Both you and your horse need good footwear to put in great performances. Fortunately, people shoes are much easier to deal with than horseshoes. Your boots will last for years instead of six weeks, and you hopefully won’t pull off a boot and lose it in a muddy pasture. Nonetheless, there are several important considerations when selecting boots as a finishing touch to your show ring presentation. Before you buy, let’s examine construction, safety, comfort, and style to see how they’ll affect your next purchase of western boots.
Today’s western boots are not the same animal as those made even a few years ago. High-tech innovations are changing the way most boots are made, including molded one-piece soles with gel inserts and carbon fiber shanks (reinforcements) and other advances. Compared to traditional leather soles, these composite soles usually last much longer, seal out moisture better, and are often more comfortable than traditional leather, but on the downside, high-tech soles usually cannot be re-soled like leather. The other popular choice in western boots soles today is a synthetic crepe material that is thicker and softer than leather, insulates and pads well, and makes a terrific sole if you stand around on cement floors in boots all day.
Whether boots have leather, crepe, or technical soles, the sole is usually glued and stitched to the uppers. In inexpensive boots, the uppers (both the foot and the shaft, or leg, portion of the boot) may be of a synthetic vinyl or plastic material, but leather—an animal hide that can be anything from cowhide to crocodile, ostrich, whipsnake, or even eel—is the material of choice for boots. Leather stretches, breathes, and dries in such a way that your boots will let your feet be more comfortable because they will be cooler than in a synthetic boot. While synthetic boots are attractively priced and a decent choice for small children, investing in leather boots with leather linings is good value for comfort if you’ll wear your boots for more than a few hours at a time.
There’s an important safety consideration for riding boots: they must fit your foot well but they must also be compatible with the stirrups you use to allow your foot to slip from the stirrup in an emergency. If you and your horse part ways, you don’t want your boot to catch in the stirrup and drag the rest of your body along with a frightened horse. For safety’s sake, avoid thick crepe-soled boots for riding unless you know that they will slip free of your stirrups.
To clarify this point: most western stirrups are about 5" wide at their broadest point, but the mostly-flat part of the tread is only about 4". Double-welted crepe soled boots in a women’s size 9 medium measure nearly 4" across, versus about 3 1/4" for leather double-welted soles—and that extra three-fourths of an inch makes the crepe boots much too snug to be safe in a standard stirrup. The crepe soles also look odd in a stirrup many times, as they are often a very noticeable pale cream color that will look like you are wearing water skis with dark chaps. Stick to composite or leather soles for show, and by all means enjoy comfortable crepe as a work boot, or allow plenty of extra safety width in a stirrup.
Another safety consideration is the boot’s heel design. Very high underslung heels are sometimes considered a drawback for riding as they too can catch on the stirrup in an emergency. Though a great traditional look for buckaroo horsemen, high heels are another ‘don’t bother’ design in the show ring. A boot’s tops don’t have much impact on safety, especially as they are usually wrapped by a layer of chaps and a layer of pants, but moderate heels and slim soles are worth looking for. Tip: if you find leather soles slip too easily out of your stirrups, wrap your stirrup treads with a few layers of Vetrap or latex bandage in a color that blends with the stirrup for better traction.
When it comes to boot comfort, don’t get a Cinderella complex. Remember Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to cram on the glass slipper? Bad idea, even for a great deal on your dream ostrich show boots. Make sure your show boots are truly comfortable by either buying them from a store that offers expert fitting, or using a brand and size that you’ve worn comfortably in the past. You’ll have your show boots on from sunup ‘til way past dark some days, so don’t hobble yourself with anything less than a perfect fit.
On the style front, western boots, along with hats, are the two symbols of ‘real cowboys.’ Whether you choose an exotic leather in a wild color, or simple boots that can carry you into the show ring or the grocery store, the shape and detailing of western boots adds spice to your presentation and are a source of pride for most anyone who appreciates ‘ranch dressing.’ But think about this: only the toe of your boot will show when you ride, so go for sensible and simple show boots and save up your bucks for some dancin’ boots or extra entry fees. Think about how your boot will look peeking out from under your chaps, through your wide stirrup, and next to your horse’s shoulder, then choose something classic that will fill your needs.
A basic roper style boot (semi-rounded toe with low tops) with leather soles is the all-around best bet for showing. They are relatively inexpensive, safe in your stirrups, and fit great under the slim leg of your chaps. Ropers are also the most popular style of boot on the market, so there’s a tremendous variety of colors, leathers, and prices. Moderate roper heels are also comfortable to walk in, for those who show in halter or showmanship. Lacer boots are a second choice for show boots, but remember to remove the kiltie (fringed panel at the bottom of the laces) to eliminate bulk under the south edge of your chaps. Don’t spend lots of time and money trying to find fancy boots for wearing in the show ring—they simply don’t add much to the overall impression.
Because your boots show only their toes in the ring, color-matching boots to chaps or show pants is not as critical as you might think. Coordinate your boot tone to your chaps or your horse’s shoulder color by either buying the correct color boots, or having a shoe repair shop re-dye an existing pair of boots. Make sure you keep extra dye for touch-ups, and don’t worry about the tops of the boots- they’ll never show in the ring. Of course, no matter what you spend for show boots, they should be freshly polished with good shoe polish and lots of elbow grease for each show day, and dusted with a dry, clean cloth before each class.
Writing or riding, Suzanne Drnec enjoys horses and their people. Drnec is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Company, a show apparel manufacturer, and also the caretaker of an assortment of lawn ornament horses.