Leg Protection: Are Horse Boots Up To The Job?

Oct 13, 2010 - 11:38 AM
When a boot is soaked with water, the weight can easily double, having a dramatic effect on movement and the amount of energy a horse has to expend. Photo by Kat Netzler.

Riders need to consider a boot’s weight and breathability, as well as how effective it may be in preventing concussion and protecting a leg from trauma.

Dressage horses sport signature white polo wraps in the warm-up; eventers wear rugged cross-country boots, and jumpers often have open-fronts. But are these boots doing what we expect?

David Marlin, BSc (Hons.), PhD, has looked into this topic in great depth. With more than 20 years experience in physiology and biochemistry, he’s associate dean for research at Hartpury College (England). He serves as sports science consultant to the British Equestrian Federation, chairman of the International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology and a member of the editorial board of the Equine Veterinary Journal, as well as author of Equine Exercise Physiology with Kathryn Nankervis.

Equilibrium Products Ltd. approached Marlin several years ago to help them test and design their leg protection and bandage products. They wanted to know what a boot should do and the most important features to include.

According to a company press release, “The variations in the results were so extreme that they caused concern for the welfare of the horse.”

Although no standards exist for testing and rating leg boots for horses, Marlin, who works as an independent scientific consultant and holds a number of visiting professor positions in the United Kingdom and United States, hopes that the research he conducted will encourage companies to embrace such a system.

“That’s where it started from, and I think it’s right to raise this issue because people are going out and buying boots to protect their horses’ legs,” said Marlin. “You couldn’t pick a good boot based on appearance, brand, reputation or price. With the experience I have gained, if I take a knife to somebody’s boot and open it up, I can tell you if it’s likely to do a good job, but it’s difficult at the moment for riders to know what to choose.”

Why Use Boots?

In tests designed to replicate the blows caused by hitting a fence, overreaching or encountering a sharp object, Marlin said many boots and bandages provided inadequate protection at best or increased the damage at worst.

Still, that’s no reason to head out on a course without boots on your horse. Three-day eventer Bonnie Mosser said that a few years ago her galloping boots prevented a catastrophic injury to her horse Jenga’s tendon when he fell on cross-country: his boot was severed, but his tendon was intact. Without boots her world-class horse might have become a pasture ornament or worse.

According to Marlin the most important reasons horses wear boots are concussion or trauma from interference and from falls, and penetration. For instance, a shoe on a galloping horse shouldn’t be able to penetrate a boot, and at the same time that boot should protect against concussion.

Marlin pointed out the difficulty in achieving this balance in the design process. The easy way to protect against penetration is to put a steel plate down the back of the boot, which allows concussive damage.

“If I put a steel plate on your head and hit you with an ax you won’t have penetration, but you will have extreme concussive damage,” he said.

The greatest risk for most sport horses is to the lower forelegs—more specifically the superficial digital flexor tendons. The four main problems with boots are weight, restriction, heat build-up and discomfort due to poor fit.

Boots are often touted as providing support to the horse’s tendons and ligaments, but Marlin said, “I don’t subscribe to the idea that boots or bandages really offer much support, unless it’s athletic support strapping by a professional, meaning a physio or possibly a vet. What it can do is restrict movement of the fetlock joint, which is not necessarily a beneficial thing. I have seen more problems with over-tight boots than loose ones. If you need proof, heavily strap your ankle, especially over the Achilles tendon, and then go for a run; you probably won’t be able to walk for a few days.”

Weight is a concern because even small amounts of weight added to a horse’s leg can have a dramatic effect on movement (think about gaited horse trainers, who purposely alter their horses’ gaits by adding weights to their legs), and can increase the amount of energy the horse has to expend while performing its job. A light boot of only 6 or 7 ounces can dramatically affect the horse’s gait; when it’s soaked with sweat or heavy with water, the weight can easily double, and that effect is magnified.

Heating is also an issue because tendons are partly comprised of living cells, which can be damaged from extreme heat. One study from Japan showed that only 10 minutes at 48 degrees Celsius (118.4 degrees Fahrenheit) is enough to kill 80 percent of all tendon cells in a petri dish. In previous studies many horses’ legs reached degrees much higher than that, and if boots prevent heat release the effects are multiplied.

A boot can be made of thick, spongy protective material, which offers protection against concussion, but if it’s heavy and bulky and reduces the cooling of the lower limb, then it can cause more problems than it prevents.

No Perfect Boot

Marlin emphasized that there is no one “perfect” boot, and riders must weigh the pros and cons when choosing a boot. It’s important not to choose leg protection based purely on brand, price or appearance but to make sure that a boot has been thoroughly researched by the manufacturing company.

“We have to recognize when it comes to injuries in sport horses that one of the most common are tendon injuries. In all we’ve been doing in the past 50 or 60 years we have not really found a way to reduce that,” he said.

Because the lower limb is comprised of bone, joint and tendon and not a lot of muscle, the structures are vulnerable to injury. Muscle provides some protection by absorbing concussion, and where there’s not a lot of muscle there’s more room for damage. The limbs also move a lot faster than the rest of the horse, about 35 miles per hour while the body is moving 25 miles per hour, in order for the horse to accelerate.

“We have to start looking at the training programs because clearly we’re over-loading these structures,” he said. “I think we have to also consider the damage caused by repeated low-grade trauma from the tendons being hit.

“Boots in the past haven’t really been designed to take into account protection and allowing as much cooling as possible,” he added. “We have heavyish boots that don’t really protect against concussion, keep the heat in and are strapped on tight.”

 Which Boots Do Top Riders Use?

For Australian eventer Ryan Wood, who has many horses to work each day, convenience is another factor. “I grew up using leather boots with buckles, but they’re not the most practical when you have a bunch of horses to tack up and ride,” he said.

For cross-country, he said, “I use N.E.W. boots now, which are synthetic material; I don’t use the fleece-lined ones. They don’t hold a lot of water, and they protect the cannon bones and tendons if the horse leaves a leg over a fence.”

For show jumping, Wood uses open-front boots on his horse’s front legs and ankle boots behind, and for schooling at home he often uses polo bandages, which he believes offer extra support.

“When you’re pushing a horse to the maximum you want to provide the most protection and support that you can,” he said.

Olympic show jumper Anne Kursinski routinely uses Eskadron and Veredus boots on her horses. She prefers leather boots to synthetic materials because she believes that synthetic boots cause more skin problems in hot climates, like in Florida.

“Neoprene is also OK, but it can cause heat, and also when sand gets under them it can cause a rub,” she said.

Kursinski believes that although they may not be perfect, boots are an important piece of equipment.

“Sometimes when you’re running and jumping you have a mark on the boot after the round where the horse hit itself turning and jumping big jumps,” she said. “We had a horse overreach and cut its pastern recently, but boots can’t really protect against that, except maybe bell boots. Some horses don’t move perfectly, in fact there have been some famous jumpers that were crooked movers, so it’s good to have something protecting their legs.”

Dressage rider Lauren Sammis, who led the U.S. team to a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games, uses polo bandages with Eskadron Climatex bandage liners.

“I like the support of polos and the margin for error and extra padding that the Eskadron gives,” she said. “I also use bell boots in front on big moving horses. I feel that polos and Eskadron liners offer not only support to the tendons but also padding in case of concussion. The liner spreads out pressure to allow for slight uneven pressure in placement, and polos are not too stretchy so the tension is pretty consistent, and it’s hard to get them too tight.”

Additional Considerations

So what should you look for in boots for your horse?

“If you’re doing prolonged work, a heavy, thick boot that doesn’t allow heat loss is not a good idea,” said Marlin. “Any boot that is very stiff can cause rubbing, and thick, inflexible boots may actually increase concussive damage of underlying tissues.”

As far as standardizing horse boots goes, Marlin said that some manufacturers have responded positively and want to be involved in testing.

“Some of them would like a standard for a boot—maybe a B for eventing, C for hacking and an A for racing,” he said. “It’s difficult—some manufacturers said they’ve been designing boots for a long time and therefore they work. That isn’t the right sort of logic; cigarettes have been around for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t kill people. There are things we don’t now do because we know better. Asbestos was believed to be safe for a long time, and then we found out, oh dear, it’s not.”

Because of liability Marlin can’t recommend a particular material that riders should use, but he did say, “If you’re doing flat work with a horse that has no history of injury and moves well, then probably you need no protection or very light protection. Polo wraps are going to give you a little protection against a slight knock, but they’re not going to support the limb. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re going cross-country on a horse that tends to whack jumps very hard you want a good pair of boots and a high level of protection.”

Marlin is conducting research through Hartpury College, looking at the transfer of heat into and out of the tendon and the influence of boots on gait.

Ideally, he said, “It would be good to have a voluntary, independent testing where manufacturers submit their boots. Then at least when people go to buy boots they can buy a level 1, 2 or 3 pair of boots, knowing that a level 1 offers a high level of protection. We’ve been testing hats and body protectors for riders for many years, and there are well-defined standards; leg protection is the most common thing put on a horse for protection. Why don’t we test how effective it is?”

Until such a system is instituted, Marlin said that a rider’s best bet is to choose a boot produced by a manufacturer that they know has conducted its own protection tests. Also consider the job that your horse performs, whether it involves speed, turning, jumping; consider his way of moving, and consider the climate that he will be performing in. Then you can make an educated choice for your horse’s leg protection.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Leg Protection: Are Horse Boots Up To The Job?” ran in the July 2, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Veterinary
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