To Boot or Not To Boot?

Learn the pros and cons of exercise boots, and how you can decide when you should (or shouldn’t!) use them on your horse.

Your horse is standing on the cross-ties getting ready to work. You prepare to boot him up.  Do you outfit him in splint boots and bell boots to protect his legs? Sports Medicine boots to provide support? Or some other kind of specialized boot recommended by your trainer? One thing is likely—if you’re in any kind of training program, chances are the boots you choose will be identical to what your barn buddies use on their horses. That’s right—sometimes boot selection is more based on fashion than function. After all, it is important to fit in. And boots can’t hurt anything, right? 

Wrong!  In fact, most experienced horse people have seen instances of “boots gone wrong,” and recent research has demonstrated that boots can have detrimental effects on the tendons and ligaments they are designed to protect. Not only that, while boots do provide some benefits, they may not always have the protective effects we think they have.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of using exercise boots for your horse. We’ll find what positive effects they have, as well as where they fail.  Most important, we’ll learn when boots can do more harm than good. With this information in hand, you’ll be able to make more educated decisions about when and how to use boots for your horse. 

Benefits of Boots

The primary function of any kind of boot is to provide protection from trauma. Some horses that are very narrow (or don’t have the straightest legs) will interfere or strike the inside of one leg with the foot of the opposite leg. Others may overreach, striking the heel of a front foot with a hind foot when they take a step. This kind of self-induced trauma can be more common when a horse is young, green, or performing lateral movements—especially when they’re first learning. And there’s no doubt about it, boots provide protection from these types of interference injuries. 

Boots will also protect your horse’s legs from external sources of trauma—such as banging against a pole when navigating an obstacle, or from bushes or rocks you might encounter on the trail. They might even prevent ticks from attaching to your horse’s lower legs if you’re riding in tick country (consider applying insect repellent directly to the boots).

Finally, there is some evidence to support the idea that boots can provide proprioceptive feedback to your horse—meaning they can help him develop better coordination by stimulating messages to his brain about where his feet and legs are in space. In a recent study, researchers showed that musculoskeletal asymmetry or imbalance that could be associated with lameness was improved through careful use of a single bell boot on the weakest leg. This is interesting work. And as more and more attention is being paid to rehabilitation techniques in horses, it’s possible that boots might become an important tool in rehabilitation programs.

Boots Gone Wrong

If you find yourself needing to use boots during your ride, take time to cool your horse’s legs down afterward. Studies indicate that damage to tendon cells can be reversed if tissues are cooled down immediately by icing or cold hosing legs after removing boots.

Boots applied to your horse’s legs, especially if they’re poorly fitted, can easily cause trauma to the skin because of rubbing or pressure damage. At best, injuries to the skin are painful and irritating to your horse. At worst, these types of injuries can lead to more serious problems, such as cellulitis, if bacteria gain entry to the underlying tissues. Sweating underneath boots can also lead to skin irritation or skin infections—especially if boots aren’t kept clean or legs aren’t cleaned after work.  

Some of the most interesting recent research about potential negative effects of boots highlights increases in temperature that can cause damage to underlying tendons and ligaments. In the lab, temperatures of approximately 118 degrees Fahrenheit can induce “apoptosis,” or death of tendon cells. Even without boots, tendons can easily reach temperatures as high as 113 degrees during heavy work, especially during hot conditions. It doesn’t take much for temperatures to increase to potentially damaging levels.  

Your horse depends on airflow across the skin for temperature regulation—and boots or bandages that insulate the legs can result in a temperature increase of as much as 30%. That’s enough to cause concern. In studies, boots with heavy fleece linings and polo bandages were the type of leg protection that led to the greatest increases in temperature. Boots with openings that allow for better airflow, such as those constructed from mesh-like materials, will help keep potentially damaging increases in temperature to a minimum. 

If your horse really does need boots to protect his legs from trauma, the good news is there are steps you can take to minimize the risk. Studies indicate that damage to tendon cells can be reversed if tissues are cooled down immediately by icing or cold hosing legs after bandages are removed. You can also remove your horse’s boots from his legs once you no longer need them, giving his legs a chance to cool down while you walk him out.

Making the Call

So how do you protect your horse’s legs from trauma, without putting him at risk?  The following four factors will help you decide when and how it’s best to boot. 

Factor 1: Trauma Risk

Is your horse’s base narrow or very toed out putting him at high risk for an interference injury? If you’re not sure, take a minute to watch him walking and trotting away from you on the barn aisle. If his feet come very close to the opposite legs when they are swinging through the air, he may be at higher risk of interfering. He may also be at risk if he’s a very young horse just starting in training or is just being introduced to lateral exercises like leg-yielding, sidepassing, or even spins. Does he have a very long stride and a tendency to overreach? What about his job? Is he being asked to navigate obstacles that could cause external trauma? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your horse’s legs may be at risk for traumatic injury, and protection in the form of boots or bandages is something to consider. Read on for how to use them safely. If you answered no, consider whether leg protection is necessary at all. You might be perfectly safe to leave the boots and bandages back in the barn—along with the risks they pose. It’s also wise to recognize that you can use leg protection when you need it and avoid it when you don’t. It’s not an all-or-none decision. 

Factor 2: Ambient Temperature

If you’ve determined that your horse would benefit from boots, pay attention to the temperature in his environment.  On very hot days, skip the boots if you think you can, and opt for a less intense training session that could avoid the risk of trauma. If you must work hard when it’s hot outside because of a competition or other scheduled event and you know your horse is likely to interfere, select a pair of mesh-type boots that allows for better airflow. It’s also wise to take the time to ice or cold hose his lower legs after work. 

Factor 3: Boot Selection

First and foremost, choose a set of boots that fit your horse well and won’t cause rubs. Check his legs carefully after every ride. Have the boots slipped out of position during work? If so, they may not be the best fit for your horse. And if you notice any evidence of a rub, such as hair loss or irritated skin, ditch the boots and find a different pair. Some horses will be sensitive to certain materials, such as neoprene. If you notice that your horse’s skin looks irritated underneath his boots, consider finding a pair made from a different material. 

You should also select the type of boots you choose based on the footing and environment where you’ll be working. If it’s wet, avoid heavy fleece-lined boots or polo bandages that are likely to get soggy and slip out of place. If you consistently work your horse on hot days, choose boots that allow for better airflow, such as those constructed from mesh-like materials. Skip the heavy fleece varieties. 

You can also tailor your boots to address your horse’s specific risks. For example, if your horse tends to interfere at the fetlocks but not higher up the leg, try shorter fetlock boots that leave more of the leg open to the air. And if your horse overreaches but doesn’t interfere, consider bell boots to protect his heels instead of a full set of boots. Specific activities may also require specific boots—such as skid boots that provide fetlock protection during sliding stops, or open-fronted boots that provide heavy protection for tendons and ligaments but allow the horse pole-awareness.

Factor 4: Boot Maintenance

You’ve determined that your horse needs boots and have been careful to select the ones that will protect him with minimal risk. What else can you do? Keep them clean! A buildup of dirt and debris on the surface of your boots can increase risk for rubs, and micro-organisms in the soil or footing where you ride can increase the chances your horse will develop infections in his skin. If your boots are secured with hook-and-loop closures or buckles, make sure these attachments are still functional to reduce risk of boots slipping or rotating on the leg and causing injury. Finally, when your boots wear out, replace them! 

So, what’s the bottom line? Should you outfit your horse in exercise boots or just say no? The answer simply isn’t black or white.  If your horse is at risk for trauma to his lower legs, either because of the way he moves, the environment where he works, or the type of job he does, there’s no doubt about it, boots can help protect him. It’s also true that boots can do more harm than good. If you determine that your horse doesn’t need boots, just say no! But if he does, it’s important to select them carefully and use them wisely. 

Airflow In Boots

If you’ve decided that your horse needs  boots, there are a few different options out there that provide airflow to the legs to help keep them cool.

Airwave Classic Equine Splint Boots. The perforated foam body on these boots actively draws heat away from the leg while a tough, flexible mesh covering adds protection and durability. 

Back on Track Airflow Exercise Boots. These boots are lightweight, and the Airflow technology provides maximum breathability and moisture management. 

Tough-1 Easy Breathe Mesh Sport Boots. The easy-breathe mesh is made to provide maximum airflow, while offering protection against dirt and debris. 

What About Travel?

Has your horse ever cut his leg when loading in a trailer? If so, you’re not alone. Trailering is a common time for horses to be injured. In fact, many seasoned horse owners are adamant that shipping boots are essential any time a horse is loaded in a trailer. Yet most experienced commercial long-haulers refuse to allow shipping boots on the horses they haul. Why? Because just like exercise boots, shipping boots don’t come without risk. So how do you decide? It all depends on your horse and the nature of the trip you’re taking.  

Protection Options

Option 1: Commercial shipping boots. Perhaps the most convenient and protective option are commercial shipping boots that extend up and over your horse’s knees and hocks, and are held in place with heavy duty hook-and-loop closures. While these boots are quick and easy to put on, they can also easily slip or fall off during travel, making them a popular choice for short trips on a well-behaved horse, and almost never allowed by commercial shippers for long-haul trips. If your horse paws, kicks, or otherwise carries on while trailering, commercial shipping boots are a poor choice. If he’s a quiet hauler, they may be a great option. If you do plan to try commercial shipping boots, make sure to acclimate your horse to them before you load up in the trailer.

Option 2: Bandages. Full leg bandages extending from the coronary bands to the knees or hocks also provide good protection if applied appropriately. When applied along with bell boots, this can be one of the safest options for your horse. For long hauls, however, bandages are also at risk for slipping or coming loose and may not be allowed by commercial shippers. They are also time consuming and require skill to apply. If proper bandaging is not solidly in your skill set, you can definitely do more harm than good with full leg bandages. Only use them if you know what you are doing.

Option 3: Exercise boots and bell boots. A full set of exercise boots with bell boots are a compromise that offers some protection to the most vulnerable parts of your horse’s legs, and are quick and easy to apply. They are more likely to stay in place than commercial shipping boots and can be useful for a horse that paws or kicks in the trailer. This is a useful option to consider for many hauling scenarios.

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