You've turned your horse out to blow off steam before you tack up and ride, but didn't bother to put his protective boots on first. You've gotten away with it in the past, but today your luck runs out. A slip and stumble brings one of his hind hoofs crashing into one of his front legs. He limps back to the barn with a bloody gash on the back of his front cannon bone. Not only will you not be riding today, you'll be calling the vet and doctoring the leg for weeks to come.
Protective boots could have minimized or completely prevented this mishap. But how do you know which boots are right for your horse? We'll discuss why your horse should wear boots, the types of boots available, and how to buy and use them.
An Ounce of Prevention
"Any horse that you enjoy riding, rather than doctoring, is worth putting boots on," says Billie Bray, marketing manager with Classic Equine. "Every time you pull a boot off and see the nicks and scratches on the exterior, you'll know that those would have been gouges in your horse's legs."
Dr. Barb Crabbe, owner of a multi-doctor, equine-specific practice, Pacific Crest Sporthorse, in Portland, Ore., agrees. "Protective boots are always a good precaution, and though they may not always prevent injuries, they certainly can and often do. I always use leg protection on my horses, and in the past when I haven't bothered, I've regretted it." Crabbe notes that a torn tendon and tendon sheath from an impact could end a horse's career and even threaten his life.
Assistant professor at Colorado State University's Equine Orthopedic Research Center, David Frisbie, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVS, focuses on equine musculoskeletal disease. "If I were to recommend boots, I'd choose the sports-medicine style with the fetlock support strap," Frisbie says. "You might as well buy as much support as you can get, and studies done a few years ago at Cornell University with horses galloping on treadmills did indicate that support boots reduced the strain on the suspensory apparatus."
Crabbe, on the other hand, is a bigger proponent of protective boots. "In my practice, I occasionally see problems with improperly applied or poorly fitted support boots that put too much pressure on the tendons, and I don't see that with protective boots. The worst I've seen with protective boots is skin problems when they're left on too long, or the horse has a reaction to the material they're constructed from."
Got You Covered!
There are several categories of leg boots for horses available, and each type does a specific job protecting different parts of a horse's leg and hoof.
Protective boots protect from external impact. Sometimes called splint boots because they help protect the splint bone as well as tendons, ligaments, and the cannon bone, they're usually made of leather, neoprene, or other impact-absorbing material. They wrap around the leg from just under the knee (or the hock on a hind leg) to the top of the fetlock, and fasten with straps on the outside of the leg. Some have an extended flap on the inside bottom for added fetlock protection. They primarily act as a barrier, preventing the horse's other legs and hoofs, as well as anything else the leg encounters, from impacting and damaging the leg. A key feature is extra padding covered by a highly durable vertical patch along the inside of the cannon bone, the area most likely to take the accidental impact of the horse's opposite leg.
Support boots, sometimes called sports medicine boots, strive to take protection a step farther. In addition to providing protection from external trauma, they also act as a support brace to the fetlock joint and its suspensory apparatus. Usually made of high-tech, shock-absorbing materials, they cover the cannon bone from just below the knee or hock and envelope the fetlock joint. They usually feature a sling-like strap that runs behind and under the fetlock to offer extra support and prevent hyperextension of the joint.
Skid boots are worn around the horse's hind fetlock joints, and act as a barrier between the fetlocks and the ground. They're a common protective measure for reining and roping horses that perform sliding stops.
Open-front boots are similar to standard protective boots. They wrap around only the back and sides of the leg, leaving the front of the cannon bone exposed. Used primarily on jumpers, they help protect vulnerable tendons and ligaments at the back of the leg, while allowing a horse to feel if he bumps a jump up front.
Bell boots are worn around the horse's pasterns, usually on the front legs. These bell-shaped coverings protect some of the pastern, the coronary band, and the top of the hoof from impact or from a hind foot accidentally stepping on a front foot's heel.
Knee boots act as barriers against the opposite leg in training or competition that require a lot of crossover action of the front legs.
Putting Boots to Use
Get a proper fit. Poorly fitting boots may cause irritation, sores, or even injury. When purchasing boots from a brick-and-mortar tack shop, take measurements of the length and circumference of your horse's cannon bones and the circumference of his fetlocks with you. If buying online, compare your horse's leg measurements to your chosen boot's sizing details on the Web, or email the site for boot dimensions.
Some boots are designed so that their edges meet, but not overlap, at the outside of the leg, while others are designed to overlap. Ask knowledgeable retailers about specific fit details, and if the boots may be returned or exchanged if they don't fit your horse.
Groom first. Be sure your horse's legs are clean before applying the boots. Sand or dirt caught underneath may abrade his skin.
Fasten boots with care. Boots should fit snugly so they won't slip down, yet not so tightly that they interfere with blood circulation or apply their own detrimental pressure on the tendons. Keep even pressure among all strap closures. If one strap is tighter than the others, it may cause a sore spot or even damage the leg. Use caution when tightening straps that run through a ring before fastening back to themselves. This leverage effect can make it easy to over-tighten the boot. Also, be sure not to move the boot up the leg once the straps are fastened as this can rub the leg's hair the wrong direction.
Practice makes perfect. Practice applying the boots several times and walking your horse in them before turning him out or riding him with them on.
Check fit. Fitted properly, the boots should not wrinkle, gap, or slide down. Until you're familiar with how they fit and perform during use, check them frequently during your rides.
Limit wear time. Your horse shouldn't wear the boots any longer than a couple of hours at a time. If you'll be using him longer than that, or several times during the day, remove and clean underneath them before reapplying to benefit his skin.
Clean up after use. After use, clean your horse's legs and the boots. Rubbing his legs with alcohol will help remove sweat and dirt. Simply brushing dirt or sand off the boots may be adequate, depending on conditions, but if they're very dirty or muddy, rinse them thoroughly. Most boots can be washed (read care instructions), and if so, should be washed on a regular basis with mild soap. If you keep your horse's boots clean, and he still shows signs of skin irritation, he may have a reaction to neoprene or any of the other materials used in the boot. Consider switching to a boot made from another material.
This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Horse & Rider magazine. Find 11 key tips for keeping your horse sound in the April 2009 issue.