Is your hunter regularly overreaching with his hind legs and clipping his front heels? Do your dressage horse’s hooves swing inward—“dishing”—while he’s trotting? Do your pony’s legs interfere with each other?
“If your horse regularly beats up the inside of his pastern and/or fetlock, he needs to wear boots,” states Richard Markell, DVM, who specializes in treating dressage and show-jumping sporthorses at Ranch & Coast Equine Practice in California. “But first, you really need to look at potential lameness issues.” Talk to your veterinarian and farrier to determine whether your horse’s gait irregularities are the result of a soundness problem that is treatable.
From there, you need to consider the type of work your horse is doing and the issues he has while doing it. Our story will help you determine what type of boots will work best for your horse depending on his job.
A boot’s primary purpose is protecting a horse’s lower leg or hoof from impact— either self-inflicted or sustained when a horse knocks down a rail while jumping or while he is covering rough terrain on a trail or cross-country course.
Increased protective capabilities are a common denominator in today’s horse-boot market. These include shock-absorbing foams and different strike plates, which cover the inside of the tendon. “We are seeing a lot more technology in boots,” says Maria Trout, SmartPak’s horse-boot buyer.
This protection comes in models that are lighter than ever and are designed to keep a horse’s legs as cool as possible with breathable materials and features such as perforated neoprene and airflow grids. And while the boots don’t actively cool a horse’s legs, anything that can be done to minimize heat buildup in legs and tendons is important. “Cooling the leg down is beneficial as a means of reducing inflammation,” says Dr. Markell.
In addition, increasingly popular hightech synthetics often have the advantage of being easy to care for and clean. Many feature antibacterial properties so they can be used on different horses without fear of spreading germs. Boots made of leather and many of their new plastic-based counterparts, however, are capable of molding to each horse’s leg, helpful for proper fit and to eliminate pressure points. The majority of the high-performance horses Dr. Markell treats have their own boots and don’t share them, largely for that reason.
Claims that boots provide tendon support should be viewed skeptically, Dr. Markell says. With the exception of a difficult-to-apply rundown bandage used on racehorses and an in-development Tendon Buddy boot, both designed to prevent overextension of the fetlock joint, “there is no such thing as a ‘support boot’ available on the market today,” he says.
Open-Front Boots: These offer front-leg protection along the side and back of the cannon bone but are open in the front. They are worn mostly by jumpers to increase their sensitivity to touching the rails. Leather lined with sheepskin are traditional materials, but a variety of flexible and impact- resistant synthetic materials now have a big share of the market.
Splint Boots: Protection is focused on the inside of the cannon bone and fetlock joint. These boots, worn on the front legs, sometimes have more substantial inner tendon protection, like reinforced strike plates, than is found in styles that wrap around the horse’s entire cannon bone. For that reason, they’re a good choice if your horse has a regular interference problem.
Galloping, Brushing, Dressage Sport, All-Purpose Boots: Each discipline has its own names and variations for this form of general protection that encircles the entire cannon bone, from the inside of the fetlock joint to just below the knee or hock. They are often used as an alternative to polo wraps and can be worn on either just the front legs or all four legs. The amount of padding, lining and impact protection varies and closure systems range from simple hook-and-loop fasteners to those that easily click into place. Linings range from fleece and sheepskin to neoprene and shock-absorbing gels.
Hind-Leg Boots: Ankle boots cover just the fetlock area and are often paired with open-front boots and worn in the jumper ring. Tall hind boots protect more of the cannon bone and are used most frequently while schooling dressage horses and on eventers.
Bell Boots: These boots encircle the hoof and protect the heel from overreaching and interference. A pull-on style is considered the most secure, although they can be tough to get on and off. Open bell boots are easier to put on thanks to hook-and-loop fasteners or buckled closures, but there is the downside that these can get clogged with dirt and can be more prone to wear and tear. Features often include fleece-lined cuffs that prevent rubbing at the heel and coronary band and a variety of cuff heights. A no-turn style is fastened high above the coronary band, protecting some of the pastern, and stays in place.
Polo Wraps: These generally provide substantially less protection than boots, and they can be tricky to put on properly. They’re a good alternative when your horse has a skin lesion or boot rub because a wrap will keep a wound bandage in place better than a boot.
Custom Boots: These can be made to protect unusual leg issues. For example, splint-bone fractures often heal with a large, extremely sensitive protuberance.
Some manufacturers have size guides on their websites or product labels. For both leg and hoof boots, sizes are estimated based on a horse’s height, weight and the circumference of his limbs. In a leg boot, small is often suitable for a sizable pony or an Arabian weighing under 1,000 pounds. Medium usually fits Quarter Horses, Morgans and similar-size breeds, while a 16-hand Thoroughbred of average bone typically needs a large. Warmbloods and heavier-boned Thoroughbreds likely need an extra-large. Some horses need a larger-size boot on their hind legs than in front.
Height-wise, the boot needs to cover the length of the cannon bone and inner fetlock without impeding the movement of the horse’s knee or hock.
With 26 years practicing almost exclusively on internationally competitive jumping and dressage horses, Dr. Markell takes boot fit seriously. “I’ll remove a boot to look at the horse’s leg, but I’ll give it back to the groom to be put back,” he says. “Every horse’s boot fits a little differently.”
The general rule is that boots should fit snug with enough room to press a finger between the horse’s leg and the boot. Too tight and you’ll pinch a tendon or restrict the blood flow that is essential during exercise. Too loose and dirt or footing material can sneak inside the boot and become an irritant. Or worse, the boot slips off.
Many boots are marked as a right- or left-leg boot, and fasteners always close on the outside of the leg.
Whatever the fastening device, the key is to distribute the pressure evenly. Dr. Markell frequently sees professional grooms fastening a middle strap first, then adjusting top and bottom straps to match its pressure. Boots should be removed as quickly as possible after exercise to avoid heat buildup, and that’s a good time to check for abnormal hair patterns or other signs of too much or uneven pressure.
Today’s boots can protect horses from many occupational hazards. By assessing your horse’s needs, you can make an informed decision on what boot works best to protect his legs. On the following pages are 15 new boots featuring the latest design trends.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.