While your average American lives by a rule book that wouldn’t fit on 28 supercomputers, the cowboy rule book fits in one back pocket. Ride for the brand. Never draw to an inside straight. Always drink upstream from the herd. Never lick a steak knife. Always get on a horse on soft ground. Never ride a bull drunk. Don’t rope something that you don’t intend to brand, doctor, or eat. And always wear your spurs with the buckle on the inside.
I know some cowboys will take exception to that last rule, but I feel qualified to discuss the matter because I’ve been a bit spur and spur leather collector since I was a little boy. I have over 250 single spur leathers alone. Now you might ask, “What good is one spur leather?” I could give the old smart-aleck answer and say that if one side of the horse goes, the other side will soon follow, but the truth is I collected them so I could copy the styles and tooling patterns and replicate them.
Basically, there are three styles of spurs: the “Texas-style,” which is very much like Texans: bold, strong, very practical, often with swinging buttons, and not much gaudy ornamentation. On the other end of the spectrum is the “Californio vaquero style that is very flashy with lots of silver and beautiful engraving. Lastly, there’s the “Plains style,” which is a crossbreed of the Texas and vaquero styles.
In both the Californio and Plain’s traditions, the spur leathers often featured an engraved concho and beautiful tooling. You don’t pay for silver conchos and beautiful leathers and then hide them on the inside of your leg so that all your showing is a two-dollar buckle. In every pair of spurs I have that came from as far back as the 1800s, on those that still have their original leathers, the spurs buckle on the inside. IN EVERY CASE! If you need further proof, look at old photos of vaqueros, and you’ll see great big conchos on the outside of their espuela grandes.
I think it was the great cowboy historian Andy Adams who said, “Any cowboy riding a stud-horse who buckled his spurs on the outside would have been shot at early sunrise.”
The only old photos I’ve seen of buckles being worn on the outside are ones of Buffalo Bill, who wore huge three-inch buckles on the outside of his thigh-high boots and some old Texas cowboys squatting on spurs around a campfire with their buckles on the outside. But keep in mind that Texas spurs always have been more practical and boots with the buckle on the outside are easier to unfasten. They’re also less artistic, so the cowboys weren’t hiding much.
Lately, it seems like the old traditions are being discarded right and left, and with the proliferation of three-piece leathers, the buckles can be on top or on the outside of the spur leather. I notice a lot of rodeo cowboys wear such leathers, but I refuse to make them if asked. A Cub Scout could probably make them.
I’m no halfwit; I realize it would be an el biggo-mistake-o to write off spur leathers that buckle on the outside. Years ago, I made some spur leathers, and I engraved some nice silver conchos for a friend. Now that friend is at that stage in life where he knocks off work early, eats a dinner of Cheerios and prunes, and is in bed by 7:30. Last week I saw him at his branding, and I was shocked to see him wearing his leathers with the buckle on the outside and all my beautiful work hidden. I confronted him about it, and he said, “Just watch.”
He walked over to a tree stump, sat down, and snatched up one of those grabbing devices you use when you can’t reach something. Then the wise-guy grabbed the loose end of the spur leather on the outside of his boot that he’d hooked on with Velcro®, pulled on the stick and the spur fell off his boot.
I gasped, Velcro® spur leathers with the conchos and tooling on the inside! What is this world coming to? It’s just one more sign that our country is going downhill head over heels.