El Paso is the place to pony up for some genuine hand-made cowboy boots - and a little local knowledge don't hurt none.

To the uninitiated, the number of bootmakers doing business way out in west Texas can be as daunting as the number of styles available. Do you go to showy custom studios, authentic vaquero hole-in-the-walls, factories or big-name outlets? No need to get your lasso in a knot - we've put together a primer to help.

Boots 101

The American cowboy boot emerged in the late 1800s when decommissioned Civil War soldiers rode west to seek fortune in Texas and arrived still wearing their poorly made military boots (based on British wellingtons). The much-romanticised cattle-drive era lasted only about 20 years, but it was enough time for the railroad to branch west and the bootmakers to set up shop. Original styles had high tops to protect from brush, heels to catch in stirrups and blunt toes. Blame the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill Cody, the 1950s TV Westerns and the 1980s movie Urban Cowboy for the patterns, bright colours and exaggerated points of today's boot.

Pee-wee vs. buckaroo

Working cowhands still tend toward the rough and rugged basic - 12" sides (or 'tops'), rounded toes, brown cow's leather and not a lot of stitchwork. 'Buckaroos' have 17-20" sides; 'Pee-wees' have shorter tops, 10" or less (they were first made to save leather during WWII) and are mostly worn by women. 'Ropers' are a basic round-toe boot style, while pointier toes and exotic leathers (ostrich and elephant, for example) are considered dressier - more of an 'office' boot. Although women are more partial to colourful design inlays, elaborate stitchwork and 'tooling' (carved leather), guys have been known to gussy up when rodeo season rolls around in spring. Even if you've got a hankerin' to show off your boot sides, avoid tucking your pants into your boots unless you're actually riding the range. It just ain't done. Have your cowboy-cut Wrangler jeans starched before you pull 'em on.

Size matters

The right fit can make all the difference to your boot-wearing experience, but custom quality don't come cheap. A pair of ornate baby-blue leather boots inlaid with Day of the Dead skulls and roses runs to almost US$3000. The bootmaker will need to measure your foot at least six times, make a 'last' (a mold to fit its exact shape) and spend hundreds of hours on your personalised project. If you can't round up the US$500-5,000 a true-fit, original design costs, some craftspeople will take your measurements, use a last that corresponds to the nearest size and add standard decoration, cutting the cost dramatically (you'll be looking at US$300-1200 a pair). You'll often still get to choose your toe shape and heel height. Be warned, you're not going two-step out of a custom shop with same-day boots - an order can take months.

First time at the rodeo

If you've never done this before, start easy by moseying over to the outlets. Tony Lama boots originated in El Paso in 1911, but they're now part of Justin Boots; both are sold at the outlet. Lucchese sells its higher-end 'Classics' at the outlet near the airport, where it displays some of the vintage 50-state boots they made.

Even if you're not investing in a pair, you should make an appointment to visit the showroom at Rocketbuster Boots to see the display wall filled with vintage-inspired sole art and the 5ft-tall 'world's largest' hand-made boots. For elaborate graphic inlays Rocketbuster is a top choice, but Tres Outlaws creates some pretty fancy footwear too.

If you're looking for a bargain, Champion Attitude Boots sometimes has 'overstock' pairs for sale on-site. Serious wranglers and ropers should head to JB Hill Boots, where even Canadian ranchers and rodeo stars shop. Mingo's Boots (tel: 915 779 7681; 6966 Alameda Ave) wins high praise for low prices on custom boots; some Spanish is helpful. Also worth checking out are TO Stanley and Stallion Boots.

But this is far from a comprehensive list. The best advice is just to start on Cotton St, where bootmaker stores were historically grouped so they could share machinery, and go looking for your own wild west adventure.

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