Zipper boots make our lives a little simpler because they?re easier to get on/off than plain tall boots. But, they?re not any easier to shop for because fit is vital to keeping zippers, well, zipped.
Stock zipper boots cost less than customs, and you don't have to wait as long to start using them. And there are key differences from their non-zippered brethren, which can make a difference in this specialized purchase.
Will The Zippers Break?
It's not "will" but "when." The only real disadvantage for zipper boots over plain ones is that the zipper creates an inherent weakness. Sooner or later the zipper is going to give way.
"It's the Murphy?s Law of boots," said Lisa Goretta, who owns The Paddock Saddlery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. "The zipper will break at the least opportune time."
If you inspect the zippers regularly, you can anticipate the inevitable and replace them. When that day comes, replace both zippers because the factors that cause the wear operate against both boots. If a break happens at a show, the fallback plan is a roll of black duct tape or black Vetrap, now standard items in show kits (brown tape if your boots are brown, of course).
Patti Swan of Dover Saddlery said zipper boots wore out faster when first introduced but are lasting longer now: "You should have a realistic expectation, however. Zipper boots won?t last as long as regular boots."
The style of zipper can vary, from coil types to fine plastic teeth, large metal teeth and luggage-types. Sturdier teeth are found as you go up in price. It's fair to expect your zippers to hold two to four years of daily use with correct care. The key elements besides zipper design are fit and care.
Fit affects zipper strain and isn?t just a size issue. It's also the softness/stiffness of the leather, allowing or preventing the boot to easily wrap your leg.
Natasha Tarasov, owner of The Horse Connection tack shop in Bedford, N.Y., said that a zipper will last longer if a boot is looser: "But looser also defeats the purpose of the boot in the first place. If the zipper is going to go because the boot is too tight, it will go quickly."
Zippers can be found on both dress boots (no laces, used especially by dressage riders) and field boots (ankle laces, used especially by hunter/jumper riders). Tarasov said dress boots tend to be stiffer than field boots and that the softer leather in field boots makes them easier to fit. She said she sells more customs in dressage boots than in field boots.
Tack-shop owners said they don't see riders caring for the zippers on their boots properly, and when dirt accumulates in the zipper, it will break. It's that simple.
Why We Like Zippers
"Zipper boots made the whole tall boot thing a lot easier," said Goretta. "The downside is that they can't stretch, so flexibility in fit is reduced. If someone falls right into a chart, that's good. If they?re close, but not right on, you may want to go custom."
First, and foremost, zipper boots are healthier, especially for older riders. Legs encased in rigid leather can develop circulation problems, and pulling on plain boots causes a very real pain in the back.
Second, of course, zipper boots are much more convenient. They?re simply easier to get on and off.
Third, you can get a slimmer appearance to your leg with zippers. It's impossible to get a tight ankle in plain boots, even customs, because the foot makes a right-angle turn at the boot?s throat. Zipper boots generally don't drop down as much as plain boots so there are also fewer wrinkles at the ankle.
Allison Saare of The Horse of Course tack shop in Claremore, Okla., said that kids prefer zipper boots even more than adults.
One big change over the past decade is that zippers are now placed lower into the foot area. Zippers used to stop below the ankle but now run all the way to the base of the foot, both for inside-front and back zippers. This makes it even easier to get them on and off.
Zipper boots became so popular in the past decade that some manufacturers now have dozens of combos for stock boots in foot/calf/height sizes and in just about every price range. That's at least for women; men don't have as many options.
It's still not that easy, however, to get a pair of tall boots to fit perfectly, even spending big bucks for customs. Fit is even more problematic when you opt for stock boots.
"I'm a skeptic," said John Nunn, who owns Bit of Britain tack shop/catalog in Oxford, Pa., and Nunn Finer wholesales. "You?re almost lucky if your boots are 100 percent spot-on. In 80 percent of the time, if you have two identical boots side by side, they?ll fit differently. They?re hand-made. They?re variable and each piece of leather is different."
And that's not even considering that your two legs can be different sizes and angles.
Lorelie Carter of German Equestrian Manufacturers, which distributes Cavallos, advises riders to consider a slightly larger boot overall when buying one with zippers because they can't be stretched.
"And buy the correct height to prevent wrinkles at the ankle and also at the back of the knee," she said. If zipper boots are too tall, they can't be cut down without replacing the zippers at the same time.
"If the boot is too tall or the leather too soft, the ankle wrinkles can lead to zipper death," said Goretta
With customs, you're measured at a tack shop and your dimensions and options are sent to the boot company, taking $1,000 (or more) of your money and a month (or more) to get them back.
With stock boots, if the tack shop is large enough, they may have what you need right there on the shelf. More likely, you'll try on several boots for an approximation and be measured. Those numbers will be sent to the boot company to match up with stock on hand. You?ll have them in a couple weeks.
Jennifer Hellickson of Ariat says, for example, they have a "matrix of calf width, height and foot size," with 10 options per foot size in women?s boots, but only two for men. For height, she advises adding ? to ?" for field boots to drop because the lace area has more give but not over ?" for dress boots.
You?ll probably get the best fit by ordering custom boots without zippers and installing them after purchase. With front zippers, the ankle fit then can be refined even further. It's also the most expensive way to proceed.
You don't have to get stock boots through a tack shop. You can order them yourself through a catalog or online site, each with its own measuring procedure. But, if the boots aren?t quite right, you'll be dealing with the company yourself. It's generally easier to have a knowledgeable tack shop staffer measure you and work with the boot company on your behalf.
Front vs. Back
In general, zippers are placed on the back in field boots and on the inside front in dress boots, at least partially due to the way the riders apply their aids. It's usually less expensive for a manufacturer to place the zipper in the back.
From an appearance standpoint, the main difference is when the rider is on the ground. When you're on the horse's back, the zipper can't be easily seen. Carter points out that an inside front zipper allows a longer-looking leg since a zipper in the back can protrude a bit.
From a practical standpoint, it's easier to grab and pull a front zipper. Depending on how the rider uses her leg aids, you can get more wear on the stitching and zipper teeth in either location. You?ll maybe get less wrinkling across the zipper in front than in back. An inside zipper collects more dirt, sweat and hair from the horse's side, all of which will clog it they aren?t cleaned off after each ride.
Breaking Them In
We've all been led to believe that tall boots should make us miserable at first. Therefore we're never quite sure, in the first bloom of proud possession, that we?ve made the right decision. If they feel fine, we ask ourselves if they?ll be too big after they stretch. If they?re tight and we put in the time and pain to break them in, often they?re still not exactly "right," but then it's too late to return them.
"You can't stretch zipper boots," said Nunn. "You have to be able to zip them when you buy them." The break-in should be shorter, and the zipper should also keep the ankle from dropping as much.
"If you're riding one horse a day, expect six weeks to break in a stiffer boot, one week with a field boot," said Goretta. "If you're in pain, you haven't been fitted properly."
A really stiff boot is designed for riding, not for walking. "Some of the stiffer boots never really break in soft," said Goretta. "The tube maintains a life of its own."
Most sellers will advise you to apply boot-stretch liquid inside the boots and wear them around the house for several days before taking them to the barn.
Several people recommended heel lifts up to about ?" during the break-in period. This will cause the muscle in the calf to relax and not strain as much against the zipper. "The lower the heel, the bigger the calf," said Nunn.
If you get the best fit to reduce strain and delay zipper breakage, you'll be happier both sooner and longer with your purchase. Within your price range, look first for boots with front zippers, if you can find them, unless it will negatively affect your aids.
If you want your zippers to last as long as possible and not break without warning, care is just as important as fit. Many manufacturers and distributors have generous return/repair/policies for zipper boots, so hold onto your sales receipt.