Hoofin' It in Boots

Hoof boots let a horse go barefoot with many of the benefits of traditional shoes.

Hoof boots aren't just for emergencies or soaking injured feet; these boots are made for walking, running, climbing, and more. Today an increasing variety of boots adorn the other-wise bare feet of trail horses, working horses, dressage horses, and even highly competitive endurance horses.

The benefits are pretty straightforward: The horse gets foot protection and traction when needed, while still going barefoot most of the time. There's no risk of tearing off shoes or misplaced nails.

However, boots aren't a license to be lazy about hoof maintenance. Booted horses require proper trimming and balancing, perhaps even more often than shod horses. And boots come with their own risks and challenges, such as sores from chafing if they are left on too long and/or incorrectly sized.

Are boots right for you and your horse? If so, how do you pick out the right boot? Read on to find out.

When to Use Boots

The main purpose of boots is the same as that of a basic horseshoe--to protect the feet from excessive wear and perhaps provide additional traction. Another benefit is the ability to insert pads of varying thicknesses and angles to provide a customized cushion for a sore horse.

Boots might be right for a barefoot horse in the following situations:

  • To protect the foot from excessive wear and bruising when working long distances or on hard, rocky ground.
  • If satisfactory shoeing services are hard to come by.
  • When transitioning from metal shoes to barefoot status.
  • When a horse is getting used to a tougher environment (such as moving from an area with moist, soft ground to one with dry, rocky ground).
  • If the horse's feet don't do well with nailed shoes, but still need protection.

"Some people I know prefer boots so the horse can be barefoot as much as possible, and they use boots as sort of shoe replacement if they can't do what they need to do without some sort of hoof protection," says Meg Sleeper, VMD, associate professor of cardiology and cardiology section chief at the University of Pennsylvania and an international-level endurance rider.

Pat Burton, an American Farrier's Association Certified Journeyman Farrier/Examiner with Hoof Pros in Burleson, Texas, also suggests it might be beneficial to remove a horse's boots and let the feet "rest" when the horse isn't working.

Boot Basics

If one or more of the above-mentioned situations apply to you, then hoof boots might be a great option. There are many different varieties of working boots for you to choose from. These are different from soaking and rehab-type boots, which don't fit as snugly or stand up to as much wear as a working boot.

We'll focus on working boots, which can be anchored to the foot in two ways. Some attach tightly to the hoof capsule either with tightening devices or semipermanent glue, without coming up above the coronary band. Some use a "gaiter" around the fetlock and pastern to hold the boot on. Others use a combination of the two.

"Gaiter boots are more protective because they cover the heel bulbs and the pastern area," says Burton. So if you're riding in heavy underbrush or other situations where injury to the horse's limbs is a risk, gaiter boots might be for you. On the other hand, some competitive organizations don't allow boots that extend up above the hairline. If you're competing, check the rules of your organization before selecting a boot type.

Another source of variety is how the boot tightens around the foot. Velcro, tension screws, clamps, cables, dials, glue, and stretchy rubber are all options, and people tend to have better luck with some than others. Only experience will tell you what works best for you.

Materials are as variable as boot styles and attachments. One consideration is that nonbreathable materials such as rubber, polyurethane, or plastic will hold moisture and "sweat" or soften the foot if the boots are left on too long, cautions Ric Redden, DVM, founder of the International Equine Podiatry Center in Versailles, Ky.

The moisture issue can also be a competitive problem, Sleeper warns. "Depending on the style, some boots can carry moisture and mud, which adds weight," she explains. "It's an issue in some regions (i.e., wetter ones), but not others."

Lastly, boots sport tread patterns just about as varied as those in the hiking boot section of an outdoor store. Your regional challenges and riding needs will dictate what kind of tread/traction works best for your horse.

Soreness can play a role; Bruce Lyle, DVM, of Aubrey Equine Clinic, in Aubrey, Texas, says the aggressive traction of some boots can aggravate lameness.

Boot Fit

Experts agree boot fit is the key to success. If the boot doesn't fit properly, it can come off easily, be nearly impossible to put on, and/or cause rub sores.

While to the casual eye a hoof is a hoof, horse's hooves vary in size and shape just as much as human feet.

"Some types of feet are just really tough to get in boots," says Burton. "Feet that are really flared to the outside are the toughest, and the 'spike' foot that's long from front to back and narrow in the quarters (longer than wide) is also hard."

There's also the consideration of mismatched feet (also called high/low foot) on the same horse. "High/low foot is more prevalent than people realize," comments Burton. "If you don't think it exists, you don't look at many horses." This often requires different boot sizes for different feet, even on the same horse.

"Another point to consider is evaluating any hoof pathologies first (abnormalities such as frog atrophy, heel contraction, etc.) and acting on these accordingly," Burton adds.

Boots can be fit to such feet, but once good hoof function is re-established, another type of boot might be needed.

Lastly, some boots just suit certain foot shapes better than others. "The biggest disadvantage of boots is that there is not a large variety of shapes and sizes available for different types of feet," says Redden. "They have a pretty generic fit, which suits a basic stereotype for that manufacturer, but there are many variables in feet. It's an economic issue; you can't economically design a boot to fit four grades of club feet and also the low foot on the other side, and everything in between!" (Sizing charts from the manufacturers can help you decide what size/type might fit your horse.)

To fit boots as perfectly as possible, Burton stocks a wide variety of boot brands, types, and sizes, and he takes a slow approach to the fitting session. "When fitting a new horse for boots, we trim him, measure his feet, put the proper size of boots on, then take him for a jog on asphalt after having the boots on 15-20 minutes," Burton explains. "He gets used to wearing them, and we can see on the hairline if a boot is rubbing or if the foot is settling into the boot more than expected. We can put inserts into the boots, cushion pads, etc., to get a better fit and make sure that when the owner leaves here, they have boots that fit. And they can have different boots to provide the optimum comfort for what they are doing on any particular day."

If none of the sized boots suit your horse, some companies (such as Hoofwings) offer fully customized boots based on tracings of the feet.

Foot Care for Booted Horses

Another key to booting is maintaining the feet properly, advises Burton (who usually trims booted horses every four to six weeks). "Good hoof maintenance isn't just a farrier trim every six to eight weeks, it's daily care," he states. "The whole 'barefoot movement' is just good hoof management. The owner has to play an active role, keep the feet clean, keep bacteria down, and use whatever's needed to maintain a good environment for that foot. If the owner does that, the boot option is a good one."

Sleeper says, "Booting is not an easy alternative to shoeing; it takes effort."

Booted feet might require trimming more often than shod horses' feet in order to keep the hoof size/shape consistent. "Otherwise the boot would fit now, but not in a month, or vice versa!" Redden says.

Boot Maintenance

Like any equipment, boots last longer when they're properly maintained. Burton recommends blasting dirt out after each use with a water or air hose and drying them upside down if they're wet. Also make sure the boot and its parts are in good working order after each ride, replacing parts as needed.

Boot Bungles

"The biggest problems I've seen with boots are when those purchased online or in a store really don't fit the horse they were purchased for," says Burton. Not understanding proper fit, such as not getting the boot all the way on or mistakenly applying it with dirt or rocks inside, is another issue, he adds.

"A boot with dirt in the toe won't fit right," Burton explains. "I tell people it's like with your shoes; when you take them off, if they have rocks and dirt in them, when you put them back on they're not comfortable."

Last but not least, there's the issue of leaving boots on too long. "I have seen boots left on for weeks at a time, and they're just not designed for that," says Burton. "The same type of owner who does that often doesn't make sure the horse has clean water, grooming, etc.; it's not a common thing. People who take an active interest in the care and maintenance of their horses do great."

Take-Home Message

"Owners need to understand the boot and understand what the approach is if they're changing to boots," Burton summarizes. "I think they need to find a hoof care specialist they can confer with about whether this is a logical approach for their horse."

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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