​Buying Your First Pair of Cowboy Boots

​Buying Your First Pair of Cowboy Boots

Posted by Green Mountain Horse and Tack on 7th Feb 2022

When you walk into a western boot shop or visit their website to get into your first pair of cowboy boots, get ready to be overwhelmed. Picking out your first pair of cowboy boots can be as daunting as trying to understand the US Tax Code. The styles, the colors, the toes, the heels, the height - you try to digest the selections, but where do you start? Worry not! We’re going to break it down for you and get you into a new pair of boots.

boot selection

First, let’s talk about heels, probably the most impactful choice in terms of how the boot behaves on your foot. We’re going to use the riding heel as the standard and work into different heel types from this basic design. It’s important to realize that different manufacturers have not standardized the names of different heel styles, so as you educate yourself of boots, you’ll see different names for heels that do not appear here. Regardless of what a specific manufacturer names their different heel styles, the basic shapes and designs of the various heels can be identified.

* Riding heel
* Cowboy heel
* Dress heel
* Futurity heel
* Horseman heel
* Roper heel
* Country heel
* Block heel

boot heel selections

The first four heels are variations of a tall heel, or the riding heel. The second four are variations of a shorter heel, or a roper heel. So, what you’re really looking at in these 8 styles of heel are 4 variations of a tall heel and 4 variations of a shorter heel. This is typical of how most boot manufacturers design their heel variations - they may have 8 heels, or they may have only 4 heels. But the primary characteristic you’re looking at is the height and angle of the heel.

Cowboy boots were initially designed with a tall heel - typically 1.5”- 2” - what today we call the riding heel. This allowed the boot to really “hug” the stirrup for the cowboy on horseback (learn more about the history of the cowboy boot here). These heels are also under-slung and slanted forward, which adds greatly to stability and security when the boot is in the stirrup and provides “digging in” traction in the dirt and mud. Typically, this heel narrows vertically from the sole to the ground so the bottom of the heel has a slightly smaller footprint than at the sole. This heel is also shifted on the sole of the boot to the rear, giving the spur a bit of a shelf on top of the heel to rest on. This is the classic western boot heel and is commonly known as a riding heel. Are there heels taller than the riding heel? Yes, you can probably find heels in just about any size you wish to walk in. These fashion-exclusive heels found exclusively on women’s boots and are outside the scope of this article.

Now if you like the look of the riding heel but you don’t ride, does that mean you shouldn’t buy it? Absolutely not. Most boots sold today, regardless of the heel, rarely see a horse in the 21st century. If you like it, buy it.

Now take that riding heel and shorten it by ¼” - ½” or so, reduce the slant or eliminate it altogether and lose the spur shelf, you now have what may be called a cowboy heel or sometimes a walking heel. It still has the classic western profile but it’s going to be more stable for you while you’re on your feet. The taller riding heel offers a terrific and classic look but it can impact your stability when walking on uneven ground like a graveled trail, a dirt driveway or in a pasture. The cowboy heel is a nice compromise to get the traditional western look with substantially more stability.

The other baseline heel we’ll discuss is the roper heel. Take the previously discussed cowboy heel and drop the height again to a 1-½” height with a slight to severe pitch and you have the roper heel. This heel was designed for cattlemen who had to get off their saddle and wrestle a calf down for branding. The riding heel was just too high to give the cattlemen the stability they need for the required groundwork of their job. Variations of the roper heel such as in the pitch of the heel, the spur shelf, if there is a canting to the heel or if it sets up the foot parallel to the ground will often appear in a manufacturer’s offering. But the roper heel is the foundational low-rise heel for cowboy boots. If balance is an issue for you or a higher heel is too challenging to your stability, the roper or a variation of it would be a good choice for you.

boot toe profiles

Toe Profiles

The heel is an important functional part of the boot. Perhaps the most influential element of style in cowboy boots is the toe. Like the heel, we will find three primary shapes – pointed, round (roper) and square. A manufacturer will modify these shapes into many different toe styles. Both round and square toe boots were issued to cavalry in the Civil War, so they’ve been around for a while. Today you’ll see round toes mainly on ropers, a boot designed primarily for cattlemen and rodeo ropers. You’ll also find them on western work boots. These are used for the support and stability that the round roper toe style offers. The round toe is stronger for groundwork when you’re on your knees and your toes often meet the earth - the roper heel allows for stable transitions from horse to ground when roping calves for branding. Like the square toe, round toes appear in variations of size from a full ball-like toe to a smaller R-toe all the way to a pointed toe

By far the most common toe in cowboy boots today is some variation of the square toe. From the very popular wide square toe, which many folks prefer due to it’s large toe box, narrowing down to the medium square toe to the classic standard square to the snip toe, the square toe offers a classic look. The wide square toe has become extremely popular, spreading out of Texas and the plains across the country. It provides plenty of room and comfort if your toes feel crunched when wearing boots. As you narrow that square at the toe you’ll find many appealing presentations of the square toe.

The shaft of the boot, which is the leather tube above the foot of the boot, will vary in height. The typical height of the shaft is 11”-13”. Generally, men’s boots can drop down as far as 5” to 6” becoming essentially an ankle boot. With jeans over the boot there is no way to tell you are not wearing traditional height cowboy boots. These shorter shaft boots are a great solution for very wide calves or someone that has physical difficulties reaching down to pull boots on. The buckaroo boot came from buckaroo cowboys in the Great Basin between Oregon and Mexico and can see shaft heights north of 15”. Buckaroos also provide leather reinforcement across the vamp called the saddle which adds extra protection where the spur straps lay across the vamp. Taller boots usually have a deeper scallop at the top of the shaft which helps to get the boot on and off and you’ll see pull holes on these boots instead of pull straps. Women’s boots are not wholly different from men's boots regarding the shaft. Shorty boots are very popular with women and make a great barn boot that’s easy on and off. Likewise, 11” - 13” shafts are the core of the boot market for women and women’s fashion can take the boot shafts all the way up to the knee for a serious fashion statement.

Virtually all boots have pull straps at the top of the shaft to help pull the boot on - remember that these loops are sewn onto the shaft, and you’ll want to keep the sole of the boot on the floor when pulling them on or you’ll risk breaking the seams of the pull strap. Many of today’s boots incorporate pull holes in the top of the shaft. Using the strength of the leather instead of a thread will not fail when pulling the boots on.

The traditional outsole of cowboy boots is leather, but new sole materials and technologies have been taken advantage of by boot manufacturers to the benefit of the wearer. Leather soles are generally found on more expensive boots due to the labor involved in manufacturing. Leather soles often use brass nails and lemon wood pegs to attach the sole to the boot. The lemon wood pegs are used because they expand and contract at about the same rate as the leather. Leather soles on a brand-new pair of cowboy boots are a bit dicey in winter weather until they get scuffed up on pavement or asphalt, which happens very quickly as you wear them outside - but be very careful on ice and snow the first time out. Once the leather soles are broken in they wear very nicely and the edge of the leather sole has a great traditional look that maintains the popularity of leather soles.

There are many rubber and composite soles available today that will provide immediate traction in inclement weather right out of the box. You’ll also find hybrid soles with added traction and water channeling like work boots but without the aggressive tread of work boots. The most aggressive outsoles will be found on western work boots.

Leathers and Materials
Traditional thick gauge cowhide is used in the construction of most cowboy boots, in both the foot, the vamp and the shaft. Boots are typically lined with a material that is softer against the skin than cowhide such as calf, sheepskin, goatskin, or a breathable nylon mesh. Other leathers used in boot construction include Buffalo, a fantastic hide that is softer and stronger than cowhide. Buffalo is an incredible leather and will raise the price of the boot a bit. Of course, we would be remiss not to mention the exotic leathers such as caiman, ostrich, lizard, python, rattlesnake and even Pirarucu, a South American freshwater fish with soft yet insanely durable scales. These exotics are typically glued to a thinner gauge cowhide as they are not sturdy enough on their own to carry the boot form and protect the wearer. Exotic boots will typically at least double the price of the boot and sometimes raise the price to a factor of 3 or 4. But man, they are show-stoppers.

Fitting the Boot
So, you’ve picked out a pair and you want to try it on. What should you expect? Many folks that try cowboy boots on for the first time are very puzzled as to how they feel. This is very common for the first timer. Cowboy boots kind of break all the rules that are so ingrained in us when selecting a proper shoe fit and this subject is worthy of a paragraph or two.

To begin with, understand that different manufacturer’s boots fit differently and when you understand how they’re made, you’ll understand why. The boot is crafted around a steel foot-form called a “last” and they use a different last for each size of the boot, so their sizes are uniform across the different styles. So, a size 11 regular from brand A will fit great, and the size 10.5 regular from brand B also fits great and the size 10 regular from brand C also fits great. This happens all the time and some customers are just completely taken off guard by it. So, use your shoe size as a starting point, but don’t freak out if it does not fit - you could be even a whole size off, depending on the brand of boot and the lasts they use in manufacturing.

Don’t worry about where your toes are unless they’re getting crunched. If they are getting crunched but the fit feels good, look at a wider square toe. The old traditional “where are the end of my toes” when fitting shoes does not translate to fitting boots. The fit of a cowboy boot is all determined at the instep of your foot, which is essentially the top of your foot up to the transition into the ankle. A good-fitting boot will feel like a firm handshake across your instep. Not loose and floppy, not constricting, but comfortably snug. If the instep feels good, then check that the ball of your foot under the big toe is at the widest part of the sole - and if the instep feels good, that is probably exactly where you’ll find it. If you have a snug handshake across the instep and the ball at the widest part of the boot, and your toes are not crowded, you have a winner.

The other thing that freaks out new boot buyers is heel slippage. Often, you will feel your heel slip up off from the insole of the boot as you finish the back of your step. The salesperson, if he knows cowboy boots, will tell you this is more common than not – and you should believe him. It is completely normal. The reason is because the sole of the boot has not broken in yet. The sole of a boot is very stiff out of the box – much stiffer than shoe soles. As you walk, the sole bends at the point your toes bend in the back of the stride. Because it is so stiff, when you hit that point in the back of your stride your foot will bend more than the sole and, as a result, your heel will rise a bit off the insole. As you break-in the sole by walking in the boot, it will become more flexible and will break closer with your toes and the heel slippage will diminish or disappear entirely. There are some folks that just cannot get past this slippage, and they simply can’t wear cowboy boots because of this. Most people, however, get used to it very quickly and come to expect it with a new pair of boots. Once a proper-fitting boot is broken in, it will feel like that great pair of jeans you can’t give up. Your feet are very happy.

Hopefully these words will manage your expectations properly when shopping for your first pair of boots. In my experience at Green Mountain, there is a small percentage of people that simply cannot get used to cowboy boots. Most people, when provided with a little education and thoughtful expectations, fall in love with wearing the only true American footwear style - the American Cowboy Boot.