Cowboy boots are made to take a beating. Traditional pairs are stitched in a way that ensures the leather is rigid, stiff, and uncomfortable at first.
These are 6 quick and easy ways to break in your cowboy boots, so you can mosey around in them stylishly and comfortably.
Why Is Breaking in Your Boots Important?
Cowboy boots have a hard leather construction, a high shaft, and a big heel often made of stacked leather. This isn’t exactly a recipe for immediate comfort.
If you’re actually doing work on a ranch or riding a horse, discomfort can be distracting and therefore dangerous. I’ve definitely fallen off a horse because I was adjusting a troublesome boot—not my fondest memory.
Even if you’re just wearing cowboy boots for style, walking around town in painful shoes isn’t fun. Don’t try to muscle your way through it either. This can lead to friction blisters at best, and blood blisters at worst. Not only do they hurt, but they’re prone to infection, which can lead to other complications.
Comfort and safety are the most important reasons to break them in, but a proper pair of full-grain leather cowboy boots really shouldn’t look too pristine anyway. They’re meant to have the wear lines and patina. It’s part of their cool factor. Basically, cowboy boots get worn in long before they get worn out.
Break in Your Cowboy Boots Overnight (Fastest Method)
As far as safe methods go, freezing your cowboy boots is the fastest home remedy. Cold won’t harm real leather. That’s why we make jackets out of them. This method is for genuine cowboy boots, not the kind that come as part of a Halloween costume.
First, fill up two sealable plastic bags with water. These are going into the toe of your boot, so choose a bag size and water amount that will fit snugly in that area. Make sure there’s as little air in the bag as possible.
Pro tip: Use the plastic bags with the sliding ziplock. They close much tighter than the regular kind.
When you stuff the bags into the boots, get them as close to the toe as you can. This will be more difficult with pointed shoes, but just do your best and don’t get too aggressive. You don’t want these popping open and drenching your new boots. Fill the rest of the interior with socks, tea towels, or crumpled pieces of paper to hold the bags in place.
Place your boots in a plastic container, then pop it into the freezer overnight. They should be in there for eight hours or more. You don’t have to use a container, but I find this keeps the boot from coming out smelling like frozen pizza the next day.
As the water solidifies, the bags will slowly expand inside your shoes and stretch the leather. I know throwing new shoes in the freezer sounds extreme, but the freezing process happens gradually. So unless you have one of those high-tech flash freezers, this method is more delicate than it sounds.
At the very least, this will expand the toe box without harming your boots. They’ll definitely be more comfortable, but if they aren’t quite there yet the next day, try it again the following evening.
Wear Your Boots with Thick Socks or Multiple Socks
With this process, wear a pair of thick wool socks. These will often be more expensive but there are a few brands that make socks in the USA that will last years and years.
My personal favorite is the Camel City Mill Heavyweight. It’s made with Merino wool, has a ton of padding, and it doesn’t make your foot sweaty. Plus, there’s padding through the calf so the shaft of your cowboy boot won’t bother or rub against your calves.
The Heavyweight from Camel City Mill is the best work sock you can get for a steel toe boot. The padding is heavy in the heel and toe, but since it's made with Merino wool, this sock is also very breathable and won't make your feet sweaty.
Also, this strategy can be as passive or as active as you want.
The most active way to employ this method is on a day out.
I suggest trying it on a light errand-running day, not one when you decide to do the Great Western Trail. Just make sure you have a change of shoes and bandages with you in case your feet get too sore. Also, keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to return your boots after wearing them out and about, so don’t use this method if you think you might have the wrong size.
A good middle ground is simply wearing them around the house for a few hours a day.
It’s especially helpful if you walk up and down as many stairs as you can, since the uppers will get that extra bend. Put the middle part of the sole on the edge of a step, and rock it back and forth. I’ve broken in many riding boots this way.
The most passive way to use the sock method is by implementing it while you aren’t on your feet at all. Try it while you’re at your desk at work or while you’re having dinner in the evening. Planning on binging some Netflix for a few hours over the weekend? Strap your socks and boots on.
The extra layers from the socks will still stretch the leather outward, even if you aren’t active on your feet. It’ll happen at a slower pace, but it won’t be as uncomfortable either.
Use a Boot Stretcher or a Boot Shaper
Since cowboy boots have such a long shaft, you may need both a boot stretcher and a boot shaper.
A boot stretcher consists of two connected pieces of wood shaped like a foot. It’s attached to a mechanism that can be used to move the pieces of wood further apart while it’s placed inside of the boot.
A boot shaper is the same concept, except it’s made for the shaft of the boot.
Place the stretchers in the boot, expand them by just a little, and lock them in place.
This is a good method to use every night if you’re in that stage of the break-in period where the shoes are almost ready, but need that last bit of stretch.
If you don’t already have stretchers, you might think buying new instruments is inconvenient. If that’s the case, definitely try all of the other methods first. You may find one or another works effectively enough.
Steam the Interior of Your Boots
A word of warning regarding this method. Don’t steam your boots if you need them the next day. It’s very possible they’ll get overly moist, and won’t dry in time.
Direct steam into the interior of your boot for 20 seconds. If you have a clothing steamer, bust that guy out for this method. Otherwise, you can use a kettle.
Boil a full kettle of water and once steam is shooting from the spout, place your boot over this steam so that it flows into the shaft.
The heat and moisture will soften the leather. Don’t do this for anymore than 20 seconds. Too much moisture can be damaging.
Now feel the interior of your boot with your finger. Do this very slowly and carefully, since it’ll be hot from the steam. If it doesn’t feel any softer, steam it again for another 15 seconds.
This should be enough to relax the boots. Wait a few seconds for them to cool off, then put the boots on and walk around for an hour or two. Since they’ve softened, they should start to conform to the shape of your feet as they dry. The longer you can keep them on the better.
When you’re done wearing your shoes, place a boot stretcher inside if you have one. Also, make sure to apply a leather conditioner at the end of this method.
Condition and Moisturize Your Boots
Conditioning your cowboy boots is actually a gentle break-in method itself. You’re more limber after a massage or a trip to the sauna. The same goes for your footwear.
Leather conditioners, moisturizers, and oils will soften the fibers of your shoes. This will make it easier for your foot to stretch the relaxed leather out, and for the boots to conform to your foot.
With a clean rag, apply the conditioner to your boots using small circular motions. Cover the whole of each boot, including all of the shaft. To make sure you’ve evenly conditioned them throughout, take a horsehair brush and buff each shoe with a few swipes.
Once they’ve air-dried, put them on and walk in them for a few hours.
Don’t over-condition your cowboy boots during this process. To keep them healthy and supple in the long run, you’ll condition them every three to six months. However, too much more than this, and they’ll get saggy and unattractive.
Mink oil darkens leather, which is great in the long run when your boots start to fade. While they’re new and being broken in though, just a dab of this magic substance will do.
Remember how supple and gorgeous that boot leather was when you first saw it out of the box? You can thank the leather’s natural oils for that, a lot of which is lost after a few months of wear. Restore these oils by conditioning your boots with a quality mink oil conditioner like this one.
Reinforce the Bend Creases by Hand
Put your boots on in the house and walk around until you can see slight creases around the ankle and toe regions.
From here, you can take them off and bend at those areas with your hands. This isn’t the most effective method alone, but it’s a great option to support other methods.
For example, you can bend the creases with your hands after employing the steaming or moisturizing strategies. Like the passive socks approach, this is something you can easily do while chilling on the couch watching TV.
3 Things to Avoid
1. Don’t Submerge Your Boots in Water
Unless you’re purposefully trying to shrink them, don’t use the hot water treatment for general boot break-in. This treatment involves submerging your boots in warm water for half an hour.
Cowboy boots are stronger than most footwear, but leaving them in water for too long can warp the leather.
2. Don’t Blow Dry Your Boots on High
Blow dryers can get really hot, and this can cause the leather to crack. Unbroken cowboy boots are especially prone to this, since they’re still tight and stiff.
3. Don’t Wear Your Boots Every day
Before they’re fully broken in, avoid wearing your cowboy boots every day. If you wear them too many days consecutively, the moisture released from your foot won’t dry out inside. This excess moisture will make the boot more susceptible to friction, and make your foot more sensitive to blisters.
Ride ‘Em Cowboy
If you’re looking to break in your leathers overnight, the freezer method is the most effective way that’s still safe.
Wearing extra socks can be as hands on or off as you want it to be, while stretchers are a great nightly process. The steaming method can be used in conjunction with hand-bending. The conditioning approach is something we’ll all have to do eventually, so you may as well give it a shot.
How long does it take to break in cowboy boots?
With regular wear, new cowboy boots can take anywhere from 80 to 100 hours to break in. The best way to get these hours in is to wear the boots two to three hours a day.
How do you break in cowboy boots fast?
The fastest and safest way is by freezing them. Place sealed bags of water in the toe, and stuff the rest with towels to keep the bag in place. Put the boots in the freezer overnight. The water will slowly expand as it freezes, while also delicately expanding the leather.
How do you soften cowboy boots?
Apply a leather conditioner to your boots every three to six months, depending on how often you use them.