Today’s horse riding boots differ greatly from footwear in the Old West. Boot making and shoe making technology and materials are radically different today than they were on the Plains or prairies of the 1800s. Today’s boots offer comfort and fit unknown back then.
In the Old West, horse riding boots came in about one general selection — leather. Sure, depending on the skills and interests of an individual boot maker, they might be shaped a bit differently from pair to pair, and some boot craftsmen might vary the length of the boot on the leg and the height of the heel. But the one thing you could count on in a good pair of horse riding boots was that they would be made of leather.
Yes, of course, as the 1800s progressed and Eastern shoe and boot makers moved their wares westward first via wagon then railroad, “store bought” boots began to replace the hand workmanship of the pioneers and early settlers.
Mass produced shoes and boots that made their way into the west began, really, with the Civil War. In fact, the distinct and careful shaping of boots into right-foot and left-foot pairs only became standardized as factory shoes and boots were produced for Union and Confederate troops in that conflict. (One writer said that the lack of good shoes and boots contributed heavily to the defeat of the Confederacy. Union factories were better funded and better developed; the South was walking largely on bare feet by the end of the war.)
Military footwear, especially various sizes and shapes of boots, made their way westward and took over most of the handmade horse riding boots and cowboy boots in the civilian population. Jack boots were made early on, a sort of huge, high boot that might reach nearly up to the hip. Jack boots were crafted out of heavy leather and were virtually indestructible. In fact, many a father bequeathed his favorite pair of jack boots to his son.
Cowboy boots stretch back in origins to the early Spanish “vaqueros” in the 1500s and 1600s, taking their name from those early cowboys. They were made of tough leather and often had pointed toes and high heels, better made for fitting in stirrups on horseback than for walking. (Even cowboys generally acknowledged that Indian moccasins were the most comfortable shoes for walking, as long as you didn’t have to walk too far — which few cowboys liked to do.) By the latter part of the 1800s, cowboy boots had developed into beautifully tooled leather masterpieces similar to today’s better handmade boots.
Cowboy boots or English style riding footwear, today’s horse riding boots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, certainly very different than the limited and less comfortable choices of the Old West.