By Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA
From functional to fashionable, classic to contemporary, the English riding boot market offers variety for every budget, need, and taste. Tall boots not only look elegant but they can also give your performance an added edge. Paddock boots marry practicality with convenience.
Today’s riding boots offer technical features for comfort and performance: Think moisture-wicking lining, memory-foam footbed, and grippy rubber soles, in addition to master craftsmanship. Boots for showing and schooling, high-end custom boots and easy-care synthetic boots, insulated winter boots and waterproof all-purpose boots; you name it, there’s a boot for that.
Paddock boots, ankle-height laced, zipped, or pull-on boots, are practical for both riding and barn work. Tall boots, mandatory for showing in many disciplines’ divisions, provide stability while creating clean, graceful lines. Field boots are generally the go-to option for riders in jumping disciplines; this includes hunters, jumpers, and three-day eventers, as well as many casual English riders. Dressage riders generally choose dress boots. There is, however, crossover between field boots and dress boots across the disciplines; the new standard of zippers (bye-bye boot pulls and jacks!) and soft leather on nearly every style of boot has opened the playing field. Elasticized gussets alongside the zipper offer give for an optimal fit.
Laces at the throat of the boot and spur rests set field boots apart from dress boots. This softer style of boot offers the flexibility needed for “heels down.” Field boots are often decorated with a leather tab at the top outside of the boot and a punched toe cap. Crafted from smooth leather without laces, dress boots tend to be stiffer than field boots with less drop in the leather at the ankle; a range in the degree of stiffness in dressage boots satisfies every rider’s preference.
The advent of zippers and elastic inserts is in many ways a game changer, says Roberto Rivas, whose family company LM Boots (with a flagship store in Wellington, Florida) has been custom-making boots in South America for more than a century. Today’s boots are ready to wear immediately, with little to no break-in time, Rivas says, going on to explain that with zippers and elastic, the laces found on field boots are now a matter of look, not necessity.
“In the past, since we didn’t have a zipper, we had to pull the boot to get into it, which made a huge difference between field boots and dress boots,” he says. “In those times, you opened the laces to put the boots on and then tightened the laces to make the boot more snug.”
Nowadays, he explains, for jumping you can choose a field or a dress boot, as long as it’s a soft boot that can flex and is fitted at the ankle, like a “comfortable second skin.” Dressage is totally different, explains Rivas, as the boot supports the leg.
Spanish tops on both field and dress boots, a style in which the outside top of the boot is cut higher in an upward swoop at the knee, visually elongate the leg for an elegant look that doesn’t impact comfort. If you’re into hip new looks, you’ve got options galore, including bling-studded tops, various shades of leather, buckles, full-length laces, and contrasting trim.
“A tall boot for riding can also be a fashion boot,” says Rivas. “There is so much you can do: You can punch the toe, you can choose square or round toe, you can put decoration or exotic leather at the top. Choose the right boot for the kind of riding you do.”
Research brands and styles, then narrow the field to your top choices. Wearing whatever type of riding pants and socks you typically ride in, measure sitting in a chair with your feet on the floor and legs at a 90-degree angle. Have a friend or assistant measure the widest part of your calf and from the bottom of your heel up to the bend of your knee with a soft tape measure. These two figures, along with your standard shoe size, will help you determine your boot size. Be sure to measure in both centimeters and inches, as some boots require metric sizing.
New boots will hit at the back of your knee and drop down once broken in. Typically, field boots drop more than dress boots. Drop can vary widely—anything from a ¼” to 1 ½”, so consult each manufacturer’s guidelines, and then add that figure to the height measurement. If your height is between sizes, sizing up is generally your best bet so you don’t end up with a too-short boot. Boots should fit snug, but not too tight; the leather will stretch a bit. Zippered boots should not be too snug, as this strains the zipper.
Once you’ve chosen your boots, wear them around the house at first. If you find the breaking-in phase especially painful, heel lifts (inserts in the heel of your boot) help alleviate some of the chafing at the backs of your knees.
Take care of your boots to ensure longevity. After each ride, wipe them down sparingly, using only high-quality products designed for boot care. Store your boots with boot trees, so they maintain their shape. A zipper lubricant designed for riding boots keeps the zipper functioning optimally.
Remember: Always ride in a boot with a heel, which helps prevent the foot from sliding through the stirrup. If you compete, check your sport’s rulebook for specific details on permissible footwear.