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Learning the Ropes

You might fancy yourself the Lone Ranger, but if your duds aren't up to snuff, you'll be the Alone Ranger. Here's how to fit in with the code of the West-- dress code, that is.


"You say you're not from Texas

Man, as if I couldn't tell

You think you pull your boots

on right

And wear your hat so well

So pardon me my laughter

'Cause I sure do understand

Even Moses got excited

When he saw the promised land

That's right, you're not

from Texas . . ."

--Lyle Lovett, "Road to Ensenada"

In Orange County as in Texas, you can tell real cowboys from wannabes by a long country mile. From the way they wear their hats to how long they wear their jeans, cowboys have an unwritten but surprisingly strict dress code.

Local city slickers who have taken up horseback riding to seek respite from congested freeways and stress-filled workdays soon discover that not only do they need to figure out how to stay on the darned horse, but they must also master the ways of authentic cowboy style.

"I've had ladies show up for riding lessons in shorts," says Kathy Holman, owner of Ortega Equestrian Center in San Juan Capistrano. "Or they'll come in boots they wear for dancing."

Lest they be branded a dude, they quickly change their city ways.

Mission Viejo resident Bob Crabb found that his new horseback hobby required a new wardrobe, from spurs to hat. When he began taking lessons two years ago from Holman, friends jokingly warned him that if he showed up wearing some rhinestone cowboy get-up, there'd be trouble.

"You're not wearing Levi's, right?" a buddy asked.

"All your life you think cowboys wear Levi's. I found out you were supposed to wear Wranglers," Crabb says.

He bought the requisite Wranglers, but when he showed up for his next riding lesson, they about laughed him off his horse. The jeans were way too short; when Crabb sat in the saddle, they looked like flood pants. Back to the store. By the time Crabb got it right, he'd bought five or six pairs.

Crabb then compounded his woes by buying the wrong hat.

"I'd bought a straw hat, but it wasn't the right shape. The crown was too short," he says.

Friends also informed him that he was sporting his spurs too high on his boot--another fashion faux pas.

"They were like, 'Hey, I like your ankle spurs.' "

To Crabb, getting the wardrobe down pat was worth the repeated trips to Boot Barn:

"It's all style," he says. "Otherwise they know you're a tenderfoot."

As Crabb discovered, most real cowboys wear Wranglers because they like the fit, and they wear them long--5 or 6 inches more than regular.

Dana Smith, a horse trainer who gives riding lessons at Rancho Sierra Vista in San Juan Capistrano, explains: "They're called stacked jeans because they stack up on your boots, but when you get on a horse, they fall right down to your feet. You can tell a real cowboy from the drugstore kind by the bottom of their pants. Cowboys buy the longest jeans they can find."

Some cowboys, especially those from Texas who compete in rodeos, wear their jeans heavily starched and neatly pressed.

"Once you pry your foot through the leg, they're comfortable," Smith says.

Another way to tell real cowboys from the urban variety is by their boots.

"When people first show up for riding lessons, they usually have a really pretty boot with a pointed toe that they spent a fortune on to ride in, but they're absolutely worthless. We wear round-toed ropers," Smith says. "When you're riding, that point just gets in the way."

Roper-style boots have low heels and round toes to slip easily out of the stirrup should one need to make a hasty dismount. That way, if a rider gets thrown, he isn't dragged around by his feet.

Even the shape of a rider's hat can tip others off to his city-slicker status. Real cowboys prefer a simple straw or felt cattleman's-crease hat, with a fairly low 4-inch crown indented on the sides and top and a 4-inch brim.

Jim Crofoot, a western-wear product expert and historian in Lake Forest, says a felt hat can be made from wool or fur. Hats that are 80% to 100% wool cost from $40 to $60, but they quickly lose their shape when wet and can only be reshaped a few times. Fur felt hats, made primarily of rabbit or beaver, start at $100. Fur felt won't absorb water and can be reshaped repeatedly for many years.

The quality of a fur hat is shown on the sweatband in Xs. XXXX means you have a fur felt with no wool. The X factor goes up to 100X, which costs about $1,000, he says.

Despite the fussy fringed shirts and heavy, metal western belts seen in upscale western clothing stores, most cowboys don't get gussied up when they're riding because they're engaging in hard physical labor.

They usually wear plain Oxford cloth button-down shirts, so save that fancy fringe for line dancing.

"And they don't wear collars with tips. That's a dance thing," says Judy Foster, a saleswoman with Boot Barn in Lake Forest and founder of Las Vaqueras, a women's riding club. "Real cowboys don't line dance."

Belts are usually the most decorative part of the cowboy's outfit, but they're pretty plain compared to the kind worn in country western bars.

"There are no conchas, no flash," Foster says.

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