Boots and leg care: a leg at each corner

July 31, 2017
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The condition of our horse’s legs fully dictate what we can and cannot do. Made up of a complex structure of bones and joints, ligaments and tendons, muscles and connective tissue, protecting our horse’s legs is essential for the length and soundness of their career.

Conformation is often the making or the breaking of a horse. Good conformation enables a horse to support normal body weight more easily, as well as the added weight of a rider, and more specifically for legs, it reduces the stress on joints and the legs are more able to absorb concussive forces.

The main bulk of a leg is made from bones, joints and muscle, with tendons connecting muscle to bone and ligaments connecting bone to bone. While substantial in size, all too often this area of anatomy causes heartache for owners. Common diagnoses include everything from bowed tendons and splints, to suspensory ligament injuries and deep digital flexor tendon damage. Although careful management and correct veterinary treatment can treat leg problems effectively, trying to prevent damage from occurring (or limiting the amount incurred) is a far better decision in the long run.

Proper Protection

Booting or bandaging a horse appropriately is an easy way to reduce the risks associated with lower leg injury. Both options are sold as protective equipment due to the support they offer the lower leg, the defence they give the limb from trauma (self inflicted or not) as well as protection from the riding surface. However, each option comes with different positives and negatives.

Boots can restrict the flexibility of a limb or joint, which in turn compromises movement and performance. The added weight must also be taken into account as this can affect gait. Bandages can fall foul of holding excessive moisture and restricting the blood supply if overly tightened. For both, heat retention can become a serious issue, and many believe this can lead to tendon damage.

That said, with proper application of bandages, finding the correct boot for a specific job or horse type, as well as understanding how to manage hot legs, it is far wiser to use protection when necessary.

Who Needs Protection?

Working out if your horse or pony would benefit from having boots or bandages often comes down to personal preference. Some people would only ever consider booting their horse if it were out jumping substantial, solid fences, while others wouldn’t hesitate fully booting or bandaging for a light hack.

Personal choice set aside; there are certain considerations to take into account before making a decision against using protective measures. Young, green or unbalanced horses are far more likely to cause self-inflicted injuries (brushing or over reaching) simply because they have poorer coordination than a more experienced horse. In addition, horses and ponies with an expressive, high stepping gait may also be at greater risk of causing a self-inflicted injury. It is also worth reflecting on the past history of a horse, as an injury may have caused a weakened area that would benefit from added support during exercise.

For many, the chosen discipline is often the deciding factor to the level of protection given. For hacking, the decision ought to be based on the ground conditions and the likelihood of a horse losing its footing or slipping on uneven surfaces. Boots and bandages aside, it is good practice to limit speed on hard or uneven ground to reduce any risk of damaging tendons and ligaments through concussion, overstretching and tearing.

Rulebooks state that in dressage, neither boots nor bandages are permitted for use in competition but are acceptable in the warm up arena. As dressage horses are working on the flat, the risk of harm is associated with conformation and how well the horse moves naturally. Brushing and over-reach injuries may occur with some, and often bandages are used (rather than boots) to give flexible support and protect from minor bumps or scrapes.

Jumping a horse poses far more risk in comparison to flatwork as it puts added pressure on the ligaments and tendons, due to the turning, landing and taking off – making the horse more susceptible to injury. Those jumping cross country are often travelling over uneven ground or unusual terrains that varying in softness, and fences are usually fixed – unless competing at higher level where frangible pins are becoming more common. For both disciplines, the usage of boots is considered essential.

Material Matters

Cooling technology. Carbon fibre protection. Specialised comfort linings. Where do you start? There are hundreds of boots available on the market and with so many options that actually work; we have the luxury to choose boots based on how they look!

Most boots were originally made from leather, but were prone to cracking and hardening after exposure to wet and muddy conditions. Nowadays, leather boots often have a waterproof coating and require far less time to clean.

Like every other area of horse and rider wear, technical fabrics and products backed by scientific research are often seen at the top of the review list. Lightweight boots are usually the first choice for many – offering a great standard of protection while the horse barely notices they are there.

To address the fear of overheating the delicate tendons, companies are responding with cooling systems, usually in the form of air vents or heat release panels – great options for horses working at speed over prolonged periods. Boots with sheepskin (or ‘fluffy’) linings are kind options for horses with sensitive skin and are very good at wicking moisture and heat from the surface.

Bandages usually contain lycra or elastic materials and must always have suitable padding underneath. However, more harm than good can be done with badly applied bandages so consult a trusted person or qualified instructor to teach you how to bandage properly. If you are on the fence between boots and bandages, leg wraps (otherwise known as exercise wraps or sports boots) may be the perfect option. They offer all the benefits of bandaging but are far easier and faster to apply.

Types of Boot

The most commonly used boot is the brushing boot. Designed for horses who ‘brush’ one leg against the inside of the opposite leg, brushing boots have thick padding running down the inside to cushion against impact and protect from any scrapes. As a good all round boot, they are useful for hacking, schooling and for horses needing protection during turnout.

Tendon boots are very popular for jumping. Usually made from a hardened shell, they cover the front tendons and protect from strike injuries inflicted by the hind legs. Most designs are open fronted and lined with neoprene to contour to the shape of the lower leg.

Fetlock boots are usually used alongside tendon boots, to give protection behind. They shield the fetlock in a similar way to brushing boots, but in a more compact form – thus causing less interference with joint flexibility while jumping.

Event or cross country boots are a fairly new type of boot, and offer complete all round support and protection. They resemble closed fronted tendon boots, and often have added protection around the fetlock, as well as increased protection down the back against strike injuries.

Doing as they say on the tin, over reach boots protect against injuries caused by a horse over reaching with the hind leg on to the front leg. Traditional forms are made from moulded rubber, while modern designs are made from material, providing increased cushioning.

A rubber pastern ring (or sausage boot) is made of thick rubber tubing that is threaded on a strap and fitted to the pastern. It protects the horse from self-inflicted injuries between the pastern and the coronet, an area often left uncovered by most boots.

Knee boots protect the knee joint from any damage if a horse goes down, and are a firm favourite for use while hacking. The skin in this area is particularly thin and injuries can be severe, so for horses prone to stumbling, knee boots can be a very worthwhile investment.

Lessons In Leg Care

Protective leg wear can make a huge difference when a horse has an accident or near miss, however it isn’t the only way we can protect our horses legs.

Warming up before exercise is vital for reducing the risk of injury. A correct warm up is focused on gradually raising the horse’s heart rate to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood, and thus increase the amount of oxygen supplied the muscles and vital organs. The presence of oxygen ensures lactic acid production is kept to a minimum and the risk of a horse tying-up is reduced. Warming up also increases the mobility and elasticity of muscles, and in turn, this reduces the amount of stress on the tendons and ligaments. Similarly, a thorough cool down is necessary after exercise to allow your horse to relax and stretch.

After work, it is recommended to remove leg protection immediately, in order to prevent injuries caused by the heat built up in the tendons and ligaments. Get into the habit of running your hands down your horse’s legs at this stage, checking for pain and sensitivity, lumps and bumps, or any swelling. Doing this on a daily basis will teach you what is normal and what isn’t, so in an event of an injury you will be far more likely to notice the difference in the early stages and get veterinary advice before any major issues occur.

For horses that have been working hard, cold hosing legs for around five minutes and a gentle in hand walk before stabling or turnout will help the legs return to normal temperature. If running water isn’t available, cool boots or gel-based leg cooling products are the next best thing.

Keeping a close eye on your horse’s legs and maintaining a regime that suits their workload and weaknesses will help keep problems at bay. Unfortunately, some accidents cannot be avoided, but ensuring your horse has adequate protection can make all the difference.