To Boot Or Not To Boot?

Another subject request from a client was on the topic of booting. Should you put boots on or not?

To me, boots have done a bit of a full circle. At least twice. Years ago, nobody would have used any form of leg protection at all. Didn’t Black Beauty scar his knees in a fall? Then bandages were introduced, but they’d only have been used by the elite – they’re tricky to put on correctly and are dangerous if they come undone. Especially on the hunt field or cross country course.

Then the basic brushing boot came onto the market, which soon became popular amongst all as it was affordable and easy to use. These became more elaborate with sheepskin and various fancy fastenings. And we all became a little obsessed with protecting our horses against any knock or cut, and boots were used to turn out competition horses in the field as well as when ridden.

Then along came the scientists, who found that boots heat the leg up, which makes the tendons more liable to injury – Here’s a really interesting article about the pros and cons of boots from a scientific perspective.

So then owners started to move away slightly from boots. But we still have that urge to protect our horse’s legs. Which has left us in a bit of a quandary and susceptible to the marketing ploys of all the scientifically researched boots which require you to take out a second mortgage to purchase them.

I joke, but after perusing the Premier Equine spring catalogue and dreaming of winning the lottery, protective boots have become very complicated areas.

Back to my client’s original question. To boot or not to boot?

I think ultimately it requires you to be sensible. Take precautions, use good quality equipment, but also allow horses to be horses.

Firstly, have a look at your horse’s conformation and way of going. Are they at risk of overreaching because they’re short-coupled? Are they young and unbalanced? Do they move straight, or is there a swing to their limbs? Are they “out of one hole” and narrow chested? All of which increases their risk of inflicting damage upon themselves, by one limb knocking the other. Do they have shoes? A shod foot will do more injury than a barefoot. And studs will do more damage than a plain shoe.

If your horse answers yes to any of the above questions then I’d be more inclined to use protective boots.

Next, what are you doing with your horse? A gentle hack, or prelim/novice level flatwork has a lower risk of injuries than cross country or interval training. The BHS taught me to put brushing boots on to lunge because the risk of injury is higher when the horse is working on a circle. Whether they still advocate this, I’m not sure, but it’s a valid point. Equally. I would consider the horse’s energy levels – is he fresh and likely to throw in a couple of spooks or bucks which may cause injury?

Another point to consider is how hardy is your horse? A thin skinned, clipped Thoroughbred will knock themselves and blood will start gushing, whilst a well feathered cob has more natural protection. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so get to know your horse.

Does your horse have a previous injury? For example, if they’ve previously done a tendon, or have an old scar on their leg, then you may want to consider booting them for supportive reasons as much as protective reasons.

Otis wore boots as a matter of course. I always put brushing boots on him; simple, basic ones. Mainly because I think I always did, so we were both used to it. Then he frequently pulled shoes off, so he wore overreach boots when ridden and when in a herd, he wore them in the field. On his own, he is fairly sensible about it all. His hind legs are quite close together, and when he was shod behind the inside of his shoe used to catch the inside of the other coronet band, so that he lost his feathers in that area. So I put sausage boots on his back legs, which I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they solved the problem, but they definitely reduced the effect. Upon reflection, I think overreach boots would have been a better alternative.

With Matt, I didn’t put brushing boots on him in everyday riding, and Mum doesn’t either. However, when I took him on some sponsored rides last year I did put brushing boots on him for protection over the solid fences.

With Phoenix I’ve not yet used boots on her. She’s barefoot and straight moving, so I’m not worried too much about overreaching or knocks, especially while she’s in such light work. Plus the fields are so muddy that I would struggle to get her legs clean enough to put boots on, so risking damage to her legs from abrasions due to pieces of grit being caught between the boot and her leg. Once I start jumping her properly I’ll definitely put boots on her, to protect her from knocks as she learns what to do with her body. But I think I may be more relaxed with her than with Otis, and just put boots on when I feel she needs protection. Once she’s learning lateral work then she’ll need protection as she gets used to crossing her legs over.

So to answer my client’s question, I think it’s important to take precaution with our horse’s legs to avoid injury from knocks, abrasions or cuts. But it’s equally important to try to prevent soft tissue injury by fittening your horse sufficiently because the jury is out as to how supportive boots actually are. And don’t feel that you have to use boots all the time: work out when you think your horse will most benefit from them and which types of boots (tendon boots, brushing boots, fetlock boots, etc) will best serve the purpose.

Then of course is the mind boggling question of which boots should you use. After all, they come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Basic boots are usually neoprene, which are lightweight so won’t have too much of a warming effect on the horse’s legs or weigh them down as they move. However, neoprene does soak up water so will become heavy and possibly hinder the horse after the water element on a cross country course.

Some boots have sheepskin inner, which were in fashion twenty years ago, but as the sheepskin warms the limbs up excessively they dropped out of fashion. Plus they’re so difficult to clean! However, sheepskin is better for sensitive skinned horses, and creates more even pressure around the leg so avoids rubs and pressure points. I saw some sheepskin boots in the Premier Equine catalogue which states that the sheepskin uses “airtechnology” to prevent the leg overheating. I’d like to see an independent study on the heat of legs and different materials of boots to see what materials are best.

Then there are more specialist boots, for example for fast work and cross country. These advocate their cooling technology. The ones I saw have vents which allow air to flow under the boot when the horse is moving. Together with technological advances, these boots have become very hard wearing and tough without getting heavy. Heavy boots will impede a horse’s movement and performance.

In all, despite the fact that we now know there are limitations and side effects of using protective boots for horses, technology has allowed boots to be developed which aim to enhance performance, prevent overheating, and provide protection to the limbs. So we shouldn’t be put off from using boots when necessary. However, I think I would choose when I used boots, and only use the level of protection that I required – so if a horse doesn’t need overreach boots then don’t use them, and don’t use specialist cross country boots for flatwork in the school – because the very nature of putting boots into limbs, or bandages for that matter, alters the way a horse uses their body. Then I would also minimise the length of time a horse spent wearing them.

On a side note, have you seen the research done on barefoot (human) runners and the difference in the way the foot absorbs impact when bare as opposed to when wearing trainers? It’s really interesting how the toes spread out and work independently to balance the body when unrestricted.

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