Protect Your Horse’s Legs

legprotectionWith a variety of wraps and boots on the market, how do you choose the right leg protection for your horse? A horse’s leg is what makes him unique in creation. The leg assimilates the forces generated by the body’s muscles and transfers it into motion and power across the ground.

In particular, the leg below the hock and the knee do this with only bones, tendons and ligaments – a dynamic section of the horse with only a few millimeters of skin for protection. That is why proper protection and support of the lower limb is crucial to maintaining soundness in your horse. So, how do you go about deciding the best way to protect this vital segment of anatomy? Almost every tack store, saddle shop and website has a full section with support boots, polo wraps and the like in every color and style you can imagine. How do you decide?

First, think of what we’re trying to protect. On the backside of the leg, the suspensory ligament originates from the top of the cannon bone and goes as a single structure down to just above the fetlock where it splits into two branches, each incorporating a sesamoid bone on the back of the joint. From there, the ligament attaches by several sections on to the backside of the long pastern bone. Ligaments connect one bone to another, so think of the suspensory ligament as “the cradle” of the fetlock joint. The Deep and Superficial Flexor Tendons (DDFT and SDFT, respectively) connect the muscle groups on the back of the forearm to the bottom of the limb/foot. They run on the backside of the suspensory ligament and enable the horse to flex the fetlock, pastern and coffin joints. They also have a significant role in absorbing the impact of the force generated through the weight-bearing portion of the stride.

Whatever we put on our horse’s leg must be able to protect and support without limiting the natural and necessary motion of the joints. Anatomy is constant across horses, but conformation is not. Therefore, the selection of a boot or wrap must be made in light of how the horse is made. The most important factors in the decision, in my opinion, are pastern length and angle. Ultimately, this translates into how much force the “cradle” of the fetlock must bear. The longer the leverage arm applied to the suspensory ligament, the more force that is applied. For example, a long, sloping pastern creates a great deal of excess force when compared to the “ideal” standard. On the other end of the spectrum, a very steep, straight pastern can overload the suspensory as well by concentrating the force because there is not enough angle to load the flexor tendons properly. What you decide to purchase must be made with this thought in mind – more reasons conformation is king.

This being said, the proper fit for a support boot or wrap is a great start. Manufactured support boots have evolved tremendously over the past few years. Available sizes and fit options make it possible to accommodate almost any horse. Tendon inserts within the structure of the boots also help them stay in place much better than previous versions. In the past, I thought what some boots made up for in support, they lacked in fit. On the other hand, correctly placed polo wraps fit perfectly to each horse, but often did not provide the extra load bearing that boots did. Either way, one was not completely superior to the other. So, which one do you choose?

In 2015, that question is still being asked because it does not have an across-the-board right answer. Multi-discipline horses may wear a different support wrap for each event. I understand some of it may be style or trend, but each functions well in the case it is applied. In single-event horses, you’ll see a mix of polos, support boots and bare legs, as well. Either way, they all have a place – polos for horses with ideal conformation, support boots for proactive folks, and bare legs for those who, hopefully, have major medical coverage on their horse, my point being that the wrong leg wrap in a performance horse is the one you didn’t put on.

However, some wraps, polos in particular, can be done incorrectly to actually cause a tendon injury. This is commonly referred to as a “bandage bow” and is caused when uneven and excessive pressure is placed on the leg by how the wrap was applied. With only a few millimeters of skin between the wrap and the tendons, there isn’t much room for error. Bows caused by improper wrapping can be every bit as painful and take just as long to heal as a performance injury. Improperly applied support boots can cause problems as well, but the problems are typically from neglect, like leaving them on too long, not cleaning them after each use or improper fit. I think with a well-made support boot, you really have to put some effort into causing a problem.

I talked with a lot of trainers whom I truly respect for their thoughts on leg wraps. A good number use polo wraps because of their versatility in fitting various horses perfectly (when wrapped by the girl who’s an expert). The great majority use a support boot because of the added load-bearing design that offers more protection than a typical polo wrap. And some will use combinations of both when dealing with a horse that has an injury. Each horse can be different. Every person has an opinion. I really like polos, but the “one-sizefits-all” theory has holes in it. Ultimately, a clean, properly sized support boot is as good as it gets. 

Dr. Justin High is a veterinarian and partner in Reata Equine Hospital in Weatherford, Texas. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].

Read more Health Matters with Dr. Justin High:

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