Going Riding in the USA

Cowboy Boots

For the English Equestrian Tourist

Cowboy boots can be an attractive option on an American riding holiday. They fit the American Western-style riding experience very well, are interesting souvenirs, and, above all, work very well as riding boots. But choosing the right boot, both for style and for fit, is hard, as they are so different from English footwear.


The typical cowboy boot comes to about 4" below your knee-cap, has a tall, sloped heel and pointed toe; the shaft would commonly be 13" tall. They are designed for riding in, not walking (or dancing!), and all of these features are for your safety on horseback. The tall, stiff leg protects against sores from the stirrup leathers, and from scrapes and thorns; it may help a little to protect your leg from crushing if you are rolled on. The heel prevents your foot slipping through the stirrup, and the pointed toe makes it easier to find the stirrup without looking. The plain leather sole allows for rapid dismounts without tearing your foot off.

Boots are available in very many sorts of leather; in my opinion, only cowhide, calf, buffalo, elephant and kangaroo (and possibly goat, although that is mainly for dress boots) are suitable for riding in; I haven't decided about shark and stingray. Everything else is decoration. Various lizard skins in particular are delicate, and prone to drying out. As boots are worn (by men, at least) inside jeans, patterns on the shaft are invisible, but are protected against damage. Historically, the shafts worn outside your jeans would have protected the more delicate fabric, but functions change. What appears to be fancy stitching on the foot actually helps the vamp (that's the leather covering over the top of the foot) to flex in the right places and wear in better.

There are many minor variation possible within this format. Toe shape varies, as does heel height and slope, and shaft height. The pull on mechanism can also vary considerably. But it is worth noting that the basic construction of a cowboy boot is considerably different from an English shoe. Most obvious is a rigid shank going length-wise along the sole, usually of metal, although I believe it can be of wood. Many boots of modern construction rely heavily on artificial layers for padding, but the best are still all leather (apart from the shank, and the wooden pegs that secure it). The sole is invariably of smooth leather (in boots of decent quality).

The most popular variant of cowboy boot is the "roper". This is a relatively recent invention ('60s, I believe), designed for cowboys who rope cattle, and hence are hopping on and off their horse all day, and may even need to run at times to catch a calf. The shaft is shorter (10"; midway up my shin), toes are rounded, and the heel low and straight. These are the cowboy equivalent of trainers.

Another variation is the "packer". These are like high ankled military boots, with laces, and are intended for use when a lot more walking (like leading horses) may be required. The original Ariat boots were of this type; all Ariat's use a modern style Western construction, although going all out for plastics for padding, etc, and relatively light-duty leather for the uppers. This is even true of Ariat boots that look like English constructions, like jodhpur boots. Because of the leather, and the fact that they use plastic soles without welts, I don't expect that they will last as long as a traditional boot.

Brands and Pricing

The commonest (and usually cheapest) are Justin, Nocoma and Tony Lama - all part of the same company nowadays. These are mass market boots built to a common pattern, but are generally of a decent construction - soles may be artificial at the really cheap end. Liners are generally plastic, and shafts mostly unlined. The pegs will be metal nails. Cheap ones are $60 - $80, going up into the low $100+. If I wanted to buy a cheap disposable pair of boots, I'd go for these.

At the mid-market are many names: Dan Post, Durango, etc. These will all be all leather, often with some fancy leathers, and are mass manufactured. Expect to pay $100 - $200. If they fit well, these are a worthy option, certainly much better than a more expensive boot that doesn't fit quite as well.

The high end is teeming with many small, handmade, operations. Pricing is usually $200 - $1,000, depending on the maker, degree of customisation, and materials. Lucchese are one example of these, with wide distribution. Entirely hand or custom made boots are $500 - $2,000, or more for really exotic leathers. Provided that the materials are up to it, any of these boots can be used for riding.

How to fit

The fit of a cowboy boot is very different from that of an English shoe. A well fitting, well worn in boot will be snug around the instep, both above and underneath. The toes will be free (despite the point), and the fit at the heel will be close enough that, despite the stiff sole, the heel will flex with the foot as you walk, once worn in. A new boot will feel tight around the instep, and the heel will slip up and down a little - but will make contact with the heel of the boot. It may be quite hard to pull on, but so long as it is possible at all to get on, it will relax a bit with wear. The general recommendation is that it doesn't matter how tight the leg is when getting the boot on for the first time; it doesn't matter much once the boot is on. The best way to get a boot on for the first time is to be standing up, hold the pull-ons, and push your foot hard into the leg. If it hurts, it's too tight. If you have to put your foot in a plastic bag (some dealers suggest this), it's too tight.

If you rub a finger across the instep, there should be no apparent slack in the boot, and certainly no wrinkle. If this makes it sound that a new boot will be uncomfortable, that isn't the case; a well-fitting new boot may be hard to get on, but will be comfortable to wear and walk around in, if a little snug. This is important: we are aiming for snug, but not painful.

Another way of describing how to check the fit of a new boot is as follows:
once it is on, with your foot pushed firmly into the toe of the boot, there should still be sufficient room to wiggle your toes. The instep should then fit snugly, but not pinch; exactly how hard the leather is will make a considerable difference to how tight you should accept. At this point, you should just about be able to feel the back of the heel with your heel; you are looking for a slightly sliding contact. With very soft leather, this will already feel comfortable; only the inherent stiffness of the sole will cause the heel to slip, and this will rapidly change with wear. Some makers produce boots with a high gloss and very stiff leather; in this case, see the wearing in instructions below, and go for a fit that is almost (but not quite) uncomfortably tight at first.

The problem is that shoe size, which describes length and width, isn't a good indicator of fit. American sizes are one number greater than the equivalent British size, so I wear 8.5 to 9.5 English, but usually 10.5 American for shoes; boots are a different story. Toe width and instep circumference are probably more important than size, which is why I go up more than just the one size that I said was correct. The only possible way of buying a cowboy boot is to go to a store, find the rack with roughly the right size, and try on every pair that you would even consider wearing. Once you find a fit, that manufacturers boots in that size will normally be OK.


To wear them in, you need the boot to absorb some moisture to make it more supple. You could wipe them with a damp sponge inside and out, but I find it more boot-friendly to simply wear them all day indoors at first, while lounging around. Do not walk with them much at this stage, as you will get some enormous and painful blisters. After this, normal wear (and sweat) will keep them supple. If the boots dry out from disuse, you may have to take it easy for a couple of days when you put them on again.

Some places suggest filling the boot with water, or sitting in a bath with them on. I am sure this will work, but I would advise following my more gentle recommendations above. Leather can easily be damaged when wet, and over-vigorous drying will surely destroy any boots. Don't under-estimate the amount of water produced from sweat in normal conditions.

You ideally want two creases to form across the boot on the vamp, one just behind the toes where they bend, and another about an inch or so behind this. This is what the stitching is for. There are some elaborate instructions available on how to "break in" a boot by hand, which involve folding it down around the heel; these are to compensate for hard boots, and I think I prefer this softening process, at least in principle - I have never felt the need to "break" a pair of boots in this way.


Wipe off all mud immediately while still damp; sponge off dry dust with a (barely) damp cloth. Allow to dry naturally, and keep well away from radiators. Saddle soap can be used to help restore a very dry boot, but should otherwise be avoided, as it can spoil the finish. The same applies to hard wax polish; shoe cream or leather conditioner is preferred. If you choose to use saddle soap, use a good quality soap, and use a damp sponge to work up a lather; apply only the lather to the leather, in small quantities. With age the foot part of the boot will scuff and fade compared to the decorated shaft; this is normal, and to some extent this is a badge of pride.