Safeguarding Lower Limbs

Injuries can set a horse back in his training for days, weeks, or even months. What is most frustrating is when that injury comes from the horse himself. During training, a horse can easily take a misstep and tread on a heel in front, knock a leg against the other and cut a tendon, or even exacerbate an already existing injury. Since wrapping a horse in bubble wrap isn't an option, over the years horse owners have tried to avoid these interference injuries by using boots and leg wraps. This article will lead you through the maze of products available and give you tips on what might be right for your horse.

There are many boots and wraps on the market with new and improved versions coming out every year. So how do you make your choice? The main thing to keep in mind is your horse's needs. Is he a young horse learning to balance himself and his rider? Then you might want to pull out the stops and use bell boots and interference boots. Do you have a seasoned dressage horse which knows his job? Then four simple fleece-lined interference boots might be all you need.

Before we get into a list of the most common types of boots and how much you can expect to pay for them, Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Professor of large animal clinical sciences at Michigan State University and the first incumbent of the McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine, will discuss common misconceptions about boots and wraps.

"Mainly we use boots for protection from knocks," says Clayton. "For this purpose, boots work quite well. People also use boots for support; however, this doesn't work. Tight wraps or boots will limit flexion of the joints during the swing phase, but they have not been shown to restrict sinking of the fetlock for more than a few strides. According to my definition, support of the leg can be equated with the ability to limit sinking of the fetlock during weight-bearing. People who use boots are those who anticipate their horse may be subject to traumatic injury--polo players and eventers for sure. And boots are appropriate for young horses that are not yet well coordinated. Boots and wraps may be useful for other horses, but to my mind that's more an issue of what the individual trainer believes."

Boots and wraps can actually cause damage in some cases. "It has been hypothesized that overheating of the tendon core is one of the factors predisposing to tendon damage," says Clayton. "When a horse wears wraps or boots, the heat produced in the tendon has less opportunity to dissipate by radiation, conduction, or convection--so there may be more heat buildup. Certainly when you take off sports medicine-type boots, the horse's legs are very hot and sweaty. That's not to say these boots are totally bad--I think they give good protection against direct trauma--much better than polo wraps. But I do advise people to take them off as soon as possible after exercise and to cold-hose or ice the legs to get rid of excess heat as quickly as possible."

Interference or Brushing Boots
Price: $23-$120 per pair

Interference boots, also called brushing boots, are probably the most diverse of all the boots horse owners use on their mounts. They come in many shapes and sizes with different cutouts. Some are lined with fleece or felt, and they can be constructed from neoprene, vinyl, or even leather. Interference boots come in different lengths--the tallest boots normally cover from the bottom of the knee to the lower end of the fetlock.

The job of interference boots is to protect the horse from injury if he kicks or hits himself during workouts. Dressage riders are big fans of interference boots more than any other because these injuries are more common during lateral work. The boots are also good for turnout because they won't accidentally unravel and tangle around a horse's leg like a polo wrap can.

Fetlock Boots
Price: $20-$115 per pair

Many horses, particularly young horses with minimal muscle tone, travel very close behind and are likely to knock their hind fetlock joints together. While this might not cause an outright cutting injury, knocking can bruise the fetlock and cause a chronic swelling that will get worse if the joint isn't protected. Fetlock boots are designed to cover only the fetlock joint; they are made of various materials and usually have extra padding over the joint.

There is also a variation of a fetlock boot available--a rubber ring or sausage boot for the hind legs is a good choice if only one fetlock is hit. A sausage boot looks much like a strip of rubber hosing, and it fastens around the hind pastern. It also protects the coronary band and can be left on in the stall and during turn-out.

Splint Boots
Price: $12-$60 per pair

Splint boots are probably the most popular of all the boots on our list. A splint boot's job is to protect the tendons, ligaments, splint bone, and inside fetlock of the lower leg (both front and hind). The boots have a rigid plate built inside the boot that lies against the inside of the leg protecting it from an accidental cut from a hoof. They are usually made of neoprene with suede outside panels.

Sports Medicine Boots
Price: $69-$80 per pair

Sports medicine boots are touted to extend the working lives of horses which might otherwise face long rehabilitation, and to prevent injuries to working horses. This is mainly because they work to absorb shock from interference and hoof concussion. They do that by encasing the leg from the knee down and surround the fetlock in high-density neoprene that can take a hit and dissipate the energy.

The sports medicine boot is the only type of boot to have university studies supporting its use. The University of Oklahoma did a study for the first sports medicine boot company, Professional's Choice. They found that this company's boot absorbed 26% of hoof concussion, which is four times more than traditional boots and wraps.

Skid Boots
Price: $24-$85 per pair

Cutting and reining horses, due to the nature of their work, need a different type of boot than any other horse--the skid boot fills the bill. Skid boots were designed with a shallow cup that fits under the rear fetlock to prevent chafing against the ground during the sliding stops, spins, and quick turns in cutting and reining work.

The boots are usually made of very heavy rawhide leather with straps that buckle. These boots need to be kept scrupulously clean, as a build-up of sand and dirt can cause chafing from the boot. Some trainers prefer to leave the hair of the rear fetlocks and pasterns long and only use the boot if the hair isn't long enough.

Bell Boots
Price: $9-$45 per pair

Bell boots, also called overreach boots, have evolved through the years more than any other boots. They are also the most controversial. Some disciplines, such as dressage, have participants who say the boots slap against the hooves and causes the horse to snatch his legs up instead of bringing them forward. Whether that is the case or not, bell boots are very useful for protecting a horse from an overreach injury.

Bell boots cover the whole hoof and bulb of the heel and are normally used only in front, although they can be used on the hind hooves during trailering in case a horse should step on himself. The newer bell boots are made of neoprene and are made to stay still and not spin around the hoof as the horse moves. The more traditional rubber bell boots are fastened with buckles or Velcro straps, or are designed to pull over the hooves. There is also a "petal" type of bell made of pieces of rubber strung along a plastic strap. The benefit of these is that the petals can be replaced if they are damaged.

Bell boots are also good for turn-out. If you use bell boots frequently, make sure the top of the boot isn't chafing the skin.

Open-Front Jumping Boots
Price: $55-$155 per pair

These are favored heavily among jumpers because the boot covers and protects the tendons and ligaments and the back of the leg in case of an overreach, but leaves the cannon bone exposed so that a horse can feel the jump poles, teaching him to be more careful in the future. They are usually made of leather, neoprene, or vinyl, are lined with felt or fleece, and have straps that cross in front of the cannon bones.

Shipping Boots
$35-$229 for a set of four

There have been great strides in development for shipping boots in the last few years. Until recently, riders had to make do with polo wraps, leg quilts, and bell boots. The trouble with this combination was that polo wraps could unwrap during transit. More modern boots are padded with shock-absorbing synthetic material, usually fastened with Velcro from the coronet band to over the knee on the front leg and from the coronet band to up over the hock on the hind leg. Sometimes a plastic dish called a scuff plate lines the back of the boot, helping protect the hoof from slashing injuries.

Polo Wraps
Price: $13-$25 per pair

Polo wraps were first used by polo riders, hence the name. They are used to protect horses against mallet knocks, interference from hooves, and knocks from other horses. Today, they are used by riders of all disciplines, and even with their drawbacks are still very popular.

Polo wraps are made of a stretchy type of cotton or fleece material usually fastened with Velcro. They take more maintenance than boots because wraps absorb sweat from the legs and moisture and dirt from the environment, so constant washing is necessary.

Polo wraps were once thought to offer support to tendons, but this has now been disproved. You also must check to make sure the Velcro is attaching well and that the material still has stretch and give. If not, your wrap can unravel, and this usually will happen when you are riding. Polo wraps are not good to use during the cross-country phase of eventing or on a trail ride, as the wraps can absorb water. They are, however, good for arena schooling.


No matter what type of boots or wraps you use on your horse, you must be careful that they don't cause harm. Inspect the horse's leg(s) before and after each workout, and check that the boot or wrap is still functioning to protect the horse and hasn't developed cracks or broken fasteners. Be cautious using a new boot or wrap for the first time during a competition, as a new boot can feel different to the horse and alter his way of going. All equipment should be tried at home to make sure it fits properly and is durable.



Shipping boots are a must for protecting your horse's legs and coronary bands during travel. Horses often step on themselves while trying to keep their balance in a moving trailer.

One manufacturer's boot/wrap sizes might differ from another's, so ask the manufacturer or your tack shop dealer how to decide what size your horse needs. If you are buying an interference or a splint boot and you can't get the material to meet in front of the leg when you are fastening the straps, the boot could be too small. On the other hand, if you overlap material in order to fasten the straps, the boot might be too big. However, this could be the style of the boot, so ask questions before purchasing.

Boots are usually marked left or right, but if they aren't marked, the boot should sit on the leg so that the ends of the Velcro or buckles are on the outside and face to the back so the horse won't accidentally kick the tapes or buckles open.

Before you start, make sure that there is no dirt or shavings inside the boot and that your horse's legs are clean, then position the boot above the desired spot and slide it down into position to make the hair lay flat under the boot. Fasten the middle strap first to hold the boot in place, then fasten the others. The boot should be snug enough that you can't twist it around the leg or slide it down easily. When you remove boots, let them dry before you put them away.

Leg wraps are much more difficult to put on than a boot. To make things easier, for storage roll the wrap so that the Velcro end is rolled up first with the hooks on top. This way the Velcro will be in the right place as you apply the wrap to the horse's leg. Again, make sure your horse's leg is clean and free of shavings or dirt before you begin to wrap.

Hold the rolled wrap at the outside and top of the cannon, and wrap the leg moving downward at a slant while keeping even pressure on it. Make the wrap snug, but not super tight. If you are using leg wraps for shipping, wrap around the fetlock and back up the leg at a slant. If for exercise, wrap to the bottom of the cannon and then wrap back up the leg at a slant. Before the wrap begins to run out, take a straight wrap or two, then fasten the Velcro.

Following your outing, if the wraps are heavily soiled, you should launder then before your next use. If not, let them air dry, then re-roll them and put them away.--Sharon Biggs

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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