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Boots or bandages? Which leg protection should I choose for my horse?

A horse’s lower leg is particularly prone to injuries so no wonder there is a plethora of leg protection available on the market. But should we use boots or bandages? Should we use anything at all? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

The anatomy of the horse’s leg and its implications

The limbs of a horse are the most common place for injuries and on the lower limbs (below the knee) more common than the upper limbs. The forelegs are also more likely to be injured than the hind legs. The limbs are long and slender so that they can move quickly. But this design means that there is very little soft tissue to cushion the impacts on the lower leg, for example when striking a jump or interference blows from a hind leg, potentially resulting in damage to the bone, joints, or tendons. 

What should horse boots or bandages for exercising do or be like?

  1. Light
  2. Protect horse’s legs from cuts and knocks
  3. Effective heat transfer away from the soft tissue structures in the distal limb
  4. Prevent hyperextension beyond the fetlock’s normal range of motion (maybe…)

Let’s look at these step by step:

1. Light

Adding any weight to the lower limbs has a profound effect on the efficiency of the horse’s leg. A study of racehorses showed that horses shod with ordinary racing shoes used significantly more energy than horses shod with lighter racing plates (260g vs 80g per shoe). Therefore, to decrease fatigue and increase efficiency of the locomotion, you should chose the lightest leg protection available.

If working in wet conditions (for example during cross country), be aware of how much water the leg protection can absorb (these can vary hugely between models and brands!) and therefore adding extra load on the lower limb. In dry condition, bandages are lightweight and, in this aspect, they might be outperforming boots which tend to be slightly heavier.

2. Protect horse’s legs from cuts and knocks

While a bandage can protect from a superficial cut, it is unlikely to offer much protection against anything but a light knock. Boots offer much better protection as they tend to be made from tougher materials. The boot takes the impact and diffuses the force across its surface, reducing damaging peak pressures significantly. Boots can therefore shield the legs, and especially the tendons, from impact injuries. But which boots you might ask… Well, the truth is that there has been little to no scientific ­research into the efficacy of different types of boots and brands. Although Dr David Marlin has been doing some hands on testing recently so you can check out his work here.

3. Effective heat transfer away from the soft tissue structures in the distal limb

Both bandages and boots can increase the temperature inside the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament. The superficial digital flexor tendon in particular generates heat during exercise – the temperature inside the tendon can exceed 45°C during intense periods of exercise. Covering the legs with any type of protection will limit the cooling effect of air circulating around the legs as the horse moves.

If you horse does not tend to over-reach or knock their own legs during exercise, you might be better of not using any leg protection. However, in many case this might not be possible (especially during jumping or when you have a horse with expressive movement) and the use of bandages or boots A bandage or heavy boots will offer limited the cooling effect so you are better off investing into vented or at least lightweight boots. In any case you should remove bandages as soon as your finish riding and hose the legs with cold water or even ice the legs after intense exercise to cool the tendons down.

4. Prevent hyperextension beyond the fetlock’s normal range of motion (maybe…)

This is a very common belief – often people think that bandages or boots can support the limb and prevent over-extension of a fetlock. This is not supported by any research – the flexor tendons undergo a peak load in excess of one tonne during exercise and it is hard to justify how any boot or bandage would be able to ‘support’ this type of a force going through the horse’s leg. This science is pretty clear about this one 🙂

So should I chose boots or bandages for my horse?

The scientific evidence hints at the fact that using exercise bandages is perhaps a tradition we should re-evaluate – bandages offer little protection and prevent the legs from cooling efficiently. I personally only use front boots on most horses and I try to select a lightweight pair with good ventilation. Many horses don’t need any boots at all – it is all about weighing the cost and benefits for your particular horse and discipline. For example, if you are show jumping or doing cross-country then good leg protection can prevent significant damage to the horse’s lower leg and is definitely something your should consider.

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