Watch any sporting event and you’ll notice professional athletes wearing support braces or using kinesiology tape. Both are designed to support and protect competitors' muscles, joints and tendons. Horse boots are designed to offer similar types of protection during regular exercise, competition or turnout. Choosing the right horse boots depends on your discipline. But boots are not a replacement for lower leg muscle fitness, cautions Summer Terry, owner of Superior Therapy, LLC in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
“A boot is not going to stop an injury from happening if the horse is not conditioned in the first place,” she says. “They are a great help in many things, but they are not a cure all or prevent all. You still have to condition the horse to be the athlete you expect them to be.”
With multiple options available, Summer highlights some of the most common styles of horse boots on the market.
These boots cover the inside tendon area of the leg and offer protection from interference, a gait abnormality when a horse’s foot strikes another. Summer explains that this style horse boot isn’t designed to offer support, only provide a barrier against impact.
These horse boots are typically used in speed events and are designed to support tendons and ligaments. This style boot has a strap that wraps around the fetlock joint. Most support boots are marked left or right leg, so they are more user friendly for beginners, according to Summer.
As with most horse gear, boots come in a range of designs, colors and patterns making it easy to focus on fashion rather than function or form.
“I think a lot of people buy support boots for the look and colors and never really understand the proper use of them, so they don't make an effort to learn how to put them on correctly,” she explains. “You see a lot of improper use out there, which sometimes causes more harm than not having anything on the leg.”
Horses that jump can hit a jump or strike their front legs with their back during a powerful leap over a fence. Jumping boots offer protection in both scenarios, but don't offer much as far as tendon/ligament protection. These boots usually have elastic straps and hook and loop closures. Typically, open front boots are used on the fore end and ankle boots are used on the hind end. Check your class rules prior to competition—they are allowed in jumper events, but not hunter classes.
These boots protect a horse’s hind ankles and prevents them from burning their heels when they slide. They are most commonly used in reining, but barrel racers, ropers and other western performance horses may benefit from them as well. They are typically made of leather but can also be made of neoprene as part of a combination support/skid boot.
These stretchy cotton wraps support the ligaments and tendons while working. They are multi-disciplinary and are used in every event from dressage to polo, racing, western events, lunging sessions and more. It’s always important to check horse show rules—as polo wraps may be allowed in warm-up and training, but not in a show ring. They can also be used over quilts or cotton to support injuries or during shipping over long distances.
“Polos are much harder to use and should be used by people who have been properly shown how to wrap legs correctly,” she adds.
Ceramic/Magnetic Quick Wraps
These therapeutic wraps offer no support but do offer healing properties based on the therapeutic infused fabrics, according to Summer. Working with a veterinarian and/or an equine therapist can help decide which option is best for your horse’s situation.
Mistakes to Avoid
Providing protection for the horse’s legs sounds like a great idea. However, they must be properly sized and applied to be effective. Often, Summer sees riders with boots that are too loose.
“Compression is part of what makes a support boot work,” she emphasizes. “Buying the correct size is very important for the function of the boot.”
Boots are typically sized as small, medium and large although some pony and x-large sizes are available. Manufacturers determine size by height and circumference. Most boots include a sizing chart that can help you determine which size is best for your horse. Typically, finer boned breeds like Arabians take a size small. Average sized stock horses or smaller Thoroughbreds tend to wear mediums. Bigger boned Thoroughbreds usually require large and Warmbloods may need large or extra-large.
“I feel it's important to listen to your horse; some horses are sensitive to the extra weight or feel trapped in tight compression type splints,” she notes. “These horses usually appreciate the weightless feeling of polo wraps. It’s also important to get a boot designed for your event so you have proper coverage.”
Summer also advises against leaving boots on for extended periods of time. Boots can create and trap heat, which can damage sensitive structures in the leg. Riding through water and letting wet wraps set on a horse for long periods of time can have similar effects.
Most importantly, remember that to maximize the benefits of any boot, you must buy one designed for your event. Selecting a specific style depends on the individual horse, his level of work and way of going.
“If you have a horse that is overreaching or has a tendency to bang their legs a lot during competition, then a good support splint is needed to protect the leg,” according to Summer. “Horses with a history of leg injuries should have as much protection as possible to prevent further injury.”
Ask trainers for advice on what they recommend based on your horse’s level of performance and fitness level. And, work with your horse’s entire health care team—their farrier, veterinarian or therapist-- to make the right purchase.