The Western Boot

Theresa McCaffrey


We all know the cowboy boot style, but how many of us know where the design cues came from?

The term Cowboy boot sums up a specific style of footwear – usually an ornate leather boot, with a tall shaft, heel and a pointed toe. Naturally there are many variations with some more suitable as fashion attire than work on the ranch.


The most common boots made today fall into two categories, the classic and the roper. The classic is more along the lines described above whereas the roper has a shorter shaft and rounded toe and was created in response to the needs of modern rodeo where cowboys have to run as well as to ride. Laces are often found on ropers to prevent them from falling off and to improve the fit around the ankle.


Cowboy boots are usually made from cowhide leather but exotic skins are also seen including alligator, snake, ostrich, sting ray and buffalo. These are usually reserved for dress boots or very special show attire and this will be reflected in the price.


The styles we see today have a few influences form the Vaquero tradition imported from Spain in early 16th century to the military boots designed for cavalry riders and, later, the mass-produced Wellington boot (a shorter but cavalry-oriented boot).
During the cattle drive era of 1866–1884, the cowboy was not apt to ruin a good pair of dress boots while working, but some owned more decorative dress boots to wear in town. The basic style elements permeated even working boots, and made the Wellington obsolete. Fashion magazines from 1850 and 1860 show the cowboy boot with top-stitching, cut outs of geometric shapes and an under slung heel.


Design Features


  • Sole – the treadles sole of western boots makes for easy insertion and removal of the foot into and from the stirrup.
  • Toe – the narrow, rounded toe of the original boot styles also helped with insertion into the stirrup. The pointed toe found in some of today’s styles was a fashion addition the 1940s and serves no practical purpose.
  • Heel - the tall heel minimises the risk of the foot sliding forward through the stirrup.
  • Shaft - a tall leather shaft helps hold the boot in place while allowing for the boot to come loose should a rider fall and catch and be dragged. The length of leather also helps protect the lower leg and ankle from chaffing and, when on foot, from the likes of rattlesnakes and deep water.


Heels and Toes


  • Cowboy boots come in a variety of toe shapes. The most common are the sharply pointed J toe, the D toe which gently tapers to a point with a flat tip, the R toe with a taper to a rounded tip and the W or U toe (also called a roper), which has a fully rounded tip. The square toed boot has a wide, flat and angular toe.
  • Heels styles can also vary widely but fall into two main categories, the under slung ‘cowboy’ heel and the more squared off ‘roper.’