Bell boots protect against injuries to the coronary band and heel bulbs — areas that, when hurt, can cause lameness, bleed heavily, are slow to heal and may cause permanent problems. Damage from a shoe slicing into these areas is something to avoid.
Bell boots come in two general styles, pull-on or Velcro closure. The pull-ons are rubber or a synthetic with similar texture and will stretch somewhat. To apply these, pick up the leg, pull the neck of the boot over the toe and then up to mid- pastern level. At this point, the bell of the boot will be facing toward the fetlock and inside out. You simply flip it down into position.
Pulling on bell boots over the wider hoof and coronary band can take bit of strength. Be especially careful when doing this to not put excessive torque on the joints of the lower leg. There’s not much chance you could injure the horse, but it’s not comfortable for him either. Lightly greasing (e.g., with Vaseline) the neck of the boot can help it go on easier but don’t overdo it or put any grease directly onto the hoof itself. This just makes it harder to get a good grip and pull it on.
Velcro closures make putting on bell boots easier, but the price you pay for the convenience is a risk the horse may pull them off. We definitely saw differences among brands in how well they stayed on.
Remember, too, that if you are going to be working your horse through wet, muddy areas, the Velcro closures are going to be more likely to fail either because they lose stickiness due to the moisture or become heavy with mud and simply unfasten.
Problems with Bell Boots
There’s little risk to the horse when you use bell boots. The major problem is chafing if the fit is too tight or dirt/mud gets trapped between the neck of the boot and the horse’s sensitive pastern skin (see sidebar, p. 10).
A properly fitted bell boot will admit a finger tip between the top of the boot and the skin and will move a bit from side to side but is not so loose that it pistons up and down the pastern. Always clean thoroughly after each use to remove dirt and sweat.
When you are ordering online, you’ll need to make your best guess, since sizing is approximate. You may also be able to call the company and ask if they have specific measurements. However, a better bet may be to go to the tack shop, where you can do an actual measurement. You want the boot to fit snugly but not so tight that it will rub. If it’s too loose, the boot will come off the horse sooner or later.
Use a tape measure (or a piece of baling twine) to measure the circumference of your horse’s pastern where you want the top of the boot to rest, usually just above the widest part of the lower pastern. Write down the measurement or take the twine with you to the tack shop. (The tack shop will have its own tape measure.) You’ll want to add a quarter inch of wiggle room.
Also use a ruler placed parallel with the horse’s leg to measure the distance from the spot on the pastern where the neck of the boot will sit down to ground surface. Although most of the bell boots we tested were a similar length, there were some very different ones, too.
The boot’s purpose is to cover and protect the heel area. However, it shouldn’t touch the ground. If it touches the ground, the horse is more likely to step on it.
The more dense the material is, the more rip-resistant it will be. Since protection is the goal here, you don’t want a material the horse will be able to damage with a shoe. Ribbing helps protect against boot damage. On the other hand, rigid materials in a pull-on boot make it harder to get on.
Another consideration is weight. Some horses will change their gait in response to the extra weight of a boot. Others don’t notice. Lighter-weight boots that fit securely are the least likely to influence gait.
All the boots in our trial were rubber-based and priced under $20. We included simple bell boots in this trial. In a future issue we’ll discuss no-turns and pricier materials and choices.
We tried all the boots with the horses being worked, on turnout and overnight in stalls. To test the strength of Velcro closures beyond what they were subjected to in our test period, we also tested how easily it pulled apart when pulling the two bottom/ground edges of the boot in opposite directions, as would happen if a horse managed to get his toe wedged between the Velcro and boot on one side, which could easily happen. The only non-pull-on boot that did not have some sort of double Velcro closure was the Dover white ribbed boot.
The two most secure closures were found on the Schneider Saddlery’s Ultra Ribbed Double Lock and Roma Double Tabbed Ribbed boot. However, on both, we found that the two ends of the boot at the top didn’t line up well (to be fair, this was a problem with every double-closure boot we had and it bugged us a bit). However, if you want a Velcro boot — which most people do — these are your best bets in bell boots with closures.
Overall, the Schneider Saddlery bell boot narrowly nips the Roma as our favorite due to its price and material, which we think is probably a bit more cut-resistant.
For situations where you absolutely can’t risk a boot coming off or you are working through wet or muddy conditions, you are going to be better off with a pull-on boot. Eventers are likely to choose a pull-on.
In pull-ons, we had Roma’s ribbed pull-on gum-rubber boot, at $8.95/pair, and Eskadron black pull-ons, at $19.90/pair. Both did their job well.
The Eskadron might be more cut-resistant, but the ribs are more generous on the Roma boot. We found the Roma boot easier to stretch and get on and noted it has nicely finished edges compared to the Eskadron. Therefore, the nod for pull-ons goes to the Roma gum-rubber bell boot, which is nicer quality at a much better price. It’s our No. 1 choice overall and Best Buy.