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Giving your horses the boot

There are hundreds of different kinds of horse boots out there.  AMANDA MAC gives us the low-down on the wide variety available and whether they’re right for your horse.

Make no mistake, horse boots, while they’re available in a range of colours that just beg to go matchy-matchy, are very far removed from being a mere fashion statement!

We all love our horses and want to do the best we can to keep them happy, healthy and sound, which is why boots can be a significantly important addition to your horse-care tool box.

Essentially, the object of a boot is to protect your horse’s legs (or in the case of bell boots and hoof boots, their heels and hooves) from injury, or to reduce the possibility of interference, or to help absorb the shock of impact on tendons and ligaments. Now let’s look at that in more detail:

Protecting legs from injury no matter whether you’re riding, lunging, or your horse is turned out, boots can help guard against injury either from bumps against obstacles, or from your horse’s own hooves. This is especially important if the horse is a big mover with long strides, or if they have already sustained an injury, or if they strike another leg at some point during their stride. Known as interference ™ you can usually identify this tendency either by a repetitive clicking sound while you’re riding or lunging, or by noticing unexplained hair loss, sores, or other wounds on the lower limbs which in turn can lead to abrasions and splints.

While boots certainly help to protect against interference injuries, it can be a sign of an underlying problem and should be thoroughly investigated. Lameness, mechanical issues with the gait, conformation, lack of fitness, incorrect trimming or shoeing, a neurological ailment, or poor riding practices can all cause horses to interfere. That said, a sound horse can also at times misstep, causing an interference injury.

Floating is another activity which might put your horse at risk for leg injuries, and special boots specifically designed to protect their legs while they’re being transported are readily available (for more on the well-being of your horse while floating, see our special How We Travel ™ feature in this edition).

Protecting the heels and hooves from injury: Bell boots, so named because of their shape, help to prevent injury in horses that are prone to overreaching (when a horse clips his front heels with the toes of his rear hooves), and in those fitted with shoe studs. They’re also invaluable for a horse wearing a corrective front shoe which is designed to protrude behind the hoof. In this case, bell boots reduce the potential for an overreacher to tread on the front shoe protrusion and either loosen the shoe or pull it off altogether. Hoof boots fit snugly over a horse’s unshod hooves, protecting the hoof from chipping and stone bruises, as well as providing additional traction on rough and uneven terrain.

Absorbing the shock of impact Did you know that when your horse lands after a jump, the forelegs are subject to forces that can be up to four times the weight of the horse? Factor into that equation how hard the ground is (think drought conditions) and the impact on your horse’s legs is substantial. Which is why, if jumping is your discipline you should consider reducing leg stress by investing in a pair of good quality boots.

A boot by any other name: By this time, you’ve probably gathered that fitting your horse out with boots is a pretty good idea. But there are boots, and then there are boots and the variety available can be overwhelming to say the least. The first thing to consider is the reason (to protect from injury, to absorb shock) you’re thinking of putting boots on your horse, and then to look at which boots are appropriate for your discipline. The price of boots varies quite dramatically, so your budget will be another deciding factor, as will the materials you would prefer the boots to be made from (bearing in mind that some horses are allergic to certain materials – neoprene, for example).

Boot basics: Boots are manufactured using a variety of materials, including leather, gel, plastic, sheepskin and neoprene, and usually come in pairs. They’re designed so that the closures, which might be buckles and straps, Velcro, hooks and studs, or hooks and loops, sit on the outside of the horse’s legs. If the boots you purchase aren’t marked left and right be sure to fit them with the closures on the outside, and with the closure ends pointing towards your horse’s rear. If the closures are placed on the inside of the leg, they might catch and either come undone or cause your horse to stumble.

Keep in mind that depending on the type of boot, some are deigned to be worn on either forelegs or hind legs, while others are specifically for the forelegs, or for the hind legs (brush boots for example). So when you’re doing your research, it’s a good idea to check whether the quoted prices are for one or more boots.

Open Front Jumping Boots: Usually fitted with elasticated straps, or hook and loop closures, these boots can be made from a variety of materials, but many of the better brands are leather, with some offering the option of interchangeable sheepskin and neoprene liners to suit variations in weather conditions. The reason behind the open front design is that your horse will still feel a fence pole if they touch it, thus encouraging them to be careful over jumps. Jumping boots are designed for the forelegs, giving impact support, as well as strike protection for the tendons at the back of the leg.

Cross Country Jumping Boots: Cross country courses can be rugged, so these boots are designed to offer an extra level of protection. Look for brands that have sturdy strike pads positioned to sit over the inside of the leg, a soft friction-free inner lining, and are made from strong but lightweight materials. Heavy duty hook and loop closures are preferable as they allow for easy cleaning, while tending not to absorb water and thus create unwanted weight.

Dressage or Flat Work Boots: Designed to protect a horse’s legs from interference, these boots are a time-saving, fuss-free alternative to wraps. Usually lined with fleece or neoprene, they are generally made from materials that are easily cleaned in water. Remember that while dressage boots (or wraps) are allowed in the warm-up area, they are not permitted during the actual dressage test.

All Purpose Splint Boots: Usually a more affordable option, these boots feature a reinforced strike area and are most useful for horses that interfere. Also known as brushing boots, they protect the horse’s lower legs from injury during exercise. Look for a brand that’s waterproof and offers lightweight flexibility, as well as a hypoallergenic lining if your horse has sensitive skin.

Stable Boots: For added protection in the stable (or for horses that don’t like bulky floating boots) the brand you select should ideally be ergonomically shaped to support the lower leg and joints without restriction. Better quality stable boots are likely to feature a quick-dry, breathable inner lining, and a removable sheepskin collar for easy cleaning.

Floating Boots: Similar to stable boots, these often come in sets of four. Look for a brand with a thick, soft, wool lining and breathable outer. Floating boots usually have Velcro fasteners, and if they’re machine washable that’s a definite bonus!

Turnout Boots: Designed to protect your horse’s legs while they’re out and about in the paddock, a good quality brand will include elasticated straps angled to allow for optimum movement and fit. Ideal for horses who are prone to mud fever in their legs, look for a set with reinforced leather pastern guards, and durable skid caps that help to position the boot correctly on the back of the joint. And again, easy clean is an advantage.

Bell Boots: With the object of protecting your horse’s front heels, bell boots are usually made from rubber, and can either be open with Velcro or some other type of fastening, or the closed variety that slip on over the hoof. While more difficult to put on, closed boots are more secure and cannot slip off. If you opt for a closed boot, make your life easier by first softening them in warm water, before turning them inside out and slipping them over the toe of the hoof.

No matter whether open or closed, the base of a correctly sized boot should just touch the ground behind the bulb of the heel, and at the top, allow enough room to fit a finger between the boot and the horse’s pastern.

Hoof Boots: Many experts are of the opinion that not only do unshod horses have better traction in slippery conditions, their hooves also tend to be healthier overall. However, if unshod horses are ridden regularly on rough surfaces, they may well wear their hooves down faster than they can grow. Hoof boots help to protect against this eventuality, while at the same time enhancing the natural shock absorbing properties of the hoof (metal shoes can inhibit this function, allowing the concussion created by the hoof contacting the ground to travel up the horse’s leg, with the potentially to cause soreness and injury).

Different brands of hoof boots fasten in different ways, and how long they last obviously depends on frequency of use and the terrain you ride on. They’re also great for treating injuries, working well with poultices and wound dressings, and can be an invaluable spare tyre ™ should your horse throw a shoe while out on a ride.

And a final word: Various disciplines have different rules regarding which boots are, or are not allowed while competing. Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage, or waste your hard earned money: make sure you’re across the rules before you go boot shopping.

Image courtesy of Ashbree Saddlery

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