These Boots Were Made for Riding
Happy New Year! Cleaning out my closet this week and came across not one, not two, but three pairs of cowboy boots I’ve had since high school. I just can’t part with them. They are broken in. They bring back memories, and I have a pair for any occasion that might require a color other than plain brown: solid black, creamy white with chocolate toes and heels, and maroon—yes, maroon).
I haven’t ridden in a western saddle or worn cowboy boots since I was about 15, didn’t even wear them when I was practicing as a veterinarian and making farm calls, but there is no way I’m giving up these boots. I don’t know why, but I feel terribly connected to the Wild West, to horses, and to dirt--I mean the earthy outdoors-- when I wear my cowboy boots.
So today I surfed the net for the history of the cowboy boot. Here’s what I learned:
The cowboy boot descended from the Hessian boot, which was common among cavalry in Europe in the 18th century. This style, along with the Wellington boot (a shorter but also cavalry/military-oriented boot) was favored by the early American and Spanish cowboys. The cowboy boot has since evolved to the boot we know and love today--with a higher heel, elaborate stitching, decorative cutouts, and available in rainbow of colors, and any kind of leather.
The cowboy boot’s design was perfected by boot makers in the cattle ranching areas of Texas,, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The two most renowned cowboy boot makers of the Wild West in the 1800's were Charles Hyer of Hyer Brothers Boots in Olathe, Kansas, and "Big Daddy Joe" Justin of Justin Boots in Spanish Fort, Texas and later Nocona, Texas. Tony Lama boot makers jumped on the wagon during Western wear craze of the 1930’s. All of these brand name boot makers are still in business today.
Riding boots of all types, including the cowboy boot, have slick, treadless leather soles to allow easy insertion and removal of the foot into the stirrup. The toes are usually narrowed or rounded, also intended to make it easier to insert your foot into the stirrup. While extremely pointed toes (I believed we once called such boots “roach killers”) are a modern stylization that appeared in the 1940s, they are not more helpful when it comes to riding and really pointed toes can certainly be an uncomfortable fashion statement (don’t ask me how I know, but yes, those creamy white cowboy boots of mine are still white for a reason!).
If you’ve ever ridden seriously or had a lesson or two, the first thing a good teacher will tell you is wear a boot with a heel. A boot heel minimizes the risk of the foot sliding forward through the stirrup, which could be life threatening if the rider is unseated and his/her foot hangs up in the stirrup. This kind of accident happened to many a fine historical lady who wore low heeled or heelless slippers when fashion ruled and no one of good breeding was called a “cowgirl.”
Check out the design of the "cowboy" heel and the lower "walking" heel in the image to the right. Both designs are angled slightly, different from the squared-off "roper" heel (not shown) which looks more like a regular shoe heel. The roper heel is preferred by cowboys and cowgirls who rope and have to get off and run to tie the steer or calf.
Why are cowboy boots tall? The tall leather shaft of the boot helps to hold the boot in place in the absence of lacing (ever notice how easy it is to lose your shoe on horseback?). The tall shaft, loosely fitted, and the lack of lacing up the back or side, are features that help prevent a bronco rider from being dragged should he become unseated---you can pull your foot out of the boot and avoid being “hung by the ankle with your foot stuck in the stirrup.”
The tall leather shaft of the boot protects the leg and ankle from rubbing on the stirrup leathers and saddle fenders. Tall boots also protected the leg and foot from rocks, brush, thorns, and most importantly, snakebite. In wet weather or creek crossings, the high tops helped prevent the boot from filling with mud and water.
So there you have it. When you look at a cowboy boot and know who really needs to wear them, and why, it’s hard not to say “of course they’re made like that.” The historian in me is not surprised; the rest of me just likes the way they look.
Any other closet cowgirls out there? Who else has a pair of cowboy boots or two in the back of the closet?