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Scared to death, saddling up anyway

Have you ever had an addiction? I have, but fortunately I was able to conquer it.

You see, when I was a toddler my parents, desperate to get me to stop sucking my thumb, resorted to bribery and promised to buy me a new pair of cowboy boots if I kicked the habit cold turkey. This was incentive enough to put me over the top, focus me on the job at hand, save my thumb from permanent deformity and keep my teeth from someday resembling those of a dam-building beaver.

Unfortunately, instead of cowboy boots they bought me a pair of "ropers" with flat heels, and in frustration I nearly relapsed, but with counseling managed to pull through. Later, with maturity, I understood their concern for my physical wellbeing; they having been worried that those angled cowboy boot heels might force me to walk like a Victoria's Secret supermodel for the rest of my life, which could have looked odd in a men's locker room, the marching band or if I was to ever wander through a biker bar.

Of course, their concerns were unmerited, since a number of my friends wore nothing but cowboy boots with angled heels for the bulk of their youth and they have never been accused of mimicking runway models. Still, I suppose, they could still develop some sort of unique shuffle, like John Wayne, in old age.

Nevertheless, it's true that angled cowboy boot heels were not designed for walking as much as they were built for riding, with the primary focus being on how they fit in the stirrup when one is seated in the saddle rather than how comfortable they might be while walking amongst fellow shoppers in an overcrowded mall.

Because, while in the saddle, the tall angled heel minimizes the risk of a foot sliding forward through the stirrup, which can be life-threatening if it happens in the midst of chasing a cow down a ravine in the Badlands and the rider becomes unseated.

In the early part of the 20th century, when my grandfather was a horse wrangler on the Heckman Ranch north of Wildrose, there was considerable risk that a cowboy would fall from a horse primarily because he often had to ride young, unpredictable colts, which meant that he could accidentally become dislodged from the saddle because of quick, unpredictable movements.

If he fell from a horse and his boot got caught in the stirrup, there arose a very great risk that the horse could panic and run off, dragging him along and causing severe injury and possibly death.

Of course, the tall leather shaft of the boot is designed to hold the boot in place in the absence of lacing while also providing a comfortably loose fit that helps prevent a cowboy from being dragged, since his body weight can pull his foot out of the boot if he falls off while the boot remains stuck in the stirrup.

While mounted, the shaft also protects the lower leg and ankle from rubbing on the stirrup leathers, as well as fending off brush and thorns, particularly if also worn with chaps or chinks.

While dismounted, the shaft helps protect the leg and foot from rocks, brush, thorns, and rattlesnakes. In wet weather or creek crossings, the high tops help prevent the boot from filling with mud and water.

Now I experienced the benefits of a pop-off boot at a rodeo in Estes Park, Colo., some years back when, while riding with a broken foot, I was bucked off and drug by an oversized bronc.

Fortunately one of his hind feet ricocheted off of my forearm and continued on into my ribcage, busting three ribs, slamming my head into the turf and popping my foot out of the boot that was stuck in the stirrup. When the dust settled and I was able to lift my head I could see the boot where it had been slung, 40 to 50 yards away, standing straight up as though it 'd never partaken in a life-threatening crisis.

Which somehow reminds me of a quote by James Russell Lowell, an American romantic poet, critic, editor and diplomat who said, "Spending that many hours in the saddle gives a man plenty of time to think. That's why so many cowboys fancied themselves philosophers."

Lending more credence to actor Wayne's statement that, "Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway."

Which doesn't just go for cowboys.

Holten is a freelance columnist and cartoonist from Dickinson.