The distal limb of the horse is a delicate structure comprised of not much more than bone, tendon/ligaments, and skin. There is little natural protection for this area, unlike more proximal portions of the leg where thick muscles cover the area and protect the underlying structures from injury.
The main structures of the distal limb include: the extensor tendons on the front of the limb; the digital flexor tendons (superficial and deep) and suspensory ligament on the back of the leg; the cannon bone; the sesamoid bones; the heel bulbs; and the hoof. All of these structures are vulnerable to injury if not adequately protected.
How do horses injure their legs?
Some horse are naturally more prone to injury of the lower limb than others due to their confirmation or way of moving. They may “interfere” when they move, that is, one leg brushes the inside of the opposite limb when they travel. This can happen in the front and hind limbs. Many owners will recognize this as small cuts, bumps, and abrasions on the inside of their horse’s legs. Some horses will “forge”, that is, the hind limbs will reach far forward and catch the back of the front leg. This can result in pulled shoes or cuts to the heel bulbs or coronary band.
Of course, many of the activities we ask our horse to participate in, such as cross country jumping, racing, reining, and even shipping, put the lower limb at risk for injury.
What can we do to prevent injury?
We can help to decrease injuries by using appropriate leg protection in the form of boots or bandages.
Just what can or can’t boots and bandages do?
Boots and bandages can offer protection from penetrating wounds. That is, wounds from hitting an obstacle, from an overreach of a leg, or from a fall. Basically, they can help prevent the limb from being cut or scraped up. Not all bandages offer the same level of protection from penetrating wounds, but most will help to decrease the severity.
Boots and bandages cannot offer protection from concussive forces. Concussive forces are the pounding the structures of the limb experience as a horse runs or jumps. Boots and bandages cannot offer significant support to the limbs. Even bandages with straps that wrap around or under the fetlock offer only minimal support to the limb. Some owners believe that if they put the boot on as tightly as they can, then is will support the ligaments and tendons. This is absolutely false and will likely result in pain, if not injury to the skin, tendons, and ligament of that leg.
What problems can boots or bandages cause?
Boots and bandages can cause other problems if you are not careful. Some boots will soak up water when they get wet. This can double the weight of the boot. Now imagine trying to navigate a cross country course with ankle weights on. That is essentially what your horse is trying to do if he is wearing the wrong type of boot. The added weight can also change the flight of your horse’s stride that can result in stress on joints and soft tissue structures.
Boots can also trap a lot of heat beneath them. This heat can have serious detrimental effect on tissue, especially of the superficial digital flexor tendon. A study out of Japan showed that exposing tendon cells to temperatures of 48° C (118.4° F) will result in the death of 80% of the cells. Additional studies have shown that temperatures in the distal limb tissues will reach that high or higher. If boots are added that prevent heat dissipation or increase the temperature, thermal damage to the flexor tendons can result. The best way to prevent thermal injury is to remove the boots as soon as they are no longer needed and to ice your horse’s legs immediately.
So how do I choose the correct boot?
Fit, material, and function are the three most important elements to consider when choosing a boot or bandage.
A boot must fit properly. If it is too tight it will cause pain; if it is too loose it can slip and cause rubs or even trip your horse. Boots that are molded must be especially well fit. If not, they will cause more problems than they will prevent. It may take several tries to find the style of boot that best fits your horse.
There are now a plethora of materials from which boots are made. Leather boots have always been popular. They must be properly cared for to prevent them from becoming too stiff to correctly fit your horse’s legs. Neoprene will conform to a horse’s leg well, but they can produce and trap a lot of heat, and if dirt or sand gets under them they can cause rubs. Plastic boots can have the same problems. Polo bandages will offer some protection from cuts and abrasions, but not from significant impacts. No material is perfect. Chose the one that fits your horse’s legs well, is easy for you to keep clean and maintain, and provides the level of protection you need – i.e. just light protection from interfering vs protection from brush and solid fences out cross country.
Function is always part of the equation. Polo wraps work well on the polo field. Open front boots are good for the show jumping ring. Reining horses have their own boots for protecting fetlocks as they slide, known as skid boots. Find a boot or bandage that does what you need it to do.
What about Bell Boots and Shipping Boots?
Bell boots help to protect the coronary band, heel bulbs and hoof wall. These boots are particularly helpful for horses that forge and tend to pull shoes or cut their heel bulbs. Newer Velcro styles have made getting bell boots on and off much easier. However, the old fashioned “bell” style solid bell boot is still a great choice for horses that seem to get the Velcro undone no matter what.
Shipping Boots and bandages are used to protect your horse’s legs from bumps cuts and scrapes while loading, shipping, and unloading. They not give your horse’s legs support. Shipping boots should fit so that they don’t flap and flop when your horse is walking to the trailer. If they do, they are too big and will only cause problems. If you use shipping bandages, they should be applied so that they cover the heels bulbs. If your horse does not like to be wrapped so low, you can use bell boots to protect his feet. In that case, the bandages go from below the knee to just below the fetlock.
If you keep in mind what protection boots and bandages can provide for your horse, and chose a proper fit and material for your purpose, you will be able to keep your horse a little safer when you embark on your next adventure.
Registered 2014 Equestrian Collections; Author: Sallie S. Hyman, VMD, DACVIM, CVA
Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice from a veterinarian for their horses medical needs.