You may see horse on televised competition wearing leg protection and wondered exactly what it is for, or you may wonder if your own horse needs this type of protection. Although they are called 'boots', they don't serve the same purpose as 'hoof boots'. Leg boots help protect the delicate structures of the leg from bumps against obstacles, or from the horse's own hooves. They also help support the tendons and ligaments in the legs, as performance horses can be prone to straining these tissues. Horses have no padding from muscle tissue in the lower leg, so boots can help prevent potentially debilitating injuries.
Unless there is a pre-existing condition that needs protection, most backyard pleasure horses do not need any type of leg protection. However, some horses, no matter how light their workload is, are prone to over-reaching, forging, or interfering and injuring themselves. Often poor conformation causes them to hit themselves, especially after they get tired. (Rather like you and I might trip over our own feet when fatigued.) Young horses that are being started may hit themselves because they are unbalanced. And of course, performance horses-hunters, jumping, endurance horses, barrel race, reiners and many others, may benefit from the support and protection of a leg boot.
Depending on what your horse's specific problem is, or what sport you're competing in, there are many boots to choose from. Manufacturers don't always use the exact same name to describe all boots. Some boots combine functions, such as a boot that is both a sports medicine boot and skid boot.
It's important that leg protection fits well, is kept clean and in the case of bell boots used for stabling or turn out, checked frequently in case the boots are chaffing. Built up sweat, grit and dust can make boots uncomfortable, so cleaning them regularly is essential. Here are the most commonly used leg protection or leg boots.
1. Bell Boots
These boots encircle the pastern and the bell shape covers the entire hoof. They can be made of rubber, heavy synthetic material or leather lined with fleece. Bell boots are worn in the stall or paddock, or while ridden. In either case, they prevent the horse from hitting itself especially where the terrain may be rough or muddy, and where a horse is negotiating obstacles like jumps, provide some protection from hitting a hard surface. Bell boots can be worn on the front or back.
2. Fetlock Ring
A simple rubber donut, called a fetlock ring can be used during turnout or riding to prevent the horse from injuring its hind fetlocks. This ring stretches over the hoof and sits on the lower fetlock, although you may need strong hands to do this.
3. Leg Wraps
Before there were all kinds of specialized leg boots, leg wraps were used. Polo wraps are the most common type used for riding and standing bandages are used in the stable.
4. Brush, Brushing, Splint Boots
Brush boots or splint boots are usually worn on the front legs and help prevent the horse from hitting itself during hard work. Brush boots can be used on the hind legs as well. They're commonly used during lunging (especially when canter work is being done), but also for jumping, reining and other fast moving sports where a horse may hit its own legs with a hoof. These boots sit at or above the pastern joint and protect the lower bones and soft tissue of the lower leg. These boots are not really for support, but for protection, rather like shin pads used in many human sports. The thicker padding on the inside of the boot protects the delicate splint bone along the inside of the cannon bone. Brush or splint boots can be made of synthetic materials or leather. When putting on any type of boot the straps must be done up so the tail ends point backwards. This makes it less likely that the strap will get caught on twigs or other obstacles.
5. Shin Boots
Shin boots are most commonly used by jumpers to prevent injury to the front of the leg when hitting a jump rail.
6. Ankle and Fetlock Boots
Fetlock boots are for protection when a horse hits itself. They cover the pastern joint and fetlock areas of the lower legs. They are not meant to provide support. They are usually made with leather or synthetic materials and lined with sheep skin or other soft material.
7. Open Front Boots
Many of the boots I've described here come in open front styles. This is because in sometimes, the rider may actually want a horse to feel when it is hitting a jump. Some horses become complacent, and scrub over the rails of jumps. The open front boot may encourage the horse to be a little more 'honest' about tucking up its knees and clearing the obstacle, while still providing some protection. They also allow more airflow around the lower leg.
8. Knee BootsIt's a bit tricky to keep boots or bandages around a horse's knees, but sometimes knee protection is needed. Barrel racers and reiners are sometimes seen with knee boots. These boots aren't really supportive, but provide extra padding to horses if they may bump their knees against something, such as hitting a barrel in a barrel race.
9. Skid Boots
Skid boots protect the hind fetlocks and pasterns, providing support along with protection from contact with the riding surface during fast stops and turns. You'll see these boots most commonly on reiners who must do sliding stops, and cutting horses, although English riders such as jumpers might find they need them. They will be made of leather and fleece or a synthetic material that provides cushioning. Closures are most often buckles or hook and loop fastener.
10. Sports Medicine Boots
Sports boots provide both protection and support. They cover the lower leg, front or back from the pastern to below the knee. They are not as padded as splint boots, but provide more support to the tendons and ligaments. You'll most often see them on endurance horses, jumpers and other horses that must negotiate tough terrain. They can be made from synthetic materials or leather. Some materials are designed to retain heat, which is felt to increase blood flow to the leg. Others are made to be cool.