equine orthopedic support boots
Sports medicine or orthopedic support boots are one of the most popular types of leg protection in the Western performance industry. They are made for front and back legs, and provide some support of the suspensory ligament. • Photo by Alex Lynch

Give ‘Em the Boot: Leg Protection

Choosing the correct combo of leg protection can mean the difference between a successful career and an early retirement.

Whether you’re new to the horse industry or have been involved for many years, leg protection can be a confusing topic. There are many opinions on the subject, and sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. The decision to use boots or not could depend on the discipline you ride, which may also dictate the style you use.

Protective boots and wraps are generally used to keep a horse from injuring the structures in its legs and feet. In light of that, using leg protection may seem like the obvious thing to do. Yet, inappropriate leg protection or incorrectly applied leg protection will not serve the correct purpose. There are a few things to consider before making the trip to the tack store to stock up on boots.

To boot or not?

According to Dr. Bill Rhoads, owner of Premier Equine Veterinary Services in Whitesboro, Texas, there are two main reasons why a rider should consider outfitting their horses with some type of leg protection. As a veterinarian specializing in equine surgery, lameness and sports medicine, Rhoads recommended using some type of boot to help support a horse that had an injury in the past.

“Particularly with those soft tissue injuries, even in the best case and the best of healing, those will never be 100 percent the strength or flexibility of the original structure,” Rhoads said. “It is always going to be kind of a weak link or a weaker link, not that it can’t be functional. It is important to protect those primarily because it’s never going to regain that strength or flexibility.”

Rhodes also advised those competing or working in high performance environments should consider putting protection on their horses’ legs to prevent concussion or interference if one leg hits or brushes against another. He referenced jumpers, who use boots to protect their legs from fences, and Western performance horses that are continually making tight turns and crossing over their legs.

“In evolution, horses’ legs were designed to travel mostly in straight lines at speed,” he said. “Most of the stuff we ask them – the stopping and turning and things like that – is kind of against what Mother Nature designed them for. That’s where some of that protection is important and plays a big role.”

Some equestrians believe starting young horses without leg protection is advisable because they learn to step over themselves and not depend on their boots. While Rhoads acknowledged there may be some merit in that strategy, he cautioned that one wrong step can cost a month or two of training, should the horse injure itself.

He also advised that using boots repeatedly is not a good practice, as that provides “stress protection” to the leg, which will cause the limb to lose some of its inherent strength. Riding a horse leisurely in boots or loping it around in wraps may cause the horse’s leg structures to weaken.

“In the veterinary world, a good example of that is if you place a horse’s leg in a cast for whatever reason. The cast obviously is an extreme version of that stress protection,” Rhoads explained. “The cast is taking some of the weight. We will actually see evidence of bone loss in about 30 days. You can see that on an X-ray – the bone density will go away with them wearing the cast.

skid boots on a reining horse for leg protection
When reiners stop, the dirt can burn the backs of their hind legs. Skid boots help prevent that from happening. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“These soft bandages and stuff are not nearly that rigid or that supportive, but I do think that over a long period of time, we can weaken things,” he continued. “The body, the leg, the bone, the tendon – it’s only as strong as it needs to be, and if we support it, it’s only going to be as strong as it needs to be with that support.”

Another thing to take into consideration with leg protection is using the wrong boots or putting them on incorrectly can cause more harm than good. A too-tight wrap will constrict blood supply and too loose can cause the wrap to slip. A wrap that is too tight in one spot and too loose on another can also cause inconsistent pressure.

“Everybody’s probably heard of the bandage bow, where improper pressure or inconsistent pressure can lead to mostly development of scar tissue in the subcutaneous tissues,” Rhoads said. “That’s typically what’s called the bandage bow. The tendon actually is not bowed, but there’s scar tissue around it usually from inconsistent pressure on the bandage.”

Types of leg wear

When it comes to Western performance horses, riders have several choices of leg wear, unlike some other disciplines, such as dressage, that don’t allow horses to compete with any foot gear.

A common piece of equipment in trainers’ toolkits across the cutting, reining and reined cow horse disciplines is the polo wrap, which is typically used to protect legs from injuring themselves in the event they brush each other. This can be a common problem in reining horses, which can hit their legs together during the tight, fast spins for which the discipline is known. However, the wraps are not actually very useful when it comes to tendon support.

“I’m probably not going to be super popular by saying that, but it’s hard to say that a polo wrap can really support a big, 1,200-pound animal,” Rhoads said. “In the reining, when they’re turning, a lot of horses will hit their knees together, so that’s why they’ll use either knee wraps or somehow bandage above both knees, or sometimes just one knee. It’s pretty common. They’ll hit their knee, and it can cause some problems in the joint. We’ll see some thickening over the tissues in the back of the knee when they hit a lot.

“That would probably be one of the unique things with the reiners, just because of all of the turning,” he continued. “When you get down to it, the turns in a reining horse are different than the turn in a cutting horse. A reining horse, when they’re stepping and turning, the [outside] leg steps in front of the inside leg. Cutting horses are supposed to step underneath. It still maybe can hit, but it’s probably less likely to hit as much.”

Sports medicine or orthopedic support boots are also popular across the Western disciplines. These boots, which are made for both front and back legs, cover the cannon bone and then wrap under the fetlock, which in theory supports the tendon and particularly the suspensory ligament, according to Rhoads. One of the advantages to using these boots, he said, is how user-friendly they are. He recommends them to many of his clients who have horses with a history of a tendon or suspensory problem.

overreach boots on a horse's hooves
A horse that overreaches with its hind feet can clip its front feet, causing it to sustain an injury or pull off its front shoes. These boots protect the back of the front feet in an effort to minimize that risk. • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

“I would say probably the biggest downside would be most of those are made of somewhat of a neoprene-type material, and some horses can develop an allergy to that material,” Rhoads said. “They might also not breathe, so they’ll sweat and it may stay hotter and wetter underneath. They’re pretty stretchy, so I think it’s possible to get them too tight, but I think it’s really hard to.”

Skid boots and overreach boots are fairly standard equipment for reining horses. Skid boots cover the back part of the ankles on the back feet and protect the horse from burns when it goes into the ground to stop. Overreach boots help keep horses from stepping on their coronary bands while turning and are also meant to keep a horse from stepping on its front heel bulb or pulling a front shoe with its back feet.

“Reiners use those a lot because, again, they turn a lot, and it’s very common for them to pull shoes when they’re stopping. Sometimes even just running down to a stop, they’ll overreach and pull a shoe. Those overreach boots are supposed to help some of those things. They still don’t do the job completely, but that’s what they’re made for.”

Choosing leg protection for a horse doesn’t have to be hard, but it does require some forethought of what the horse needs protection from and knowledge of how to put the boots or wraps on correctly. The Western performance industry is deeply rooted in tradition, so consulting with a veterinarian is always a good plan, as the protection used on one horse may not be ideal for another.

“I think it can be trendy,” Rhoads said of the types of boots commonly seen at events. “There’s definitely some specifics for each discipline, but I would say the polo wraps and the sports medicine boots are probably what we see the most in the Western deal.

“Over the years, I’ve seen an increase in the use of polo wraps, particularly on all four legs. I think part of that is just a trend and what an assistant trainer learned from their trainer, so that’s what they do.”

This article was originally published in the March 1, 2018, issue of QHN.