Maybe your well-worn boots have given up the ghost. Or perhaps your new riding discipline requires a different pair of boots than the ones you're currently wearing. You go shopping and head to the boot aisles, then pause-taken aback by the vast range of styles, colors, functions and "technology." But other than fashion, or a nod to tradition, does it really matter which pair you choose?
Actually, it can matter a great deal. A boot terrific for one use might be uncomfortable, inadequate or dangerous for something else.
We asked manufacturers, retailers and sports medicine personnel what riders need to know to make safe and appropriate boot choices. They took us on a journey that included tours of calf roping, fox hunting, buckarooing, hunting and jumping, rodeo, dressage, eventing and leadline, adding side trips through mucky stalls, deserts, deep snow, wet grass and sloppy cement wash racks. We also ended up talking about tragedies-some of which may have been avoided if only a different choice had been made in footwear.
From the Ground Up
Although there is no doubt that fashion is a factor when choosing styles, every one of our experts agree that the most important parts of a good boot are not necessarily flashy or even visible.
First, not all boots-even if made by renowned manufacturers-are designed to be put into a stirrup. There are popular and comfortable boots that have the perfect tread for standing or walking all day through barns, fields, wash racks and city streets. They may also have good ankle support and a profile that makes them look like a riding boot, but being on a horse isn't their job.
For example, Annie Barrios, of Ariat International notes, "the Fatbaby and Gembaby styles are not recommended for riding due to the lug outsole. This type of outsole makes it difficult for a rider to get in and out of the stirrup." She adds that their "Pro Baby" boots have a "stirrup-ready smooth sole," are approved for riding, and are certified by the National High School Rodeo for competition.
Don Andrews, of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, which provides on-the-spot emergency care for rodeo participants, notes that the thicker soles are "high on the order of comfort and style, but not on function. Rodeo is primarily about function." He's never seen lug-soled boots worn in competition. Nor does he want to. Competitors need boots designed for their particular events, and lug soles pose a risk of getting hung up in stirrups.
Cyndy Miller, boot buyer for Dover Saddlery, a retailer for English show disciplines, strongly emphasizes, "All riding boots should have a distinct heel to keep the foot from slipping through the stirrup."
Louis Rousso, brand manager for Justin Boots, adds, "The combination of tread and heel, from the initial design, has to be a matter of safety." Many cowboy boots have a substantial sloped or stacked heel, he points out, to help prevent a boot from going all the way through a stirrup.
Rousso also says that many riders prefer a leather sole because "They are easy-in/easy-out, lightweight, and give a good feel of the stirrup." He notes that Justin has a new synthetic outsole with "siping," like a deck shoe, so it grips when flexed, but stays level if the foot is flat. "When a roper steps down on his stirrup to throw, for instance, the tread will provide extra traction. Also, it is not going to slip on wet concrete in the wash stall." The sole also expels dirt and mud by expanding and contracting while the wearer is walking.
In the saddle or on the ground, if your feet aren't happy, you aren't going to be able to fully concentrate on your horse. Many modern boot makers have developed various types of highly engineered internal support systems that cushion and stabilize the foot. For many years, a riding boot was, by definition, uncomfortable on the ground. Those of us who suffered can only say, "Bless modern boot makers!"
How High is High?
Boot height is not just a matter of fashion. Different heights are due to different jobs. Rousso says that the main advantage of the shorter, lace-up western boots is that they offer more ankle support than pull-ons.
Ever-popular Ropers (which average 10 inches tall) are comfortable because the boot feels the most like a shoe. The design is especially good as an introduction to western boots. "Originally built on an old U.S. cavalry last, Ropers got their name because calf ropers found that the extra toe room and level heel gave them a more stable platform while running down the rope," explains Rousso.
The high buckaroos, (which range anywhere from 13 inches to the height of a small pony) are popular in places with high brush, as well as with people who just admire the buckaroo image," Rousso points out. "The taller the upper, the more protection you get for your legs," he observes, "but 11-inch tops are probably the most common and comfortable for most riders."
While western boots can have infinite gradations in height, English boots are essentially either tall or short. Tall boots are broken down into dress boots and field boots. Both have a very snug fit to just below the knee to protect the leg and help support the rider's position in the saddle. A large gap at the top is a glaring sign of a poorly fitted boot.
Dress boots have nothing to do with skirts. Think "military dress blues" for formal occasions. Dress boots have a clean, elegant line with no unnecessary details to distract the eye. Dover's Cyndy Miller advises that dress boots (which now sometimes have sturdy zippers in the back to simplify both fit and leg access and exit) are appropriate for dressage or eventing competitors. She cautions that a rider with an exceptionally high foot arch may or may not be able to get a traditional dress boot on, so may need one with zippers or else may have to use a field boot.
Field boots have a hunt field ancestry, with a laced instep that simplified fit, although today these boots may have a rear zipper as well. Miller says that field boots are the preferred style for the hunter/jumper show ring.
Modern English tall boots generally have a curved upper edge on the outside. This "Spanish top" gives the leg a longer, more slender look. "Swagger tabs," short straps of light leather that hang down from the top of the outside of the boot are purely a matter of fashion and "often are now actually stitched down as too many people were tearing them off when using them instead of boot hooks to pull their boots on," according to Miller. While tall boots can be both expensive and relatively difficult to walk in for long periods of time, paddock and/or jodhpur ("jod-fur") boots are short. They generally cost less and often can be worn comfortably for "outside world" activities. Paddock boots can be laced, zipped or elasticized pull-ons. A snug, full-length "shotgun" style chap can help give additional stability to the leg when worn with short boots. Or, Miller suggests that the look, support and protection of a tall boot can be achieved by adding "half chaps," which zip over the calf like a tight-fitting gaiter. Some paddock boots have matching half chaps that blend so well that they can be almost indistinguishable from a conventional tall boot.
There is also a hybrid hiking/paddock boot that some people call a "riding sneaker." (This is a very poor term. As Miller notes, regular sneakers have no safe heel and are too flexible to be safe in the saddle. See sidebar.) Often worn with half chaps, boots like Ariat's Terrain series have become popular with recreational trail riders, endurance riders (who often dismount and run beside their horse over rough ground), for some schooling situations, and for others who want a versatile, lightweight, breathable boot.
What About Synthetics?
Synthetic boots have improved tremendously in the past several years. Miller advises that these are an affordable option for the beginning or fast-growing riders and those starting to show. They are also useful in wet, muddy or snowy conditions. Although Aigle makes a high-end version that is popular with field hunters, most synthetics have a lower price for entry level riders, are easy to clean, and more flexible, according to Miller. "They are very popular with tiny lead liners. When they're told to put their heels down, they're not fighting the leather," she notes.
Fashion, Fad or Function?
The "dips" in the front and back of western boots vary in depth. Their original purpose was to help pull off the boot more easily, especially in the event of a "hang up" in the stirrup.
The toe shape on western boots has undergone many a pendulum swing. Sometimes toe boxes are quite spacious, at other times you'll see them sharpened to needle-like points. Although there is an argument that at least a slightly pointed, or rounded, toe makes getting in and out of the stirrup easier, beyond the point of comfort, the extremes are mainly a matter of fashion and personal preference.
English tall boots are usually black. A more informal brown may be appropriate in some situations. Western boots can be equally sedate or can make a rainbow hang its head in shame. Choices there seem to depend on geography, whether the boot is for show, work or play, and the rider's personality.
When evaluating boots and making your purchase, think of your boots as riding "gear" and make wise choices based on the kind of job you want that boot to do when you raise your foot and place it in the stirrup.
Drags, Hang Ups, Pull-ups and Lace-ons
There are many ways a foot can get caught in a stirrup. The horse may fall, or buck, or spook, or rear, causing a rider to be thrown. You could slip while mounting, or just lose your balance. But the real culprit would likely be inappropriate footwear, boots or shoes that don't release you and allow you to fall free. Getting dragged by a panicked horse when your boot is stuck could cost you your life.
Such dangers can be minimized (although not eliminated) by use of tapaderos (stirrup covers), breakaway peacock stirrups, and/or proper boots with an aerodynamic shape, proper sole and substantial heel. Never wear sneakers or anything without a heel anywhere near a saddle.
According to Jake McCoy, vice president of STI (Saddle Technology Incorporated), maker of western breakaway safety stirrups for both children and adults, another type of drag is what is known as a "toe wedge," or "hanging a toe." This happens if the toe of the boot is pointed north (as it were), protrudes any distance at all beyond the top of the stirrup, and there is any weight toward the heel. The foot becomes trapped when a falling rider's boot does not completely pass the top of the stirrup before gravity suddenly goes to work. This creates a clamp that can completely lock the boot to the stirrup, no matter what twisting, turning or kicking the rider attempts.
"The type of boot and the type of stirrup has a lot to do with whether or not you'll get hung up, and whether or not you might be able to get out," says McCoy. "The smaller the stirrup, the more likely it is you'll hang a toe, the less likely it is you'll step through it. Vice versa for the larger stirrup. The bigger the foot, the less likely it is you'll step through a stirrup, the more likely it is you'll hang a toe. Vice versa for the smaller foot."
There is debate among western riders in different disciplines as to whether pull-up (or "open") boots are safer than lace-on types in either situation. Oddly, although drags are certainly a major factor in severe head injuries, there is no data available for the relative safety of lace-ups versus pull-on boots. Don Andrews, of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, notes that rodeo competitors seem particularly unwilling to put this to the test, so lace-up boots are generally only worn in non-stirrup rough stock events.
So, in an admittedly non-scientific experiment, this writer and her bemused son bravely strapped a saddle to a fence and tried our darnedest to get a variety of boots stuck in both English and western stirrups. We tried a pull-on roper, a lace-up paddock boot, a heel-less synthetic muck boot, a hiking boot and a walking shoe. While these are by no means all of the good and bad footwear that people put into stirrups, we felt it was a decent sampling.
We discovered that under these specific conditions of saddle height and body weights, it was amazingly easy to get any type of lace-up footwear hung up for a toe wedge drag, while the smooth-topped pull-ons consistently fell out quickly. This is not to say that a pull-on could not get stuck under other conditions. There was, however, definitely something about the laced instep/ankle support that completely immobilized the boot to the extent that the foot might as well have been nailed to the stirrup.
This was true of both English and western stirrups and English and western boots. English stirrup leathers are suspended from a bar in the saddle that is designed to release in the event of a rearward drag. It is a good safety measure to keep this bar permanently open and well-oiled, and to check it every time you clean the saddle. On western saddles, the stirrup leathers just above the stirrups should always be secured with stirrup hobbles, those leather straps that encircle the leather to keep the bell of the stirrup hanging straight.
Kids' Breakaway Stirrup May Improve Safety
STI has introduced a new breakaway stirrup, designed for children who weigh at least 60 pounds or more. According to Jake McCoy, this stirrup has two safety features: a release mechanism and also the torsion pressure feature.
The release works the same as that in STI's adult stirrup: If the stirrup rotates 45 degrees forward or 72 degrees backward, the spring-loaded release mechanism will fire and release the stirrup. Those angles are drastic enough that a child won't be able to unintentionally make that kind of rotation, so it won't release when you don't want it to, explains McCoy.
Because the release mechanism is spring-loaded, it takes 8 pounds of torsion pressure to rotate the stirrup. This stabilizes the stirrup, preventing the free-swinging motion common to conventional stirrups. This is a tremendous feature for youth stirrups, the manufacturer says, because it makes it virtually impossible for a kid to step through the stirrup.
McCoy warns that young children are the most susceptible to hang-ups, because their feet are small and can slip all the way through their stirrups, and because they don't know how to get their feet out of the stirrups if something goes wrong. Saddles with light stirrups and light stirrup leathers also allow kids to get hung up more easily. This is especially dangerous in dismounts, when the child tries to disengage the offside stirrup. A light stirrup and leather are more likely to stick to the boot and be dragged over the top of the saddle, and most kids won't realize it until it's too late.
"Even though it is very unlikely that a child will be able to step through the [STI] stirrup, a child under 60 pounds should not ride in this stirrup," cautions McCoy. He recommends that tapderos be used on smaller children's stirrups until they grow into boots big enough that they won't accidentally slip all the way through the stirrups.
"Before my dad started making these [breakaway] stirrups, he wouldn't let us have stirrups until he figured we were old enough, and even then it was nothing more than just our toes. But just in case, he still split our boots down the back like bronc riders. He figured ruined boots were a whole lot better than a possible dragging. But he was never far from us when we were little shavers," remembers McCoy.
"[Small children] should never be more than arm's reach away from an adult when on a horse," he cautions. "And an adult should also have the lead on that horse. A horse is still an animal, and unlike a dog, a 1,200-pound horse doesn't have to have cruel intentions to cause serious injuries to a grown man, much less a little child. Just because the kids are in an arena doesn't make them safe," McCoy says.