Leg protection for horses comes in many forms, from shipping wraps or boots, to bell boots. This article will cover the different types available, discuss their uses, how to care for them and, where necessary, provide you with detailed information about how to apply them.
Protection While Shipping
If you've ever had to stand on a public bus, you know that when the bus turns a corner, you have to lean and often have to move your feet to give you a better base of support. The same goes for horses when they are being transported in trailers or horseboxes. The chances of them having to scramble to keep their footing is lessened, of course, by a sympathetic driver. But you never know when some other maniac driver is going to do something stupid in front of you, causing you to have to change lanes quickly or brake hard.
Equipping your horse with shipping boots or wraps will protect his legs from being stepped on or kicked, either by the horse in the next stall or by one of his own legs.
Back in the (ahem) old days, when I started out with horses, we wrapped the lower leg in cotton batting and then covered that with either stretchy "exercise wraps" or non-stretchy "standing wraps" extending from just below the knee to just below the fetlock. Additional protection was provided by special knee boots and bell boots to protect the coronet. This combination (with quilts used instead of the old-fashioned cotton batting) can still be used, but a much easier option is to use specially manufactured shipping boots which are now on the market. These boots wrap around the lower leg and attach with velcro. In some designs, the front boots extend up at the front to protect the knee and hind boots extend up at the back to protect the hock. Front and back boots extend down over the coronet.
Polo wraps are stretchy wraps, made of a thick, plush fleecy fabric. In addition to providing some protection from knocks and dings, they act like warm ups during exercise. They can be also used over quilts to provide protect during shipping. Care should be taken when applying polo wraps to make sure that they are applied evenly, since uneven wrapping may cause a tendon injury.
When young horses first start work, either on the lunge line or under saddle, their coordination is not as good as more mature horses. As they figure out how to balance themselves, and the weight of a rider, they are more inclined to injure themselves by brushing or overreaching. Overreaching is when a horse strikes the back of his front leg or heel with the toe of his hind leg. Brushing is when the hoof of one leg bangs against the inside of the opposite leg. Both of these can be caused by improper shoeing or conformational faults, but they are commonly seen in young horses who are still finding their balance under a rider or on the lunge. Horse boots encase the lower leg, providing protection from stray hooves. They come in a variety of materials ranging from the traditional boots made of leather and lined with heavy-duty felt to easy-care neoprene boots which are popular today.
Splint boots are a popular choice for young horses, since they provide added protection on the inside of the leg, where the young horse is more likely to kick himself. They are moulded, to provide a good fit and prevent slipping. To put splint boots on your horse, position them so the the padded section is to the inside of his leg and the shaped cup fits over the inside of his fetlock. Fasten on the outside, making sure the fit is snug, but not too tight.
Combination boots provide a more complete protection, covering more of the fetlock area. They can be made of leather or neoprene and are a good choice as general exercise boots for young or mature horses. They are applied in the same manner as splint boots.
Bell boots protect the coronet, or coronary band, around the top of the hoof and also the heel from being stepped on by one of the other hooves. They can be made of rubber, fleece-lined leather or neoprene and can be either the pull-on variety or fasten with velcro. In my humble opinion, the pull-on variety should be avoided at all costs. Putting them on is rather like putting on your jeans when you've already got your boots on - a near impossibility! Bell-boots have a tendency to turn, and can rub the coronet if they are not fitted correctly. Special no-turn designs are now available to eliminate this problem.
Protecting the legs of working horses will help save them from stress-related injuries, lameness and self-inflicted interference.
In addition to the boots and wraps that have been mentioned, there are a variety of boots that have specialized uses.
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Ankle boots are designed to protect the sesamoid bones in the fetlock from interference during galloping or jumping. They can be made of leather or neoprene and have a padded cup on the inside for added protection.
Galloping boots provide protection and support for any horse that is doing fast work, such as eventers, reiners, stock horses etc. They reach from just below the knee to below the fetlock and are available in fleece or felt lined leather, or neoprene.
Open-Front Jumping Boots
The purpose of open-front jumping boots is to protect the back of the fore leg from accidental kicks from the hind legs when jumping, while at the same time allowing the horse to feel it when he brushes a fence. They can be either leather, usually lined with felt or fleece, or neoprene. They attach by means of narrow straps that criss-cross over the front of the leg. Care should be taken not to do the straps up too tight.
Skid boots provide protection for the back of the fetlock in horses that are required to perform slides, such as reining horses. They are cupped to fit over the back of the fetlock, so putting them on in the right place should be simple, but care should be taken that they are fastened tightly enough so they don't slip, without being too tight.
There are also a large variety of combination boots, designed to provide protection and support for the structures of the lower leg, such as the Sports Medicine Boots.
Regular care and cleaning of your horse's boots and wraps will protect him from rubs and catch potential breakages before they happen.
Caring for Wraps
It's important to clean your wraps regularly, because they can pick up burrs and mud which can work their way up inside the wrap, against the horse's leg and be a considerable irritant. Wraps should be cleaned when they are removed, and before they are rolled ready for the next use. Use a brush to remove dust and mud particles and pick off any burrs you find. Most wraps available nowadays are washable and if the wraps are very muddy, you can throw them in the washing machine, putting them in one of the mesh laundry bags sold for the purpose of washing panty hose. This should prevent them getting into an impossible tangle. They should be allowed to dry thoroughly before rolling.
To roll wraps, start at the end with the velcro or ties and fold it over and then commence rolling. I personally fold the ties in to the inside of the roll, and then roll in the same direction, but it can also be done the other way. Just make sure you remember which way you did it, or you run the risk of wrapping the entire leg, only to discover the ties or velcro are on backwards and you won't be able to fasten the wrap! To make rolling easier (handy if you have a lot to do) you can get a little gadget that rolls them for you.
Caring for Leather Boots
Leather boots should be cared for the same way you care for all your leather items. Use your preferred method, be it saddle soap followed by leather conditioner, or an all-in-one cleaning and conditioning product, making sure not to get any on the lining. As you clean, check the stitching, especially on the straps. Any rotten stitching or loose straps should be fixed or replaced as soon as possible. Flapping straps are a danger to a galloping horse in the same way that flapping shoe laces can trip a person. The lining should be brushed to remove all dirt and loose hair that has accumulated. They should be stored in a dry place to prevent mildew.
Caring for Synthetic Boots
Synthetic boots are much easier to care for, usually requiring nothing more than a quick hose down. The velcro fastenings seem to be hair and fluff magnets, so you'll need to clean them regularly to ensure that the velcro continues to work correctly. Work them over with a stiff brush or, in bad cases, pick out the fluff and hair with a pin. Hang the boots up to dry and then store them in a dry place. Looked after properly, boots and wraps should last a long time and provide your horse with many years of comfort and protection.