Get a Leg Up on Leg Protection

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Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY DR. HEATHER BEACH

With so many options for leg protection for our horses, how can we choose what is best? Appearance, cost, function, and your horse’s unique conformational and discipline related needs all factor into our decision.

Boots or wraps work to protect from impact, not provide support. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to show that any style of boot can support tendons and ligaments. Given the extreme forces that our horse’s tendons and ligaments are under during work, the best that we can truly hope for is leg protection that does not interfere with the elastic and tensile properties of the underlying soft tissues.

Leg protection should fit properly and securely and should not cause rubs. Be sure to remove your horse’s boots after your ride or when the horse comes in from turnout, and clean and dry the horse’s legs. Sometimes horses develop skin irritation from boots, so give the skin time to heal before putting boots back on. Always make sure boots are completely dry before you use them.

Leg Protection for Turnout

Some horse owners choose to turn their especially rambunctious horses out in boots, especially if the horse interferes (meaning he tends to hit himself with one or more hooves on another leg). Take care that the boots are kept clean–too often the turnout boots are left on, accumulate mud, and serve more as chronic irritation to the skin than as protection. Consider having multiple pairs of turnout boots on hand so that if one pair becomes muddy or wet there is another option readily available.

It’s also common to see bell boots used in turnout to help prevent lost shoes or overreach injuries, although they aren’t guaranteed protection. Bell boots come in many sizes and shapes and for horses that are truly prone to pulling shoes, they can be an important part of their management. Many of these horses will live in bell boots 24/7. If your horse wears bell boots all day every day, you must get in the habit of flipping the boots up daily and checking the skin for signs of irritation or dermatitis under the boots.

In order for bell boots to be effective they must fit properly – the bottom of the bell boot at the back of the hoof should barely touch the ground and you should be able to slide one or two fingers between the top of the bell boot and the pastern.

Leg Protection for Shipping

The primary reason people wrap their horse’s legs for trailering is for protection from injury. It is worth mentioning that the most likely time that a horse will injure itself trailering is during loading and unloading. The best leg protection in this instance is proper trailer loading training!

The second reason to wrap or bandage for shipping is to prevent fluid accumulation or “stocking up,” especially on long trips. Stocking up results from increased hydrostatic pressure within the blood vessels that leaks out into the interstitial fluid space and is not efficiently removed by the lymphatic system, as it is under normal circumstances.

 If the horse has any systemic or local inflammation (illness, vaccine reaction, trauma, dermatitis) the vessels can become leakier and more fluid enters the interstitial space than the body can adequately remove through the lymphatics. Or if the horse is standing still in a trailer for a longer than normal period of time, the lymphatic system is less efficient and the horse will be “stocked up” at the end of the ride. Standing bandages help prevent fluid accumulation by acting as physical pressure on the tissues, preventing excess fluid from accumulating in the interstitial space of the legs.

Standing bandages need to be placed with skill, as uneven tension or bandages that are too loose or too tight can cause worse skin irritation, and possibly a “bandage bow.” Bandage bows are usually focal irritation to the skin over the underlying tendon and don’t involve the tendon itself, but in severe cases it is possible to cause tendon damage with poorly applied wraps.

Shipping boots are a good alternative to standing bandages as long as they fit properly and your horse tolerates them. Back on Track quick wraps easily placed wrap that can offer protection during shipping and prevent stocking up.

If your horse loads and unloads safely and trailers well without kicking or pawing excessively, it can be okay to ship your horse unwrapped.

Leg Protection for Riding

If you want to use leg protection while riding, it’s important to understand how they all work to make the right choice for your horse.

• Jumping Boots – Jumpers and equitation horses are allowed to wear boots in the ring for competition, and many people will school in them at home. Open front boots let the horse feel a rail if she hits it, encouraging her to jump more carefully. These boots primarily protect the back of the tendons from a strike/grab injury from the hind legs, but will also protect the inside of the fetlock and the splint area from brushing injuries to a certain degree. For the hind legs, most people will choose fetlock/ankle boots that protect the inside of the fetlocks from brushing injuries from the opposite hind.

• Cross Country Boots – Cross country boots are designed to offer substantial protection from impact, interference and/or striking injuries. They should be water repellent so that they don’t become heavy after going through water obstacles. Heat dissipation is important, because horses on cross country are galloping at substantial speed over long distances. Research indicates that tendons and ligaments heat up substantially during galloping work, and excessive heat in these structures can predispose to injury. Cross country boots are designed with ventilation to allow for airflow and help dissipate heat under the boot.

• Flat Boots and Polo Wraps – These are the favored choice of dressage riders, or for jumping horses that need protection on flatwork days. Flat boots or polo wraps primarily provide protection from interference or brushing injuries. Dressage horses are likely to make a mistake during lateral work and brush or interfere. Polo wraps are useful prevention, as they conform nicely to the horse’s leg and are easily washed. They take practice to apply correctly.

Flat boots vary from thick with wool padding to a simple splint boot. The protection is concentrated on the inside of the leg where a brushing or striking injury is most likely.  Remember, splint boots protect against physical trauma to the splint bone from an interference injury, but many instances of a “popped splint” are not caused by trauma, but rather by medial/lateral imbalance of the foot or uneven loading of the limb by the horse resulting in bony proliferation of the splint bone from repetitive loading stress.

Whatever boots you use for your horse, the most important thing to remember is that the boots are clean, well-fitted, and discipline appropriate.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin.

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