Written by: Karin Apfel

When purchasing a new riding boot, fit (really, really) matters.

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An international study done by the American Podiatry Association (APA) found that 74 per cent of people raised in shoe-wearing cultures have ongoing foot problems, while only three per cent of people raised in non-shoe-wearing cultures experience foot troubles. The APA determined that the problems arise not from the actual wearing of shoes, but from wearing improperly fit shoes over the course of many years. Do not settle for a poor fit, especially in a boot you will be wearing for long hours. Here’s how the get the best fit you can in boots off the rack.

Feet are different sizes at different times of day – larger in the evening than in the morning. Never buy a pair of boots first thing in the morning. They will be too tight when you wear them later in the day. Nor should you buy boots at night, after a long day on your feet. You will swim in them in the mornings. Instead, buy your boots at midday, or in the mid-afternoon, when your feet are in an in-between stage.

Feet often differ in size, as much as a half size difference. If the difference is more than a half size you may need to purchase custom-made boots. If you seem to be in-between sizes, go for the larger size. If boots are a little large you can do something about it (like wearing heavier socks), but if they are a tad too small, little can be done.

When trying on new boots, be sure to wear the right socks, the ones you are likely to ride in. If you are buying English boots, wear the breeches you will be riding in most often as well. Ideally, you should buy new socks when you buy new boots. New socks have that extra bit of cushioning that can prevent rubs and blisters during the breaking in period. Make sure to walk in the boots before you buy and, more importantly, bend your knees and crouch in a riding position to test the ankle fit.

Once your foot is in the boot, the widest part of your foot, usually at the ball of the foot, should hit the widest part of the boot (it normally sits right behind the stitching on the toe in a western boot). If this lines up correctly there should be room to wiggle your toes, the arch of your foot should sit above the arch of the boot, and your heel should have some room to move.

Make sure you have plenty of toe room. Toe room prevents your toes from banging into the front of the boot when going downhill, and allows for natural foot swelling. You should be able to wiggle your toes slightly. To see if you have enough room, slide your foot forward so your toes are touching the front of the boot. In this position, you should have about a finger’s width behind your heel. The toes of cowboy boots are not all cut the same way. Some boots are made with boxy toes, others with pointy toes and still others with rounded toes, so pick and choose carefully depending on the shape of your foot.

For tall English boots, place a heel lift (leather wedge) in each pair of boots before trying it on. As the leather breaks in while you ride in your new boots, it will “drop” about half an inch Therefore, trying the boots on with the heel lifts in, will show you where they will end up on your leg after being broken in. You will also want to buy a pair of heel lifts to wear in the boots so that they will not chafe the backs of your legs during first couple of weeks until they drop to the proper height.

Remember that proper fit is the key to comfort, whether on the trail, working around the farm or in the show ring. Riding boots have a tough job; they must be comfortable on the ground as well as the saddle so take the time to get the right ones for your needs and your feet.

Adapting the Fit

1. Got really wide feet? Freeze your boots. Really. Take a large freezer bags (doubled up grocery bags without holes might do as well) and stuff them down into the foot as though you were trying to line the boots with them. Now carefully add water to the bag. Avoid getting water in the boot lining. When the bag contains enough water to fill the entire boot area below the ankle, securely tie off the top of the bag using several wire twist-ties. Now pop the whole set-up – boots, bags, and water – into the freezer, where the liquid will solidify overnight and expand. This expansion is your widening tool; you can imagine what this does to the forefoot of your boot. Viola! Your D width is now an E. If you need to drastically widen the boots, use this procedure in multiple stages, using new bags for each width stage.

2. Bunions, prominent metatarsal heads, heel spurs and other foot complications can limit your chance for a good fit. Not to worry. Find a sturdy chair with small-diameter legs and turn it over. You now have a make-shift version of what professional boot fitters call a ‘rubbing bar.’ Place your boot upside down over one of the chair legs sticking up. Use the end of the chair leg to ‘rub’ a bulge into the required area, thus making room for protruding bulges of your foot. If there are sharp edges on the end of your upside-down chair leg, cover this area with several layers of duct tape to avoid cutting the boot lining. Wet the leather to make stretching easier. Once you’ve successfully customized your boots using this technique, wear them for a few hours.

3. If your tall English boot is cutting into the back of your, knee but fits well otherwise, insert a pair of heel lifts until the leather breaks in and sags or you can leave them in permanently to prevent rubbing.

4. If your foot is wide in front, but narrow in the heel, making the boot feel loose, you can insert heel grips that will prevent heel slide. Always choose a boot to fit the widest part of your foot.

5. Stretch the calves and ankles of new boots and help with the breaking in period (but never buy a new pair of boots just before a horse show!) by rubbing the boot with leather conditioner, putting them on and walking around the house for at least 15 minutes a day. Avoid common “quick-fix” approaches like getting your boots soaking wet then walking long distances, or using rubbing alcohol. This will damage the leather and shorten the life of your boot.