If you have been wondering what is the best option for your horse in terms of leg protection and how you should choose for your own horse's protection needs.
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 used to help support the tendons and ligaments in the legs, as competition horses can be prone to straining these tissues. A horse has no padding to protect the muscle tissue in the lower leg, so boots can help prevent potentially debilitating injuries.
So now the problem is what will be the best form of protection for your horse, A set of boots or bandages? Bandages and boots are mainly sold as ‘protective gear’, meaning that they intend to support the lower leg (limit fetlock extension) and/or protect the limb from trauma (as well from the surface the horse is performing on (e.g. Western and endurance horses), as external objects like bars (jumping horses), and interference of another limb. scientific information is very limited on this topic making it very hard to make a solid statement. As both boots and bandages have pros and cons.
With inconclusive evidence as to which is best, you can take into consideration that hard shell boots may offer some more protection against trauma and are much easier and faster to apply, whereas improper application (over tightening) of bandages may quickly result in rubs and do more damage than good. However, proper adjustment and fit of boots are essential, and dirt can gather between the boot and the skin, resulting in skin irritation.
Bandages are believed to offer slightly more support to the leg and tendons, although this is not proven by scientific studies. Both boots and bandages increase the limb temperature after exercise (Westermann et al., 2014), with the increase being higher using bandages than boots. Although unproven, this has been linked with the development of tendinopathy. (Tendinopathy, also known as tendinitis or tendinosis, is a type of tendon disorder that results in pain, swelling, and impaired function.) But going commando or leg bare does seem to pose higher risks. As specific disciplines can lead to trauma from limb interference or from the environment and therefore, limb protection may be warranted.
So understanding that we can’t prevent against concussion/strain, i.e., internal injuries, what is the best means of protecting against the injuries we can prevent?
Bandages or wraps have traditionally been used to cover wounds, prevent “swelling up” when a horse is in a small space for a period time and to protect the horse from knocking itself, you also get specialised veterinary bandages used to temporarily stabilise joints or fractures that are made up of many layers of different materials. Bandages also work excellently for post work rehab to cool the leg when the bandage pad is wet before wrapping, it can also help to add Epsom salts to help draw out any inflammation.
While bandages protect a horse against knocking itself, but due to the high insulation qualities of bandages provided by layers of soft material bandages are NOT recommended for use on horses that are engaged in long periods of work or horse working in extreme heat. In my own experience, I have found that using bandages has helped support my horse very effectively especially as he is a young thoroughbred. But always make sure to fit your bandages yourself and do use them for long periods of time. Also, remember to cool the leg down thoroughly when you are done.
So now onto the boots
Boots can be made of a variety of materials from leather to neoprene and kevlar. They can be lined or unlined. They are designed to fit on the cannon bone and sometimes over the fetlock down onto the pastern and are often secured by straps or velcro. They minimize the damage with horses that interfere with their own legs due to conformational or biomechanical faults. Splint and brushing boots are good for protecting the horse’s legs when the horse is performing fast work or work that may induce them to hit themselves such as when they are learning to perform lateral work.
The ideal leg protection for the exercising horse would be light, resistant to penetration by sharp objects and able to protect the leg from concussive forces. It would promote effective heat transfer away from the soft tissue structures in the distal limb and prevent hyperextension beyond the fetlock’s normal range of motion. These are all important factors to take into consideration when choosing boots for your horse. There are so many different styles and shapes in the whole boot range, so it is important to take the time to read what the boot was designed for and if the design meets your requirements. Remember again it is important to have the correct fitting boot for your horse and to always cool the legs down after work.
In summary, Bandages do after great support and are excellent for stabling and after work rehab but when working in them you need to take into consideration the heat factor that they can create. Whereas the boot offers more protection against you more concussion impacts and is definitely the easier option as they are quick to put on and fast to take off. In the end, it really goes down to what you do with your horse that will determine what is the best choice.