Horse Care, Tack & Horse Gear

How-to: Protect Your Horse’s Legs During Exercise

Easy to injure and hard to heal, a horse’s legs are one of its most important—but delicate—features. You owe it to your horse to provide the best protection for the work you’re asking her to do.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of performance boots and wraps on the market, and how to select the most appropriate ones for your horse.

What Kind of Protection Do You Need?

Before you start shopping, first consider your horse’s unique situation:

What are you doing? Is she a dressage mount in training, or a seasoned showjumper performing strenuous moves at speed?

What is her current condition? How does she move? Are there any old injuries that cause concern?

If a horse is prone to overreaching (stepping on the back of a forefoot with a hindfoot) or brushing (knocking the inside of one leg against another) some protection is necessary.

Not all horses need extra leg protection. Horses that move well, have no existing injuries, and aren’t performing any strenuous activity may be just fine without protective boots.

Most importantly, if you’re not sure how to wrap a bandage or fit horse boots, do not use them until you are. The damage caused by a pinching tendon boot or a too-tight polo wrap is almost always worse than the injury it was trying to prevent in the first place. Seek the advice of an experienced horse person or trainer if you are even the slightest bit uncertain of the fit.

Polo Wraps

Polos are usually the first thing that comes to mind when talking about equine leg protection. Polo wraps are 4-5 in. wide, about 9 ft long strips of fleece which wrap around the horse’s lower legs and finish with hook-and-loop fasteners. They extend from just below the knee or hock to the top of the pastern, cradling the fetlock joint.

A good polo wrap is an art and requires practice to do correctly. Always wrap from the inside of the leg to the outside, and from front to back. Maintain an even tension and a ½” overlap each round. Remember to cup the fetlock and give it a round or two of the wrap to help protect it. A deep inverted “V” at the bottom of the polo shows you’ve done it correctly. Hook-and-loop tabs should meet on the outside or the front, but should never be fastened directly over the back of a tendon. If you find you end the wrap here, re-roll it and start again.

Correctly applied polo wraps offer great support and are suitable for everything from training racehorses to dressing up a schooling mount. They have the advantage of being custom fitted each time and can conform to the unique contour of a horse’s leg in a way boots can’t. They’re an excellent choice for horses with scar tissue, old injuries, or other anomalies that makes fitting boots hard. However, they provide little protection.

Polo wraps are readily available and come in an array of colors and patterns to suit any sense of style. They clean easily in the laundry machine with a mild detergent and should be hung to dry. Wash them in a mesh lingerie bag with their fastener tabs stuck together to help them last longer.

Bell Boots

Bell boots are a popular performance boot and a must-have for horses who habitually overreach. They are used for exercise, or to protect a horse during turnout or traveling.

Overreaching (also called “overstepping” or “grabbing”) happens when a horse takes too long a step with a hind foot, striking the back of the foot in front. Overstepping can cause a horse to pull a shoe loose, or inflict a painful wound on the front foot. In extreme cases, these wounds can require sutures and impact hoof growth. Even in mild cases, they are sore and prone to infection.

Bell boots are usually used in speed sports more prone to accidental overreaching, like show jumping and cross country. Whenever studs are used on shod horses, bell boots are added as extra protection in case a horse catches herself with a stud.

Bell boots cover the sensitive coronet band and rest at the bottom of the pastern. They should not come down so low that they touch the ground, but must fully cover the bulbs at the back of the heel. You should be able to fit about 2 fingers under the mouth of the boot at the pastern.

Bell boots come in several styles, from the old fashioned “pull-on” rubber boots to popular Anti-Twist versions featuring molded heel bulbs and hook-and-loop fasteners for ease of use.

Pull-on boots stay on best, mainly because they’re so tricky to get on in the first place!

Horses with thin skin or recovering from scratches may appreciate a comfortable fleece-lined option, as well (remember to keep the fleece clean).

Regardless of bell boot you use, remember that even turnout boots cannot stay on forever. They absolutely must be removed daily for a while to prevent sores from developing, and remember to check pasterns for any signs of rubbing or irritation.

Tendon Boots

Often seen in hunter/jumper rings, tendon boots support the delicate superficial and deep flexor tendons at the back of the leg, and also protect them from overreach injuries. These boots are typically open at the front and do not protect from front-impact, so a horse can feel when she grazes a rail.

Some use thin leather straps and buckles, but many modern boots feature hook-and-loop closures and wide elastic straps, like this classic from Horze. Other options include hard carbon outer shells and breathable neoprene lining (like this Zandona carbon boot).

When fitting, boots mustn’t slip or pinch.
Check to ensure you fit the right boot to the corresponding leg (manufacturers will usually indicate “right” or “left”). Fasteners affix to the outside of the boot, facing you. The bottom of the boot should cup the fetlock without impeding movement. The top of the boot should end just below the back of the knee. Pick up and flex the horse’s leg to make sure the top of the boot doesn’t catch her behind the knee while jumping.

When putting tendon boots on, start high and slide the boot down the leg (helping the hair lie flat). Fasten the middle strap first, then the top. Always fasten the bottom strap last.

Fetlock Boots

Fetlock boots often accompany tendon boots and can be purchased in sets, like the Horze Advanced ProTec Boot Set.

Fetlock boots fit around the lower hind legs and are great for jumping horses who tend to knock their rear legs together when clearing a fence. Just like tendon boots, they feature the same hard, molded outer shell and soft lining, usually neoprene or occasionally pile or sheepskin. They’re allowed in jumpers, but not in the more conservative hunter show ring.

Fetlock boots are much smaller and easier to fit than tendon boots. Ensure that the outer shell covers the fetlock joint without impeding it and that the boots do not slip or rotate during exercise. You should be able to fit a finger or two under the strap.

Brushing Boots

Brushing boots typically provide the best, most thorough protection for your horse’s legs. Also called splint boots, they cover from below the knee to just below the inside of the fetlock joint. Unlike tendon boots, they wrap around the entire lower leg, protecting the front of the cannon bone. They have additional protection on the inside of the leg, to prevent injury if the horse accidentally “brushes” one leg with a foot or opposite leg.

Brushing boots are commonly used in dressage and are a great choice for groundwork, lunging, hacking, or training the young horse. Options range from luxurious sheepskin lined boots to advanced carbon fiber outer shells with impact-absorbing gel inserts, like this Italian-made Zandona boot. Brushing boots also come in hind leg sizes for rear legs, as well.

Support Boots

A relatively recent addition to the equine legwear world, support boots (sometimes called Sports Medicine boots) offer the best tendon and ligament support and are ideal for equine athletes with existing support related injuries. Usually made of neoprene, they have three side straps plus a long fetlock strap to brace the joint against hyperextension.

Final Word

Regardless of which, if any, type of boot or wrap is right for your horse, proper fit and care are paramount. Remember to wash and dry synthetic boots regularly, and to launder your polo wraps frequently.

When buying boots, make sure to purchase from a retailer with a generous exchange policy, in case the boots don’t fit your horse. Horze’s 30 Day Happiness Guarantee means you can find the perfect boots for your horse without worrying about refunds.

What kind of equine leg protection works best for your horse? Share with us in the comments below!

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