In the early 1970s there was a thick outdoor-goods catalogue published in Minnesota by a fellow named George Leonard Herter. It contained knives, guns, clothing, tents, dutch ovens, fishing poles, sleeping bags, and anything else you can think of in regards to the outdoors. Herter also wrote a number of books, including How to get out of the Rat Race and Live on Ten Dollars a month.
George was pretty impressed with himself, and with all the goods he sold in his store and catalogue. Every item was described in glowing terms, proclaimed to be the best design and quality available, and endorsed as being the item that was used by the “real” outdoorsman.
Herter’s sold a line of high-topped, round-toed, flat-soled, leather boots of the style I would call “engineer boots”. George claimed that these were the “real” boots for riding, and that all the “real” outfitters in Minnesota rode in these boots. He said that what were commonly called “cowboy boots” were really Spanish dancing boots, and weren’t created for riding at all.
In fact, English riding boots are flat-soled and low-heeled, as are the boots now worn by many of the contestants in such arena events as reining and cutting. And a proper riding instructor will insist that you ride with only your toes in the stirrups, with your weight balanced on the ball of your foot.
Years later I was reading an account by Ralph Moody in his book Home Ranch which validated George’s assertion.
The book told of Ralph’s childhood in Colorado at the turn of the 20th century. He was only ten when his father died, and Ralph had a summer job on a nearby ranch. Apparently Ralph had been riding in typical lace-up work shoes, and was thrilled when his crew went in together to buy him a pair of “Spanish boots”.
Over time, these tall, high-heeled, pointed, Spanish dancing boots came to be the standard footwear of the western horseman – and were commonly called “cowboy boots”.
All bronc riders, and many ranch cowboys, sit with their boots plowed into the stirrups up to the hilt, with the thin ox-bow stirrups cradled under the arches of their feet.
The tall heels and rounded arches of those Spanish boots aren’t just for show – they serve a real purpose in holding the stirrups when the riding gets rough.
And so, indeed, they are dancing boots. As I have written in several of my stories, working cattle ahorseback is a mounted ‘dance’, and one must be outfitted with the appropriate footwear.