Boots and bandages help protect horses’ legs and provide support but aren’t substitutes for good conditioning.
By Nancy Loving, DVM, The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care
No horse has perfect conformation, nor does every horse have the perfect job or the perfect footing in which to work. With this in mind, horse owners reach out to use every available technology to protect a horse’s limbs against injury. Manufacturers have risen to the challenge to produce a variety of protective wraps, support boots, and substitutes for horseshoes. Riders have high expectations for bandage protection and support: How much do these boots and bandages live up to their claims?
The Function of Protective Boots
Dane Frazier, DVM, has not only ridden and trained endurance horses, he has judged endurance horses at the highest FEI levels for more than three decades. His general equine practice in Lebanon, Missouri, handles sport horses of varied disciplines.
“Depending on what a horse must do for a living, leg wraps, interference boots, skid boots, and splint boots may have practical application for horses with problems relating to interference and sport hazards,” says Frazier.
He describes the merits of protective boots across equestrian disciplines by saying, “Protective leg gear is used for two purposes: protection from trauma and to support lower leg structures. Some horses tend to traumatize themselves by the interference of one limb hitting another, especially when fatigued, as, for example, a distance riding horse. Other horses are protected from an environment that may traumatize limbs, as, for example, a reining horse when sliding. Horses are outfitted with bell boots to prevent interference, especially overstrike, of the front feet. Roping horses may also wear splint boots to prevent injury from a rope gone wild that doesn’t always land on the steer. Polo ponies wear leg protection to prevent (injury from) being whacked by the mallet. Jumping horses wear protection to protect against (damage from) knocked rails.”
Frazier says it is important to check for problems when horses are wearing protective gear. Trauma to the skin from poor fit, rigid materials, and movement of the device is problematic, he says. “Horses that must perform in the hinterlands on surfaces and in environments that do not share any of the characteristics of arenas and racetracks are at greater risk of problems resulting from protective gear,” Frazier adds. “Proper fit, application, and adjustment with periodic rechecking can minimize these problems.”
It is important to remove the boots at intervals to ensure dirt and debris have not collected between the boot and the skin, and that there are no rub issues. Also (in this author’s experience), a horse can develop subtle tendonitis that might go unnoticed on a booted leg, whereas swelling might be evident when the boot is removed.
The materials used in protective gear have improved over the years. No longer are riders reliant on leather or canvas materials that could be abrasive. Synthetic materials that are light, “breathe,” and are easily attached by Velcro seem to be the most popular materials. “They are less likely to rub or chafe and/or contribute to fatigue,” he says. “Plastic or rubber is used for protective gear such as bell boots for similar reasons.”
Frazier sums up the objective of protective boots: “The attempt of all of these devices is to protect and support the tendons, ligaments, and joints, especially from hyperextension injuries brought on by fatigue. The intent is to prevent the diseases of performance to these structures, as, for example, suspensory desmitis, bowed tendons, fractures, osteoarthritis, and synovitis. The intent is also to prevent diseases related to poor conformation, such as interference injuries, splints, sesamoid bone injury. And, some riders choose to attire their horses in these devices so that they meet the current fashion of their sport.”
A common procedure for many equestrian disciplines is the use of polo bandages or wraps placed on all four limbs during exercise. Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, has pioneered research on locomotion and sports medicine, and she is especially devoted to the discipline of dressage. She notes, “Polo wraps do not support the leg. They give some protection against trauma, but less than some of the boots.”
Frazier says polo wraps provide external padding that appears to “support” internal tissues. Bandages of various kinds have been used for a long time in veterinary medicine to “support” (reduce edema, or fluid swelling in) the tissues of the limb following soft tissue or orthopedic injury.
Frazier states, “The degree to which this makes a difference for normal horses doing submaximal work has not achieved a consensus of opinion. Bandages placed too loosely are ineffective, and those that are placed too tightly are a disaster.
“One thing that is not in dispute is that bandages look good on the horse; perhaps this is also a motivating force in their use,” he notes.
Clayton concurs: “They look nice and make the legs more visible when horses move in a poorly lit indoor.”
The direction in which to wrap the bandage has taken on an unusual degree of significance to horse owners over the years, but does it really matter?
“Performance horses are commonly bandaged so that the flexors (the tendons on the back of the forelimb) are pulled toward the inside,” Frazier says. “This may help keep the leg from being wrapped too tightly as the bandage is ‘pulled’ around the front of the canon bone and ‘laid’ over the flexor tendons. The major blood vessels to the distal limb are on the flexor surface of the leg. A bandage applied too tightly can result in limb edema, pressure points, or even circulatory disturbance with limb- and life-threatening avascular necrosis (a disease resulting from the temporary or permanent loss of blood supply to the bone). However, I have seen horse’s legs wrapped in both directions correctly and without negative consequence.”
Clayton adds, “The tendons slide around under the skin, so it doesn’t seem likely that the direction of wrapping affects the end result.”
But she brings up another important finding: “There’s the concern about overheating of bandaged tendons. Temperatures around 45°C (a few degrees higher than normal tendon temperature) have been recorded in the core of the superficial digital flexor tendon, even after strenuous exercise of short duration (Goodship, et al., 1993). Heat is generated by the stretch-recoil cycle in the tendons, yet bandage wraps reduce normal cooling of the legs by convection.”
Heat that develops in the central core of a tendon should be allowed to dissipate as quickly as possible following work to avoid tendon degeneration.
“I recommend cold hosing the legs after removing wraps if the horse has worked hard, especially when using sports medicine boots,” Clayton says.
Another form of limb protection that has been addressed by research and applied technology is that of attenuating impact shock to the joints and bones. When a hoof strikes the ground, the impact sets off a series of high-frequency vibrations and shock waves through the limb, potentially leading to the development of degenerative joint disease or long bone fractures. Athletic support boots have been produced in an effort to minimize the damaging effects to musculoskeletal structures.
The soft tissue structures and blood circulation of the hooves themselves do a good deal to absorb concussion to the limb. Technology has produced horseshoe polymers that further add to impact absorption. The lower limb joints also contribute to concussion damping, but at a cost. One area of concern is that of hyperextension of the fetlock joints as the horse loads the limb. “Support” boots allegedly provide stiffness to the lower leg to reduce hyperextension on the fetlock joints. The degree to which this can help depends on the materials used in construction of the boot: The thicker the material and the more elastic it is, the greater the restriction on hyperextension.
“The amount of fetlock extension determines the amount of strain on the superficial digital flexor tendon and suspensory ligament,” says Clayton. “Injuries to these structures most often occur as repetitive strain injuries due to loading of the limb during locomotion. By reducing fetlock extension, there is less likelihood of repetitive strain injury. During rehabilitation, it’s particularly useful to control fetlock extension to prevent re-injury.”
Clayton describes one of the pitfalls in relying too much on leg boots to “support” musculoskeletal structures: “It is much easier to limit fetlock flexion in the swing phase than to limit fetlock extension in the stance phase. This is because the ground reaction force is so large that the wraps or boots would have to be very tight–so tight you risk a bandage bow (bowed tendon)–as not to loosen during work.
“Most of the studies have not shown an effect in preventing fetlock extension, and, in addition, any protection effect disappears after a small amount of work,” she adds.
“I think other methods, such as conditioning, training, pacing, trimming, and shoeing, hold greater promise to avoid hyperextension injuries than do artificial devices,” says Frazier. “The single greatest protection against fetlock hyperextension is the minimization of fatigue through conditioning.”
Protective Hoof Boots
Frazier can’t say enough about the need for appropriate conditioning and training to protect all musculoskeletal structures, including the hooves: “The best protection for feet is to train on the surface type on which the horse must perform. This is not always possible. Pads can be used, but this raises a new set of issues. Foreign material can pack between the pad and the sole of the foot. Keeping this space filled with protective packing is often a challenge when the ground surface is wet, sandy, or muddy.”
In recent times, and particularly during inclement seasons, riders desire to leave their horses barefoot in the pasture or stabling, yet need some form of foot protection to ride. This is where a plethora of synthetic hoof boots comes in–the choices are varied and many, and it is useful to try different boots until you find the ones that best fit your horse and in which he moves most comfortably.
The assortment of commercially available protective leg boots is vast, so riders should be aware of the pros and cons of their use, and they should adjust expectations realistically. Ultimately, there is no substitute for leg protection and support like the benefits gained from proper conditioning and skill training of the horse for the intended athletic pursuit. But if your horse needs protection for hoof or limb, look for quality products that fit properly.
Reprinted with permission from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care/TheHorse.com. Find more veterinarian-approved horse care information at TheHorse.com.