By Michael Moore for RCC Western Stores 2/29/2012
Do you know how I can tell you’re smart? Two things: a) you’ve decided on a western-themed vacation with a member of the Dude Ranchers’ Association ensuring a quality experience, and b) you’re doing your research and reading this article.
The 100+ members of the DRA offer a wide variety of activities, with no two ranches exactly the same. Depending on which ranch you choose, you can enjoy hiking, nature walks, mountain biking, white-water rafting, hayrides, dancing, archery, canoeing, rock climbing, fishing, golf… there is one thing they all have in common though; riding.
Nothing is more evocative of the old-west cowboy lifestyle than riding a horse. Likely, it’s the activity you are most looking forward to, whether it’s with unbridled anticipation or some understandable trepidation! It’s probably also the activity you’re most likely to remember for the rest of your life.
The ranch you choose will, to some degree, dictate the type of riding you will be doing. But whether it’s a quick morning trail ride or a multi-day pack trip, you will want to be properly attired. The right gear will increase your comfort in the saddle, and that in turn will ensure those memories will be pleasant ones!
We sat down with Katie Ennis of Ennis Performance Horses and borrowed wisdom from her extensive riding experience, to help you enjoy your DRA vacation to the fullest.
Katie began riding at roughly the same point in her life that she began walking and grew up riding and training horses. She rode for her college rodeo team at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls where she also studied horse training. These days most of her riding is done working cattle on the ranch where she lives with her husband and competing in NCHA cutting horse events.
She spoke with us about the various articles you’ll need to consider to ensure your comfort in the saddle; cowboy boots, jeans, shirts, cowboy hats, and accessories. “Your goal is to have enough proper equipment, the proper jeans, boots, and socks to prevent saddle sores.”
The basics — There are fashion boots, and there are riding boots. Fashion boots are fun and totally appropriate to wear to dinner, dancing, or any social function where you want to make a statement. But a riding boot is essentially a “work” boot with certain practical characteristics.
With riding boots your first consideration is safety. If your foot were to slip through the stirrup and you were to fall off, you would find yourself in a potentially very dangerous situation. “With a riding boot, you want something with a heel at least large enough that your foot can’t slip through the stirrup,” Katie says. “Some people prefer the roper heel, others prefer the buckaroo heel. I’m going to want something with at least an inch and a half to two inch heel.”
With safety aside, Katie turns her attention toward comfort. “Now personally, I like to ride in a square toe or a round toe. The old thing is that you could catch your stirrup back better with a pointed toe, that’s the old cowboy myth. But I’ve always ridden in either a round toe or square toe. To me it feels like I can spread out my toes a little bit more for added comfort and when you’re riding, the ball of your foot should rest in that stirrup. That is where your main balance point is, the ball of your foot with the stirrup.”
“So, here’s what I look for in a boot: real comfortable in the ball of the foot area, I personally prefer a square toe or round toe, and a one and a half to two inch heel. Also, I like to have a shaft high enough so the top of it doesn’t get caught on the fender of your saddle. That’s SO annoying! I like at least an 11 inch shaft, possibly 13 inches.
“There are quite a few brands that would fit that category. I think Ariat is a pretty good standby, Justin of course sponsors a lot of professional cowboys, and Tony Lama has the buckaroos for a lot of style and old west flavor.”
Quality western footwear is designed and constructed to provide years of use. “I’m pretty hard on my boots,” Katie says. “I’ve found these Double H boots I’m wearing have taken the most abuse. They’re made of a distressed leather that will take a lot of abuse. I use Bick 4 on the actual boot and then I will use mink oil on the sole if it’s a leather-soled boot. If it’s a rubber-soled boot it doesn’t need anything but just a wet cloth or whatever.” Take care of your boots and they may be your favorite vacation souvenir. Who knows, you may enjoy the comfort so much you end up with a closet full of them!
“There’s a boot bag with zippers that you can put your boots in to carry them. It really does protect them. If you’re traveling you certainly don’t want any sharp objects to get against the boots. You don’t want any lotion, shampoo, perfume, any of that stuff to get up against your boots to stain the leather or anything like that. Having them in their own bag is really nice. If you’re traveling you can just kind of whip them in there and you don’t have to worry about getting them scratched. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on a pair of boots, to scratch the leather is kind of disappointing.”
The basics — The distinction should be made here between riding jeans and fashion jeans. Generally speaking, jeans for riding should have reduced friction against your skin, a higher rise to provide coverage of your lower back in the seated position, and a longer inseam, so as to cover the shaft of your boots while in the saddle.
“Let me just start this off by saying, if you go to a dude ranch where you’re going to be riding all day, absolutely DO NOT just wear your jeans from Walmart or The Buckle or wherever because you WILL BE sore!” says Katie.
“Most of the jeans that you’ll find made specifically by a western manufacturer such as Wrangler, Cruel Girl, Cowgirl Tuff, and a couple other manufacturers, are specifically designed for riding. All jeans have seams on the inside of the pants. If you look at these jeans designed for riding you’ll see they are sewn inside a little bit differently. Wrangler has a pair of jeans called the Q-Baby or the Ultimate Riding Jean and those are actually quite comfortable. The inside seams on those are probably some of the best as far as being a minimal inside seam.
“Cruel Girls are always a real good riding jean, really comfortable to ride in, but the popularity of Cowgirl Tuff Jeans is growing. I probably have more Cowgirl Tuff jeans than any other jeans. I really like Rock and Roll Cowgirl jeans and Miss Me jeans for just being fashionable but the lower cut on those, as far as being in the saddle, is not what I’m looking for. I really recommend Wrangler, Cruel Girl, and Cowgirl Tuff as my top picks. For the men it’s the same kind of thing. You’ve got to think about your comfort in the saddle. I think most men that ride are pretty much Wrangler or Cinch guys.”
“If you’re getting a pair of Wrangler 13MWZ’s for men you’re going to want to wash and dry them several times before you ever wear them.” (This pertains to the traditional unwashed, classic, rigid denim. Most jeans offered currently are prewashed and ready to wear. Wrangler even offers the timeless 13MWZ in a popular prewashed option.) “All of the women’s jeans that I’ve got you can just put on and go out riding if you want. Most women’s jeans I wouldn’t dry all the way. I would wash them in cold water, dry them a few minutes, and then hang them.
The basics – cowboy hats generally come in two materials, straw for when it’s hot, and felt for when it’s not. These can be further categorized as fashion styles, which have been popularized by the likes of Kid Rock and several contemporary country stars, or authentic, western styles. Look at any photo of George Strait for an example of a classic western cowboy hat.
In Katie’s words, “Everybody loves a cowboy hat, right? Basically, a cowboy hat is cute and everything but it really serves a purpose. It’s not like a ball cap which just shades your eyes. A cowboy hat has that brim all the way around that’s going to protect your ears and the back of your neck from sun, wind, and dust. And something women don’t think about is this; even if it’s hot in the summer, just choose a nice straw hat. It protects the top of your head, where you part your hair. I’ve gotten that sunburned when not wearing a cowboy hat while riding all day and that hurts a LOT! I would still recommend sunblock, but putting a hat on when you’re going to be outside all day is really going to help you out.
“There are lots of brands to choose from, but Charlie 1 Horse adds a little flavor. Try something like the Charlie 1 Horse Desert Sky; it’s really cute, it’s fashionable, and it’s already got a stampede string for ladies out riding all day, (more on stampede strings later.) These are cute on ladies anywhere, but they definitely work for guys, too.
“A good hat for some western authenticity for a guy or a lady is the Charlie 1 Horse Comanche B. That’s an authentic looking hat. A girl or a guy can get away with this one. And for a straw hat for guys, the Jason Aldeans are always good, really cool. They look neat and they’re inexpensive.
“Kind of a fad now for the guys is that chocolate color in the felt hats. Your black hat is your standby, but they’re coming out with those chocolates now and I think those are really neat.
And then there are some who just want a timeless, classic cowboy hat. Katie’s advice; “If somebody’s trying to look a little more authentic and not so much like a dude, they can get a Stetson, a Resistol, or a Rodeo King and get that authentic look that they’re wanting.“
Katie recommends a hat carrier while traveling. “I definitely have a hat carrier for my hat. It’s going to protect your hat. Those felts get dirty so easily and then for your straws it’s going to keep the shape of your hat. That shape can get compromised pretty easily with those straws.”
Also, consider a hat cover. It’s a lightweight plastic cover to keep felt or straw hats dry in the rain. “Even a straw hat can get a little flat after it rains.”
Stampede strings act like a loose chin strap to keep your hat from flying off your head. “Stampede strings are essential to someone who doesn’t ride a lot. If I’m going to use a hat for riding I get it somewhat snug. I don’t want it flying off when I’m running my horse. For people that aren’t used to riding all the time a stampede string is a really good idea.”
While a hat protects your face, neck, and ears from the sun, Katie suggests you also protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses.
One often overlooked accessory is the scarf or bandana. “That’s something I think a lot of people don’t think about but it’s very helpful to have a scarf or bandana. Silk scarves to put around your neck are a staple with most cowboys nowadays. In any kind of cold you’ll see a guy with a silk scarf on. And a regular cotton bandana is a nice thing to throw in. Ladies just kind of roll them up and tie them around their neck as an accessory, and if you’re out riding and you go through a dust storm you can do what the old school cowboys did and just pull it up over your face like bank-robber. “
Something else a lot of people don’t think about is socks. “When wearing boots the shaft can sometimes rub against your skin. So you might want to check out boot socks, especially the longer ones. There’s some really cute designs now for the women, the boot socks that come up almost to your knees, and then for the guys just the regular old socks. But having something that’s long enough that won’t allow your boot to rub directly against your skin for a long time in the saddle is definitely something that you’re going to want to think about. I’ve gotten sores right up inside of my calf and it does take a long time to go away. So, saddle sores are real, and YOU DON’T WANT ‘EM!
“One thing we should mention is that even during the summer if you get up and get out there at the crack of dawn, it’s cold! You’re going to want some layers to arm yourself against that, something you can have on to be nice and warm to start your day and then shed as it warms up, something compact that’s going to keep you warm. The obvious choices are sweatshirts and vests, I love vests. All saddles have saddle strings you can use to tie these articles on the back of the saddle as you shed them. Carhartt has some nice waterproof or water-resistant options. I would start out with just a nice fleece or a nice sweatshirt, possibly a vest, and then do like a tank or short sleeved shirt, long sleeved knit, or a long sleeved western shirt. Unless it’s very cold out, a western hat should be sufficient, especially a felt to keep your head warm.
“Yeah, just layer up. I don’t know if long underwear will be necessary unless you’re actually traveling somewhere in the wintertime, like elk hunting. If you’re doing that kind of stuff you’re definitely going to want long underwear under your jeans. You might want to think about some chaps. I always find it easier to have long underwear, jeans, and chaps versus some kind of Carhartt bib overalls. Something like that can be pretty difficult to ride in, but the Carhartt coats are always nice. It just depends on where you’re going and what time of year.
“Layering up is probably the best option that you’ve got, but, make sure that if you are riding a young horse that you dismount before you remove your coat! Actually if you’re riding any horse it’s a good idea if you’re going to put a coat on or take a coat off. Sometimes it’s hard to control the reins when you’re doing that, so do it at a pit stop; jump off, put your coat on or take your coat off and then just jump back on.
“I would definitely check out the hat care and boot care items to protect your investment, especially if you’re getting a really nice hat or boots. You’re going to want to protect that investment with some care items.
We’re glad that you’re considering a vacation with our good friends at the Dude Ranchers’ Association. Whether you’re on your way to California, British Columbia, Arkansas, Montana, or anywhere in between, we’re confident that you will have a great time if you head out fully prepared. Be smart and make sure those memories don’t include saddle sores!