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History of Riding Boots for the Cowboy
The history of the western or cowboy boot is part of the history of riding boots in general. The English riding boots were, of course designed for horseback riding and is used for many sporting events involving horses, horse shows and pleasure riding. Ending just below the knee of the rider are the tall boot, which would include field, dress and hunt boots. They are standard apparel for show competitors in hunter/jumper and dressage. A lower boot, the paddock has stops above the ankle and is mostly worn by children; show competitors in the UK,and Australia.
Field boots have lacing at the ankle for some who find it more comfortable to ride with a highly flexed ankle, making them popular for jumping events. Motorcycle police or mounted police may wear these. Usually black in color.
Dress boots are usually stiffer and do not have lacing at the ankle. Usually worn for show events. Also usually black.
Hunt boots, also known as Jodhpur boots come just above the ankle and used mostly for pleasure riding.
Most features of the modern cowboy boot have a practical purpose. Its design has come from the influence of several cultures.
For most of us the distinguishing feature of the western boot is that it has a high heel. However, Soldiers, herders and other horseback workers have worn heeled boots in the 16th century. Duringthe Cromwell Interregnum (1649-60) Stuart cavaliers, many of whom immigrated to the United States had particularly high heels.
Hessian Calvary officers of the 18th Century liked a tall boot with a V cut in the top center and decorative tassels.
After Napoleon’s defeat at waterloo the Duke of Wellington’s boots gained popularity, with low heels and calf high tops.
American military boots in the 19th Century developed along theses lines. Many soldiers when discharged took their boots with them and some were cowboys and pioneers. The laced boots eventually proved impractical because the boots get caught in the stirrup if the rider is thrown
Early boots for cowboys were strongly influenced by the vaquero tradition imported from Spain to the Americas.
Since the 1920’s the movies and stars such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers have influenced cowboy boots. Autry in an autobiography mentioned how many pairs of boots he owned. I forget the number but it was a collection of high numbers.
I recall on the Tonight show many years ago that Dale Evans who was Roy Rogers co star and wife telling a story about Roy and his boots.
Roy had bought a new pair of cowboy boots that he valued highly. Sometime during the night a cougar got into the house and chewed up the boots
In the morning Roy got real upset, got his rifle and saddled his horse trigger. He was going to hunt that cougar.
Later in the day he came back home with the cougar tied behind the saddle.
And dale said: “Pardon me Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes/”
That story may be lost on younger readers not familiar with songs from the 1940’s.
The cowboy boot is a specific style of the riding boot and historically was worn by cowboys. They typically have a high heel, rounded or pointed toe, high shaft and no lacing. Usually they are made of leather from cowhide but sometimes more exotic leathers are uses such as snakeskin.
The roper boot is a newer version for rodeo riders who participate in calf roping.
Boots were individually handmadeand according to the culture the styles varied. The industrial revolution allowed for mass produced boots. The Wellington boot was one that could be mass-produced and was popular with cowboys in the United States until the 1860’s. The Wellington, basically a cavalry style boot lost popularity due to style preferences.
Bookmakers in the cattle ranching areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas started making American style boots. Two well known boot makers, Charles Hyer of Hyer brothers Boots in Olathe, Kansas, and H.J. “Big Daddy” Justin of Justin Boots in Spanish Fort, Texas and later Nocona, Texas.
Specialty of design
Although cowboy boots are popular today for design most features were practical. The treadles leather sole made it easy to insert and remove the foot from the stirrup of a western saddle. The original toe was rounded a bit narrow at the toe for ease of insertion. An extremely pointed toe appeared in the 1940’s and has no practical use.
The tall heel helped keep the foot from sliding forward through the stirrup was dangerous if the rider was unseated. A cowboy had risk of falling from his horse became use he had to ride young and unpredictable horses. In addition ranch work was challenging in difficult terrain where there was danger of being thrown from the horse. If a foot was caught in the stirrup and the horse ran off the rider would be dragged on the ground.
The tall shaft, comfortable loose fit and lack of laces helped prevent dragging because the rider’s body weight would pull his foot out of the boot if he fell off the horse. The shaft also protected the lower leg and ankle from rubbing on the stirrup leathers. When mounted it also protected the lower leg from brush and thorns. When not mounted it protected the leg from rocks, brush, thorns and rattlesnakes.
Today fancy boots are worn for country western dancing, bbut rugged practical cowboy boots are still worn by farmers, ranchers and others.
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund