they undertook: riding in wild terrain, with cattle, in all weather conditions. Cowboys spent most of their working time on horseback, so protective clothing became something of real importance–hence, the development of their distinctive chaps.
Chaps, sometimes pronounced “shaps,” refers to the garment worn by cowboys for the protection of their legs. The word chaps comes from the Spanish word chaparro, which refers to a low-growing thicket that damaged clothing as cowboys rode through it. Most chaps (other than woolies) are made from cowhide that is tanned and dyed and mostly “split,” making the leather supple and allowing for easier movement. The leather on the chaps had a slightly sticky effect on saddle leather and was better than ordinary trousers at helping to keep riders in their seat. Chaps are comprised of leggings and a belt. The leggings are buckled on (using the belt) over suitable trousers (denim jeans, for example), but have neither a seat nor a crotch. They are usually fitted around the hips, resting below the belt loops of the trousers.