If you watch a rider training for an upper-level activity, you'll probably notice that the horse is outfitted with boots or polo/exercise wraps. The boot choices these riders make are based on both the demands of the sport and the individual needs of their horses.
We're going to do the same thing here, but our focus will be on the needs of pleasure and trail horses. They likely need protection from impact and abrasion more than they need tendon/ligament support, although some need both, and we'll discuss that, too.
If your horse interferes with himself when he moves, you should routinely apply boots. For example, if you finish a ride and note that he has scuff or dirt marks on the inside of his legs, or you always hear a click-click when you trot or jog, your horse interferes. Basically, he's hitting himself with his own hooves, and that's not a good thing. As you may imagine, a horse's hoof can cause a lot of damage when it strikes flesh and bone. It's even more worrisome if the horse wears shoes. Some horses interfere so badly that they're even turned out in protective boots, especially if they have a lot of pasture mates to play with.
Many riders with horses that move well still find themselves reaching for boots when they're working in a round pen or small riding arena. Anything that demands tight, quick moves, or that might cause your horse to exaggerate his movements-such as working in unusually deep footing-may indicate protective and/or supportive boots.
Decades ago, most leg-protection boots were leather. But leather has become relatively expensive, requires a great deal of care, and also becomes stiff and dry after it's been wet. The stitching can eventually rot and deteriorate, even under the best care.
Enter neoprene. This modern, inexpensive, easy-care material dominates the boot market. Neoprene is lightweight, can be rinsed clean, and offers a more forgiving fit. It's also the best choice if you know your horse is going to get wet or muddy because it doesn't soak up water or debris.
However, it's not perfect. Most neoprene doesn't "breathe," meaning that your horse may sweat underneath it. This isn't a problem for a normal riding session, but don't leave the boots on for extended periods of time, such as overnight.
Neoprene and leather boots alike can also be found with softer linings, like sheepskin, wool or synthetic fleece. These linings add comfort and extra padding to the boot, but they can also be debris magnets, making clean-up more of a chore. We'd only choose a boot with this type of lining if absolutely necessary for our horse's comfort.
Boots made of PVC and similarly hard materials offer more protection than neoprene or even leather and are easy to clean. However, since they're usually molded to fit the horse's anatomy, they may be more difficult to find in exactly the right size and shape. If the molds don't correspond correctly to your own horse's build, you may want to skip a molded boot.
Some boots offer added protection at the points the horse is most likely to hit. These are called "strike pads" and are usually made of leather, vinyl, rubber or a bullet-proof material, such as Kevlar. Neoprene itself is rarely used as a strike pad, as it can tear.
Few of us want to spend hours after our ride laboring over our equipment, so an easy-to-clean boot material is a real plus. Leather requires routine cleaning and oiling, just like your saddle and bridle-only it's tougher since the boots tend to get dirtier than your tack. Plain neoprene can be hosed off right along with your horse. It also is quick-drying. However, if the boot is lined, it's going to take longer to dry.
You can clean boots that need more than a hosing with soap and water and a soft brush (not a hard brush, which might harm the product). Be certain that you rinse every bit of soap out because soap can be irritating. Dry the boots in the air but not in the sun, which may harm the materials.
Never use a damp, wet or dirty boot on your horse. At best, it will irritate his skin. At worst, it will cause abrasions and scrapes that will require daily attention so they don't become infected.
If you're working primarily in a dry arena, you may not have to wash your boots every day, but always take a brush and swipe off the inside of the boot before applying it to your horse's leg.
Machine-washable boots are a bonus, although not all boots qualify. Though pricey, even some leather boots can be tossed in the machine. Pay strict attention to the label for cleaning instructions. If it does not say "machine wash," don't do it. The agitator may be too rough for the boot, and you'll destroy its shape and integrity.
Most boots are sold as small, medium and large. While boots vary in size by manufacturer as much as women's jeans do, a ballpark sizing strategy is to start with a small boot for a horse that's 14-15 hands tall, medium for 15-16 hands, and large for horses 16.1 and over.
Obviously, much of this depends upon the circumference of the horse's leg, also known as "bone." A large-boned Quarter Horse who stands 14.3 hands may wear a medium, while his 15.2-hand, fine-boned Thoroughbred pal might be better in a small boot.
When you place the boot on the horse's leg, the ends of a correctly sized boot should just meet or overlap slightly. If they overlap a lot, causing bunches or wrinkles, they aren't going to stay in place well and may rub. If you're in doubt as to which way to go, we'd likely go with the smaller size. Leather eventually stretches, and neoprene is a forgiving fabric.
Boots are also definitely right or left, just like your own shoes. An increasing number of manufacturers place a handy "L" and "R" on the boots to help you properly place the boots, but if there's no indication, remember that the closure straps should always point toward the back of the horse.
Note: The closure straps are the ones that hold the boot itself in place; they exert "force" on the horse's leg and are used to fit the boot to the leg. If the boot also has outer straps, or "double-lock systems," to stop the true closures from opening accidentally, the outer straps may point toward the front of the boot.
Use even pressure when you apply the boot. The boot should fit snugly, but not tightly. It shouldn't turn around the horse's leg, but you should still be able to get a finger beneath it.
Three closures are just about perfect on most boots, but we've seen four and two work well, too. The important thing is to be certain that the closures are grippy enough to hold.
Quality does not necessarily correspond to price. What matters is that the inner material is not scratchy or bumpy. The stitching throughout the boot should be even and secure, with no loose edges or threads. Choose linings that pick up the least amount of debris to make cleaning simpler, unless you have a particular need for fleece.
Closures should be secure enough to withstand the movement of the horse and the elements around it, such as brush and mud. Traditional buckles and similar fasteners are fine, if that's what you're interested in, but most riders find hook-and-loop devices, like Velcro closures, the simplest to use.
The closure should be grabby and take just a bit of effort to open. Remember, though, that hook-and-loop closures can lose grip if they're wet and/or muddy. If you know you're going to go through a great deal of bog, you may want to opt for a traditional buckle fastener.
You need splint boots if your horse hits the inside of his legs when he moves. They are designed to protect the inside of the horse's leg from just below his knee to the ankle. They don't protect the entire fetlock, and they don't offer support for the tendons and ligaments. However, they're probably the most commonly needed boot.
You'll know that your horse needs these boots if scuff marks, brushed hair, or even bumps or scrapes on the inner ankle indicate that he's hitting himself. Horses that move poorly, as in their legs don't travel straight out in front but instead seem to wing in toward one another, should wear them.
The terms "galloping," "splint" and "brushing" are frequently used interchangeably to describe these boots, but it's not always correct to do so. For the most part, splint or brushing boots are designed mainly to protect the inside of the horse's leg and ankle, while galloping boots protect more of the ankle, including the back.
There's no reason to overdo it, but there's no real harm in it either. Horses do not become "dependent" upon these boots.
You'll also find "open front" boots. Leave these for the jumper riders who believe their horses need to feel the knock of a rail if they hit it when jumping. For most of us, we want the protection offered by the full boot.
You don't need to spend big bucks on these boots because you're simply protecting the horse from occasional brushing. If he hits frequently or a bit harder, as in you've seen actual cuts from where he's interfered, then be sure to choose a boot that has a strike pad for added protection. The Professional's Choice boots are a bargain at $27.95.
Introducing any type of boot should be done cautiously, regardless of how well sacked out you may believe your horse to be. Apply the boots one at a time, and give him time to get used to the feel and the sight of the boots. Lead him around at the walk and the trot before mounting, and note if he has any reaction to the new sensation. Better yet, turn him out in his new boots for a few hours to ensure he's fully used to them before you mount up. We've seen more than one broke-to-death horse come completely unglued when a rider mounts and the horse feels the boots on his legs for the first time.
Bell boots are so-named because they look like a bell. These boots are designed to protect the horse's heel and hoof from forging, which is where the horse's hind leg comes up farther under himself and faster than the front leg moves forward, causing him to grab the front leg heel with his hind hoof. This can result in cut heels and pulled shoes.
Horses that forge badly should be turned out in bell boots as well. A horse can also hit his heel if he's worked in deep conditions or a demanding sport that causes him to reach farther forward than he normally would.
Traditionally, bell boots were made as a one-piece rubber "bell," and you literally pulled them over the horse's hoof. Horse and rider often had to play an incredible, if not humorous, tug-of-war to get the boot on and off again.
We'll leave the pull-ons for situations where nothing else will do, such as work over challenging terrain that might cause a closure to open, turning out a Houdini horse who knows exactly how to undo a closure and remove the boot, and work in muddy, wet conditions that can cause hook and loop to fail.
Original-shaped bell boots freely spin around the horse's hoof. However, no-turn bell boots are increasingly popular. These boots have a bulb on the inside of the boot that prevents the bell from turning. No turning means less friction. But molding requires a good fit over the heel.
The turning action of a traditional bell boot prevents dirt from building up inside it, whereas with a no-turn, sand and debris may become caught between the boot and the horse's hoof. You may find this a drawback in some arenas.
No-turn bells won't turn inside out like other bell boots can and often have front closures. The horse is less likely to step on the closure and open it, as opposed to regular bell boots, which spin freely and allow the closure position to vary.
Size guidelines run similarly to other boots, but you need to ensure you get the right length. The boot's bottom rim should be about a half-inch or so off the ground in most circumstances. Any longer and the horse may step on it. Any shorter and it won't protect the heel.
Bell boots can irritate the pastern, although rolled tops seem to lessen the rubbing. Padding can be added around the top of the boot for protection, but must be kept completely clean and dry. Try Dr. Scholl's Moleskin (available in the foot-care section of your pharmacy). It has a strong adhesive that works well for horses, offering replacement value and soft protection.
Neoprene and neoprene-covered bell boots with a high-denier cloth material are also available. In most circumstances, though, we'd choose a traditional rubber bell with a wide, grippy closure at a bargain price.
Bell boots must stand up against the most abuse in the boot world, and they do tend to wear out quickly. In addition, if you're turning your horse out in bell boots, you can figure on a pasture lost-and-found department (mostly lost). If you go for brightly colored boots, with any luck, you might spot them in the grass.
We think the wisest choice for most horse owners working horses under reasonably dry conditions is a bell boot that closes with a hook-and-loop system, like the Eskadron Bell Boots from Dover Saddlery for $28.90.
Bling Is In
Go ahead and have some fun with your horse's boots, especially if you're not competing. There are boots in every color, from traditional blacks, whites, blues and greens to pastel pinks and yellows to glitters(www.davismanufacturing.com for davis boots) and even light-up boots (www.horseboots.com for bar F products). Once you've found what you need in functional and fit for your horse, you can spice things up a bit. On the practical side, a brightly covered boot is easier to locate if it's been lost in a field or on a trail. We hope you won't be disappointed, though, that it appears Swarovski Crystal chips, which are appearing on brow bands, stirrups and spurs, aren't(yet) available on horse boots.
If your horse needs protection and support, consider a combo boot that offers both padding against strikes as well as support and shock absorption for stressed tendons and ligaments and the sesamoid area. These boots offer the protection of a galloping boot, but go beyond and give support to structures around and just below the ankle. Some boots even combine the protection of a bell boot over the horse's heel for full protection.
Horses that need such full protection will benefit from these more expensive boots, as will horses training in more demanding sports or over difficult terrain. Be sure the fit is proper, or you won't get the support you're seeking. In addition, be sure the boot design doesn't interfere with or restrict the horse's movement.
Combo boots, like the ones from Professional's Choice, are the best choice for work in round pens, where the horse may be making quick, demanding moves in a tight area and needs maximum protection and support, and for training competitive horses that are asked to do strenuous moves.
You may well get your money's worth on pricier boots in this category, as the added demands require exceptional design and materials that offer shock absorption and support. Be certain that you read the manufacturer's directions on how to apply the boots, as they do vary in the positioning of the straps and the boot itself.