Just the mention of cowboy boots conjures up romantic visions of the Old West… creaking saloon doors, crackling campfires, lawmen with long-barreled six-shooters, and month-long cattle drives across windswept prairies.
Cowboy boots were originally modeled after Northern European riding boots, but gradually evolved to suit the different needs of cowboys in the U.S. Southwest. The first true cowboy boots first appeared in the mid 1800s, complete with higher heels and stylized stitching. Today, Western boots can be roughly defined as a class of leather boots with a high heel and shaft and a design acceptable for riding horses. Western boots vary widely in their appearance, and may have a pointed or rounded toe, a pull-on or lace-up design, and a height anywhere from the ankles to knees.
You don’t have to be a real cowboy or cowgirl to wear cowboy boots. Western boots are now a stylish form of footwear that can be seen on people from all walks of life. Besides being good for wrangling and roping, these boots are popular because of their durability, practicality and rugged, individual styles.
Which Western boot style is best for you? Sierra Trading Post has a wide selection of boots at discount prices, and this buyer’s guide to Western boots is intended to help you pick the right pair.
Classic cowboy boots are the most common Western boots. They have an angled heel of intermediate height (usually an inch-and-a-half or more). This heel type is slightly lower than heels found on true Western riding boots, and is ready for riding or walking. The shaft of a cowboy boot usually reaches to about mid-calf, with an overall boot height of about 12 inches.
Cowboy boots fall in the middle of the road for Western boots, in terms of overall height and heel height. Most cowboy boots are great for sitting in the saddle, kicking up your heels on the dance floor, or everyday wear.
Western-style riding boots are designed specifically for horseback riding or working in the saddle. These are the favorite boots of many cowboys and cowgirls in rodeos and horse shows.
Of course you never want to fall off your horse. If you do, though, you certainly don’t want to be dragged because your boot is caught in the stirrup. Western riding boots are designed with this type of rider safety and utility in mind. Riding boots have:
Note: Some modern Western riding boots may offer a lace-up style for a better fit than pull-on boots, but these boots can increase the risk for feet getting caught in the stirrups.
Ropers represent a newer design of Western boots that were created (and so named) to help rodeo cowboys rope calves in competition. The “calf roping” event requires cowboys to ride their horses after a calf to rope it, then to dismount and run down the taut rope to restrain the calf. This event goes far more smoothly with the shorter heels of a roper-style boot.
Ropers are similar in style to English riding boots. They have the lowest heel height of all Western boots, usually just over one inch (a heel this low is often referred to as a “walking heel”). The heel is typically squared off, with a 90-degree angle formed between the heel and boot sole. These Western boots also have the lowest overall height, with the shaft height being several inches above the ankle. Also, most roper boots have a rounded toe and flexible sole for a more comfortable fit.
Many ropers are lace-up boots, which provide a great fit and ankle support but can cause problems if used as riding boots (such as being dragged if thrown from the saddle).
Note: The “roper” boot style should not be confused with the “Roper” brand, a leading manufacturer of all types of Western boots.
Work-western boots usually have slightly lower or roper-style heels that are easier on the feet when walking than riding heels. The soles of work-western boots are often treaded and have at least some rubber surface for traction, and may have a cushioning midsole for shock absorption. This Western boot style often costs less than other cowboy boots because the leather used is usually cowhide or another less-exotic material, and less artistry goes into crafting boots designed more for function.
Western fashion boots come in a wide range of styles and follow virtually no rules. They may be of any height, heel height and design. This is the one Western boot style where you will sometimes find synthetic materials used for the shaft, rather than genuine leathers. Also, the most exotic leathers are used for these boots.
Many Western fashion boots have the taller, knee-high shaft that is commonly seen on performers on stage. Fashion boots may also have an extremely pointed toe and a highly decorated, colorful shaft. Western fashion boots that have the bright colors and retro flair of early Hollywood and Roy Rogers are usually referred to as vintage Western boots.
We would not recommend using this style of boot for practical purposes like horseback riding or working, but instead for going out on the town.
|Boot Type||Shaft Height||Heel (Height, Shape)||Toe (Shape)||Lace-Up||Sole||Relative Cost|
|Cowboy Boots||Mid-calf (around 11-12")||Around 1½", angled||Pointed, flattened or slightly rounded||No||Smooth leather, may have heel cap||Highly variable|
|Riding Boots||Mid to upper calf (around 12-13")||Around 2", angled||Pointed or only slightly rounded||No||Smooth leather||Mid-range|
|Ropers||Between ankle and mid-calf (around 7-10")||Less than 1½", squared-off "Roper" heel||Rounded or squared||On some styles||Variable, often with tread and traction rubber||Low to mid-range|
|Work-Western Boots||Mid-calf or lower (around 9-12")||1¾" or less||Rounded or slightly tapered||On some styles||Variable, often with tread and traction rubber||Low|
|Western Fashion Boots||Variable||Usually over 1½", variable||Variable||On some styles||Variable, often with tread||Highly variable|
The best Western boots are made by traditional big names like Tony Lama, Justin Boots, Roper, Dan Post, Stetson and Ariat, and also by quality newer brands like Twisted X and Double H Boots. These Western boot manufacturers are internationally known for producing a wide variety of handcrafted boots available at most major retailers. Don’t be fooled by the large quantities available, though. The professionals who craft name brand boots for the likes of Ariat and Tony Lama put an incredible amount of time into each pair, so you always get what you pay for.
Lesser-known Western boot brands may or may not be of such dependable quality. If you’re looking at Western boots by an unfamiliar brand, find out if the entire boot is made of real leather. Some of the cheapest models don’t use leather at all, but have a shaft and upper made of vinyl or composite materials instead of natural leathers. Boots of this nature are uncomfortable and will not breathe, plus they lack that genuine leather smell and feel.
It all comes down to this: You get what you pay for. You can find very cheap cowboy boots, but they will be of cheap quality… you can pay an arm and a leg for flashy, exotic boots made of rare leathers… or you can aim for somewhere in the middle and simply buy a handcrafted, handsome pair of Western boots for a reasonable price.
The majority of a Western boot consists of the shaft (the part around your leg) and vamp (the leather over and alongside your foot). Together, these areas make up the boot’s “upper.” A Western boot upper is almost always made of some form of natural leather, with more traditional cowboy boot uppers being crafted only from smooth cowhide.
Western boots come at many different prices, in large part due to the assortment of leathers available today. In terms of actual cowhide, you can go with options like rugged full-grain leather for durability or suede for a scuffed-up look and softer feel. To learn about the properties of various leathers, check out our Guide to Leathers.
Want something a little more unique? If you’re willing to pay a little more, you can find Western boots made from exotic real leathers like:
Traditional cowboy boots have nearly always been made with a smooth leather sole with a stacked leather heel. This heel-sole combination was (and still is) the best for riding horses with feet in the stirrups. The majority of folks who wear cowboy boots today rarely mount a horse, however, which has led to the availability of many other types of Western boot soles and heels.
Many modern Western boots include a midsole and/ or footbed. This inner layer may be made from materials like spongy synthetic EVA or natural cork, and is designed to cushion the bottom of your foot. Shock absorption and cushioning is especially important if you’ll be walking or standing a lot in your boots.
If you want truly handcrafted Western boots, look for boots with outsoles that are considered hand-rolled and hand-pegged. All Western boot outsoles have a convex curve at the arch to match the shape of a person’s foot. While many modern boot outsoles are rolled by machine to achieve this curved shape, the curve is fashioned by hand in some high-quality boots and secured in place with wooden or brass pegs driven by hand.
Western boot heel height is largely based on wearer preference, but there are some practical considerations when selecting your ideal Western boot heel height.
Lower heels (around one inch) are usually found in ropers and are easiest to walk or work in; higher heels (around two inches) are best for riding… or looking taller! A middle heel height is the most versatile Western boot heel for a combination of riding, walking and working that many cowboys favor.
You should buy only boots with authentic stacked leather heels if you want a genuine and durable pair of Western boots. You may want a rubber-capped heel for traction, and you should opt for a lower heel than the traditional two-inch riding heel unless you’re a frequent rider.
The classic cowboy boot has a narrow, pointed toe, designed to slide easily into the stirrups without snagging. In modern times, many Western boot wearers rarely (if ever) ride horses, though. As a result, Western boot manufacturers offer a variety of toe styles. Here are some common Western boot toe styles, listed from most pointed to least pointed:
Western boots can be simple or have all kinds of bells and whistles. Whether you’re looking for a lot a style, work-friendly features, or just a great everyday boot, here are some features to look for in modern Western boots:
Over the past century, each of the big Western boot manufacturers have developed their own boot-making methods. They use different lasts to mold the boots around, and have individual trade secrets. Therefore you can’t expect standardization of Western boot sizes between manufacturers, so you need to know how you fit in a particular brand of boot. To ensure a good fit from your Western boots:
Western boots are almost always made of one form of leather or another, but not all boots are made from the same type of leather. Realize that every type of leather has its own unique care requirements. For example, snakeskin boots may require a damp cloth for cleaning, while cowhide cowboy boots may need a polish and shine to look their best.
Always follow the care instructions that come with your boots. When properly taken care of, a pair of Western boots can last for many years (or even decades if resoled) and will gain more character and offer a better fit as they go.