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Let's Learn! Protecting Your Horse's Legs During Exercise

Today is the first day of spring! Yay! I'm so excited for longer days and warmer weather. You know what that means? Let's ride!

When we talk tack, we know about saddles, bridles, and bits, but what about your horse's legs? If you've been a horse owner or rider for any length of time, you may have heard you need to protect your horse's legs... but then you walk into your local tack store and see that HUGE wall of choices! If you go down the Google rabbit hole, it's even worse! Where to begin?

Let's discuss!

For this discussion, we're just going to look at boots and wraps used for riding, lunging, or turn out. We're not going to talk about shipping, stable, vet care, or anything like that.

Let's start by reviewing the parts of the leg we're trying to protect and the common injuries that can happen. Click here to learn about legs and leg injuries.

Brushing Boots

Brushing boots are probably the most common boot you'll come across. They may be offered under a few different names but the design and function of the boot is the same. These boots go around the tendons and fasten on the outside of the leg. They may or may not have a fluffy interior lining, but they all provide protection to the inside of the leg to the tendons and splint bones in case the horse hits or "brushes" one leg with with other.

Splint Boots

Similar to brushing boots in their form and function. Most boots advertised specifically as splint boots offer additional protection to the interior area of the leg where the splint bone lies. Most splint boots do not have a fluffy interior lining.

Sports Medicine Boots

Originally made popular by Professional's Choice and have since been copied by many other companies, boots listed as "sports medicine" style boots provide the same protection as a brushing or splint boot but they have an additional piece that wraps around and under the horse's fetlock or ankle. The thought is that this feature provides additional tendon and joint support. Does it actually do this? I'm not convinced and the actual science out there isn't either... but for horses that "get down" on their ankles often (think reining horses, barrel horses, etc.), a boot like this makes sense.

Open Front Boots

These boots look exactly as their name implies... the front of the boot is open and the front of the cannon bone is exposed. The back and sides of the boot are hard and the front is left open. This type of boot is commonly used by jumpers so the horse can feel it when they hit a rail and are encouraged to not do that, while still providing protection to the important structures of the lower leg.

Ankle Boots

As the name implies, these boots fit just over the fetlock of the horse and provide protection to the interior of the fetlock joint. These boots are most commonly used on the hind legs in combination with open front boots on the front legs.

Bell Boots

Bell boots wrap around the hoof and provide protection from the hind feet reaching up and "grabbing" or injuring the front feet. Bell boots can be found in two varieties. The regular ol' bell boot wraps around the entire hoof and offers protection to the front of the hoof (think protection from hitting a rail while jumping) as well as the back and bulbs of the heel. Overreach boots just cover the back of the hoof and are often a little thicker than a plain ol' bell boot to over additional protection to the back of the hoof and bulbs of the heel in the event the horse is prone to overreaching with his back feet and injuring himself.

Polo Wraps

Polo wraps are long pieces of fleece that wrap around the leg to provide protection and arguable support. Benefits of polo wraps: fun colors and usually quite affordable, so you can easily swap your colors daily to match your outfit! Negatives of polo wraps: can be tricky to apply correctly. If applied too loosely, they can come undone while you're riding and cause a safety hazard. If applied to tightly or with uneven pressure, they can cause serious damage to your horse's tendons and ligaments.

A few final thoughts about boots and wraps...

The claim that certain boots or wraps offer additional "support" to the tendons or ligaments just isn't backed by good science. Or if there is good scientific evidence that certain boots or wraps offer significant tendon "support," I can't find it. If you have found a study that says otherwise, please share it! I genuinely mean that - I'm not trying to be snarky.

While all boots certainly do offer protection against knocks and bumps while riding, you'll rarely see me exercising or working a horse in them. Why? Boots also cause the tendons and ligaments to heat up to levels that studies have shown causes damage to these structures. You can read more here and here. For me, the real risk of soft tissue damage isn't worth what little protection I feel the boot would offer.

The one boot I can truly get behind? Bell boots or overreach boots for lunging and turnout. Horses do act stupid and dealing with a gash on the bulb of the heel or a pulled shoe just isn't worth it to me!

At the end of the day, you know your horse best. Consider the work he's doing and ask the advice of qualified folks (think your vet, your farrier, and your trainer... not necessarily Sharon who also boards at your barn and has "had horses her whole life").

What boots or wraps do you like to use when working your horse? Tell me in the comments!

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