A good pair of riding pants is a great investment. Nothing… absolutely nothing… makes a horseback outing more miserable than realizing you have chosen the wrong riding pants. You'll feel better, sit better and ride better if you wear breeches, jodhpurs or jeans that fit well and are made of comfortable, high-quality material.
Luckily, you don't have to suffer for fashion's sake. Today's riding apparel manufacturers are tailoring riding pants to a much wider variety of body types, while catering to a broader range of equestrian disciplines, both western and English.
Your own riding habits, of course, will determine the best choice for what you wear below the waist. If you ride five to six days a week, or climb aboard multiple horses a day, durability, all-weather capability and comfort will likely be priorities. If you're a recreational rider who mounts up just a few times a week, you might opt for softness rather than hardiness.
If you jump, you'll want breeches that stretch. If you're a trail rider, you'll want comfort, of course, but you'll also need to consider how much protection the material affords while riding through brush, and how the fabric performs in changing weather conditions. Dressage aspirants might want to consider full-seat breeches that help you stick to the saddle. Cold-weather riders will need insulation, while summer riders will want lightweight fabric that breathes.
English riding pants come in two basic styles: breeches and jodhpurs. Breeches are form-fitting and come to just below the calf muscle. They are usually worn with tall boots or paddock boots and half chaps. Jodhpurs, which come to the ankle, are designed to wear with short boots.
Jodhpurs are popular with young riders who grow out of boots quickly, especially since paddock boots are less expensive than full-length calf boots. But lately jodhpurs have made a comeback in adult circles as well. Many of the major brands are now making jodhpurs out of the same comfortable and durable material they use for breeches. Both are made to fit snugly around the legs and rear end to prevent chafing.
Breeches can be made of both cotton and man-made materials. Polyester/spandex mixes tend to be the least expensive and the easiest to care for. The man-made materials are machine washable. The other common combination is cotton/spandex because cotton feels good against the skin and spandex makes the combination stretchy. (Note that spandex, Lycra and elastane are essentially the same thing. Lycra is Dupont's name for spandex. European manufacturers use the word elastane.)
Cotton mixes can lack durability because the fibers in cotton are farther apart than those of polyester and more likely to fray and tear. Riders who spend a lot of time in the saddle find cotton breeches wear through the crotch and inner thighs pretty quickly.
Ribbed material, often a poly/cotton/spandex mixture, helps riders stick to the saddle without full leather seats. The new micro-fibers, which are made from polyester or nylon, have all-way stretch, don't bind across the knee or at the hip, and tend to be more durable.
"My favorite fabrics for riding pants are the micro-fibers, especially the Prestige Scholler fabric used by Pikeur," says Karen Evans of Aztec, New Mexico. Evans is a dressage, eventing and trail rider who spends about 40 to 50 hours a week in the saddle.
"These micro-fibers are much more comfortable than regular cotton, don't fade in the southwestern mega sun, and they last at least three times as long."
Wicking material that pulls moisture from the skin became popular with winter sportswear makers, but now several breeches are made with the same fabrics. The same is true for cooling materials. For example, Kerrits makes a breech out of Cooltek, a quick-drying fabric that absorbs sweat and breathes. The company also makes a fleece breech for winter riding.
Lynn Myers, who lives in southern Colorado, rides in all kinds of weather. "I have a pair of pull-on insulated jodhpurs by Boink," she says. "They are wonderful. They are warm, don't collect hay, shavings or horse hair, and wash great."
In the summer, many riders prefer to skip the polyester or Lycra mixes for cotton. Manufactures now make breeches that are 95% cotton and just 5% stretch material.
Cuts and Seams
Most breeches are cut full through the hips and thigh. Traditional breeches have a high rise (the space between the crotch and the waist) so they can rest stable on the rider's body. However, with the recent street fashion trend toward the low-slung, hip-hugger style pants, some manufacturers are offering low-waist riding pants as well. These tend to be more popular with teenagers who aren't as full in the hips. One thing to consider though, is that breeches/riding pants naturally pull downward as the seat moves in the saddle. Breeches with too low a rise might expose, um, a bit too much in the back.
Women's breeches now come in as many cuts as there are body types. Sigma Figurefit, for example, makes a cut that's shapely through the rear end. Riding Sport and several other manufacturers have designed breeches with pleated fronts.
Almost all breeches have seams running down the outside of the leg. An inseam will rub against the rider's leg, so it's something to avoid. Look for riding pants that have as few seams as possible to find the most durable and comfortable options.
A man hankering for the same variety in breech styles and colors as are available to women is in for some bad news, at least in this country. There are far fewer styles for men, and they are hard to find in equestrian retail stores. However, the same attributes determine comfort and durability: fewer seams, and on the outside of the leg rather than the inside.
English riding pants, whether jodhpurs or breeches, are made with leather, faux leather, or reinforced fabric patches at the knee. Knee patches usually start a little higher than mid-calf and run above the knee to mid-thigh. Extended patches run higher for more inner thigh protection and grip, and full seats run all the way up the back.
Patches can be made of several materials. Clarino, for example, is a soft, durable man-made leather with a synthetic fiber base layer, a microcellular polyurethane layer and a finish coat simulating the grain of natural leather. Clarino is machine washable and generally doesn't stiffen after a spin in the washing machine. Another type of man-made patch, called QuickTek, is stretchy and sticky. Soft leathers, like deerskin, are also used for patches, as are suede and Ultrasuede (a synthetic material meant to mimic the real thing in comfort and durability, but also machine washable).
In riding jeans, which are made longer than breeches and with stretch material, the knee patch is actually a doubled layer of the same fabric.
For full-seat patch durability, leather is the most hardy, but more difficult to clean. The best full seats are made with the leather as the actual back of the pant leg, not sewn onto a layer of material. This means that the rider's skin and leather are in contact. There will be fewer seams to come apart, but be forewarned that the first few times you sweat in a pair of blue or black full seats, you may be astonished by the color of your legs afterward.
Full seats have the advantage of helping the rider's seat stick to the saddle more firmly and protect from chafing. There's no middle ground on full seats-riders either love them or hate them. The riders who love them feel like they are protected from chafing and stick nicely to their saddles. Full seats have the same disadvantage: Some riders don't like the limited amount of movement that comes with leather full-seat breeches against a leather saddle.
A relatively new style of jodhpur combines full-seat leather or long patches for protection and grip with stretch material and a boot cut. The pants flare at the bottom, allowing the rider to get his cowboy or paddock boots on and off. Some even have a zipper from the cuff to mid-calf to make this process easier. Some western riders like these because the leather full seat serves the same purpose as bulkier chaps, with more stretch than jeans.
But when it comes down to it, Wranglers are still the jeans of choice for many western riders. They have a roomier seat and thigh (which makes the pants easy to get on and off), have a higher rise, and are boot cut, so cowboy boots can easily slip underneath them but the jeans won't ride up.
When off the horse, Wranglers "stack," which means the extra material gathers around the ankles. In fact, riders recommend buying riding jeans an inch or two too long because the fabric will ride up a bit once you're in the saddle with a bend in your hip, leg and ankle. You'll want enough length to keep your boot tops covered.
Wranglers also have the double seam on the outside of the leg instead of the inside. For men, several manufacturers, like Cinch, have started making diamond-shaped crotch seams to avoid pressure points in the saddle.
For showing or to wear under chaps, stretchy material is popular, too, with western riders. Most manufacturers, including Wrangler and Cruel Girl, now make stretch fabric jeans. Some styles of Cruel Girls have a high waist and no back pockets to leave a smooth line under chaps.
Riding jeans, which are built like English-style breeches, with a tight material, reinforced knees, and seams on the outside of the leg, are also popular with western riders because they fit well under chaps but still look like jeans.
Whatever style you choose for riding, there are two essentials to remember: Avoid seams that run up the inside of the leg, and remember that riding creates friction. If you want to ride in tight pants, choose stretch fabric. If you want to ride in jeans, choose a roomier fit and more length. But most of all, if you're not comfortable walking or sitting in a chair in your riding pants, you won't be comfortable in the saddle.