My daughter is obsessed with horses. Her room is decorated with equine photos, her bookshelf stocked with classic horse books, and her dream is to raise horses. For her birthday this year, we gave her riding lessons. She could hardly sleep with the excitement, and mom got on the hunt for riding boots. Robin Vogel, apparel buyer for Mary's Tack & Feed in Del Mar (858-755-2015) was a bounty of knowledge. "We specialize with English riding, hunter jumper, or dressage. Dressage almost looks like figure skating. It has a set pattern and the horse stays on the ground, as opposed to jumping over a course of jumps. Both styles of riding require a tall boot to compete in. For basic riding, taking lessons, schooling, or riding for fun, a paddock boot is suitable. A paddock boot is a short ankle-height boot that you pair up with a half chap, a leather legging. You get the protection on your leg [from the chaps], and the boot zips on and off."
Vogel says fit is the first concern. "Tall boots are expensive, so you want to make sure that you are measured properly," said Vogel. "It is not just your foot size, it's also the widest part of the calf and your height. The boot should be very tight and snug against your leg. What's popular now is most of the tall boots come with a zipper. They used to not, but now almost all of them do. It makes for an easy on and off; though, once you zip them up, they are still pretty tight. You want the tall boots to be a little too tall when you buy them. The front of the boot should come up a bit over the kneecap, not all the way over, but covering the bottom part of the knee cap. The leather will soften up and as it breaks in, the leather around the ankle will start to wrinkle, and the boot will drop down about an inch. So you have to start them out too tall and let them drop."
Should you break the boots in before riding with them?
"When you first start wearing the tall boots, it is basically agony. You are walking around like a Nazi because you can't bend your knees until the boots break in. We recommend that when you get the boots, wear them around the house for a little while." The break-in period for the boot depends on the quality of the leather. And "the quality of the leather is softer as you go up in price."
Vogel says that they do sell an entry-level synthetic boot for someone trying out showing for the first time, unsure if they will stick with it. "A synthetic boot is probably going to be harder to break in because it's a little bit more stiff. And when you look at the boot, you can see the quality difference between a synthetic-leather boot and the real-leather boot."
What about the heel height?
"The heel is actually very low," she explained. "You do want a heel on any boot or footwear that you would wear riding a horse because otherwise your foot could potentially slide all the way through the stirrup. If something happened where you fell off the horse, you want to be able to get off the horse, get away from it. If your foot is caught inside the stirrup, you'll be dragged. So that's why the boots always have a heel but a low heel, anywhere from a half-inch to an inch."
What about care for the boots?
"A big mistake people make is they think they can clean their boots with saddle cleaner. Leather that's used for a saddle is from a different part of the hide. It's a much heavier-duty leather for the saddle and because of that, the cleaner that's used can be harsher. Sometimes it's too harsh for the very delicate leather that is used for boots. The leather on boots they want to be soft and supple so that the rider can have a good connection to the horse through your leg. You want to be able to feel the horse, and if the leather is too thick and too stiff, you're not going to get that feel. So you want to make sure that you use a conditioner that is made for boots. Vogel Leather Conditioner [ $12.99 for 8 ounces] is a very popular conditioner at our store. Another good conditioner we sell a lot of is called Oakwood Conditioner [ $8.99 for a 4.5-ounce tube]."
Vogel says you should clean your boots almost every time you use them. "When you are at the barn, you're walking around in manure, sand, and mud, and when the horse sweats, your boot will get salt and sweat encrusted onto it. So what you want to do is use a sponge, dipped in water, wrung out extremely well, and rub off all the dirt and gunk. Then use a conditioner to go back in and replace the oils that were lost from wiping it down with the water. You should treat boots the way you treat your skin because leather is skin."
Vogel offered some boot suggestions: "Ariat is a popular brand, and they have put a lot of work into the technology of the internal parts of the boot. The shank that runs through the bottom of the foot is wider so your foot has more support and you don't get that fatigue, that achy feeling in your foot. Their entry-level tall boot called Heritage sells for $239 . Their entry-level paddock boot, also called Heritage, for someone who will only be riding about once a week, costs $109 ." For those looking for a higher-end boot, Ariat sells the Crown tall boot with a zipper for $549 . And their paddock boot, called the Cobalt XR, costs $179 .