Why Are Cowboy Boots Shaped the Way They Are? (History)

Why are cowboy boots designed the way they are?

Have you ever watched a Western movie, a rodeo, or been to a Western barn and wondered why are cowboy boots shaped the way they are?

American cowboys have been using this type of boot since the 19th century. But they are also popular in other countries with a cattle herding tradition, like Australia.

Let’s talk about how they got their iconic style.

Key Takeaways

  • Riding boots with heels have been around since the 11th century, due to being practical and safe for horse riding.
  • The Wellington boot, invented by the 1st Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century, played a key role in the development of riding boots in both the Old and New World.
  • The cowboy boot, as we know it comes from the Hollywood spin on Western footwear, but it still has a connection to the actual riding boots worn by cowboys.

CHECK: Best Boots for Western Horseback Riding

History of the Cowboy Boot

The history of cowboy boots starts with Genghis Khan and takes us to 1930s and 40s Hollywood.

However, the exact origins of the styles of boots associated with the American West are unknown.

Lone Star Boot reviews give his best synthesis of the many sources.

Read on for mine.

Early Usage

11th-century descriptions of Genghis Khan’s armies include high-shafted boots with distinct heels.

Later, leather, heeled boots could be found amongst the invading Hungarians, Moors, and the vaquero herders of Spain.

Even the earliest equestrian boots are made of leather and have that distinct shape. There are pragmatic reasons for this design.

The high shaft covers the rider’s calf, protecting them from vegetation, barbed wire, thorns, rubs from the stirrup leathers, and anything else they might run into.

The rounded or pointed toe makes it easier for the rider to fit their foot into a stirrup, while the heel prevents the rider’s whole foot from sliding through the stirrup.

Should the rider become unseated, they could get their foot stuck in the stirrup and end up getting dragged by the horse. Heels should prevent this. Hence the reason for heels being an important safety feature of any riding boot.

Hessian boots

Most historians agree that one of the ancestors of the modern cowboy boot is the Hessian boot, a 19th-century cavalry boot from Germany.

They had a rounded toe, a slight heel, and a decorative tassel at the top of the shaft.

Wellington Boots

When you hear Wellington boots, you imagine the tall, green rubber boots you’d use to walk through puddles or catch horses in muddy fields.

It seems surprising that “Wellies” and American cowboy boots share a common ancestor, but they do.

The original Wellington boot was popularized by Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. He defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, becoming a British icon.

He modified the Hessian boot, making it hardwearing enough for battle, yet comfortable enough for an evening out. It was made out of softer leather, with a closer cut around the leg, with heels stacked by about an inch. And no tassels.

The boots spread like wildfire amongst the British aristocracy, who wanted the emulate the fashion of their war hero. They were mass-produced, then eventually issued to the British cavalry.

They made their way across the pond to the United States, and they were the standard-issue riding boots for the cavalry during the Civil War.

Post-Civil War Western Expansion

After the Civil War, troops were placed on the Western frontier and more settlers moved into the territories. The soldiers were provided with military boots, cheap versions of Wellingtons that disintegrated in the severe conditions of the frontier.

Life in the Western colonies was harsh for everyone. The ubiquitous military boots were not up to the demands of long cattle drives, breaking in mustangs, and the unforgiving terrain.

Frontier civilian bootmakers developed practical solutions to replace shoddy boots.

The most popular style was the Coffeyville Boot, from Coffeyville, Kansas, which combined US cavalry styles with the Wellingtons, influenced by the vaquero boots from Mexico and Texas.

The vaquero style of riding (and footwear) has its origins in Spain but came to the New World when Spain colonized parts of the Western US and Central and South America. Their boots had low heels, square toes, and spur attachments.

DW Frommer, the author of Western Bootmaking: An American Tradition, explains, “The Coffeyville pattern, as it was called, had a higher Cuban heel (scooped instead of straight in profile); and the front of the boot, despite being basically a full wellington, was often grafted.’

Indeed, this grafting or piecing of the front of the boot is almost the distinguishing characteristic of many non-military boots.’

This is not too surprising given that all boots, whether made for military issue or as bespoke (custom) footwear, were made by civilian makers during this time.” (1)

RELATED: Why Do Cowboy Boots Have Spurs?

Late 19th Century

In the 1870s, the cowboy boot began emerging as its own style, adding some of the decorative stitching that makes them stand out today. Stovepipe tops, star, and horse-shoe stitching patterns made inroads into fashion.

Frommer says, “By 1900 the four-piece boot had become the dominant form–probably as a response to the difficulty of construction with a full wellington.” (1)

The rounded toe of the Wellingtons had been replaced by a slightly pointed or squared-off one, which made it easier for the cowboy to get his foot quickly into the stirrup. The soft calfskin had been exchanged for tough steerhide.

They also had a tall shaft to protect the cowboy’s legs from thorns, brush, snakes, and wire, and a large, thick underslung heel so his foot would stay in the stirrup, even when riding rank horses or navigating rough trails.

They were designed to be pulled on easily and, more critically, pulled off, should the cowboy’s foot get hung up in the stirrup.

The leather was stitched on the outside instead of the inside. This prevented the boot from buckling. But as cowboy boots became more decorative, this design gave bootmakers the opportunity to play with inlays and overlays and colorful leather.

At first, the original cowboy boot could only be acquired from a cobbler, custom-made. Then in 1883, a bootmaker from San Antonio called Lucchese was one of the first brands to automate the process.

They could make several boots in a matter of minutes, the beginnings of mass production.

RELATED: What to Wear With Cowboy Boots Men

The Hollywood Era – 1920s to 1940s

A pair of boots were one of the cowboy’s most prized possessions during long cattle drives or during hard days of ranch work. They were entirely practical, durable, and relatively plain.

By the 1920s, they had become a fashion item, worn by rich gamblers, bankers, gunslingers, and anyone who could afford a fancy pair.

These Western boots, with lone star inlays and dyed leather, were called Tejas. They were adopted by early Hollywood stars during the 1920s and 30s, like Tex Ritter and Tom Mix.

That was the start. It was the Hollywood Western films that truly made them an icon of American culture. Cowboy boots became a staple of cinema, featuring in popular films like High Noon, Red River, and Arizona. In fact, one in five films coming out of Hollywood was a Western.

The plain and practical boot used by horsemen during daily ranching was not fancy enough for Hollywood directors and actors. Even the Tejas boots of the 20s seemed plain.

Stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck wore cowboy boots as fashion statements, decorated with the ostentatious stitching, colors, and pictures we are familiar with today.

And while a basic pair of cowboy boots might have been made from steer leather, bootmakers began experimenting with all kinds of exotic leather – alligator skin, kangaroo leather, and snakeskin, to name a few.

The Roper Boot

As rodeos gained popularity, a specific style of cowboy boots emerged, adapted to the requirements of the rodeo.

This was all done in the ring, so the boots were not required to be as hard-wearing, nor did they have to protect the cowboy from the dangers of days in the wilderness.

Cowboys competing in roping events need to be able to jump off the horse and run after a calf. The tall leather shafts and underslung heels of the traditional cowboy boot don’t lend themselves to running.

This brings us to the roper boot. Ariat, a well-known riding bootmaker, explains,

“The heel of a roper boot is shorter than that of a traditional cowboy boot but taller than a sneaker or work boot. It’s also squared off at the back.’

‘This allows your roper boots to lock into stirrups but makes them more comfortable to run in.” (2)

FAQs

Why do cowboy boots have slanted heels?

lady wearing a black cowboy boots

It allows for a firmer hold in the stirrup, especially if the cowboy is riding a difficult horse. It effectively locks the foot in the stirrup.

Why are all cowboy boots Square toe now?

The square toe cowboy boot is common for ranch work – or any situation where you have to be on your feet all day. It’s more comfortable than the pointed toe because it gives your feet more room.
They have also become the dominant fashion amongst people who don’t ride. Just because they look good.

Do real cowboys wear square toe boots?

Sometimes! Square-toed boots are more comfortable if you are mostly walking.
But people who spend the majority of their time on horseback prefer rounded toes since it’s easier to insert them in the stirrups.

Conclusion

The main reason why cowboy boots are shaped the way they are in Hollywood. Still, beyond John Wayne are the working boots that defined the American cowboy.

Even the most elaborate, shiny snakeskin boots (which would never go near a horse) pay tribute to the working boot of the West, although the wide range of elaborate stitching, bling, and exotic leathers have little to do with work boots or riding boots and everything to do with fashion statements.

But when you get past the Hollywood bling, Western boots are still great riding boots – and many are still designed for riding.

The choices are endless – whether you are a rodeo rider, a reiner or barrel racer, a ranch hand, a trail rider, or someone who just fancies a pair of cowboy boots, there are boots out there which will suit your feet and look great.

pairs of cowboy boots

Resources

  • 1. A HISTORY OF THE WESTERN BOOT | Shoeinfonet [Internet]. shoeinfonet.com. Available from: https://shoeinfonet.com/shoe-history/history-western-boot
  • 2. What Are Roper Boots? | Ariat [Internet]. Ariat International. [cited 2022 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.ariat.com/al/what-are-roper-boots

Emily Donoho
Emily Donoho

Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.

Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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