Boots and bandages are made to protect the horse’s limbs. Or so we are told. But have you ever asked yourself why or how these dressings protect a horse’s leg? In this article, we intend to investigate the specific purpose and function of equine boots and bandages based on existing research in the field.
Going out for a few jumps in the arena? Buckle on the brushing boots. Heading for a haul in the trailer? Strap on those well-padded, hock-high transport boots. Or going for a quick dressage training after work? Put on those bandages that match the saddle pad, and you are good to go. It’s what we’ve seen other people do; it’s what we’ve been taught to do; it’s simply what we know to do. But why exactly do we do it? Of course, the short answer to that question is ‘protection’. But have you ever asked yourself why or how these dressings protect a horse’s leg—or if they even do? What’s going on under that boot or wrap? That is what we are about to find out…
The Anatomy of the Horse Leg
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. One of the things that enable the horse to be so athletic, to move quickly, and jump so well, is how the leg is constructed. The limbs are long and slender so that they can move quickly. Most of the muscle is close to the body so that the leg rapidly can accelerate through the air. This would not be possible if the leg was covered in soft tissue, muscle, and bone. In other words; the leg of a horse is designed to be aerodynamic. But this design means that there is very little soft tissue to cushion the impacts on the front of the lower leg, for example when striking a jump or interference blows from a hind leg. These impacts can in worst case damage the bone, joints, or tendons.
How Does Legwear Work (if they do?)
Bandages and boots are mainly sold as ‘protective gear’, meaning that they intend to support the lower leg, limit torsion and/or protect the limb from trauma from the surface the horse is performing on, external objects like bars, or brushing from another limb.
You might be surprised to learn that there’s very little research about what is going on under the bandage or boot when first applied to the equine leg. It’s a field of research that still needs lots of “padding” and extra “layers” of research before we can fully understand it. Yet we want to attempt to provide you with an overview of the existing research:
Research on Heat Development
We found one study, focusing on the heat development underneath the bandage or boot. An Austrian study concludes that the skin temperature increases dramatically when using bandages or boots compared to a bare limb. After exercising with a bare leg, the mean maximum temperature was 14ºC, with a bandage 25ºC and with tendon boot 21ºC.
The team behind the study showed that exercising without boots led to very little temperature increase in the legs compared to the covered legs. While boots and wraps might have some tendon-warming benefits on very cold days, the temperature increase could be damaging to tendons in certain situations.
The problem with thick bandages is that the large tendons running down the back of the horse’s legs get very hot during physical work. The horse is very efficient at dissipating heat during exercise, but this system is disrupted if they are wearing coverings on their legs that prevent heat loss during and after strenuous exercise. The cells making up the tendons seem to tolerate high temperatures over short periods of time (Birch et al, 1997) such as during a canter, but it is possible they are more vulnerable to injury, including strain if they are prevented from cooling quickly, the research states.
Boots used on horses should cover the inside and back of the leg but can be open over the front of the cannon to facilitate heat dispersion. The ideal leg covering 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.
Again, bandages and heavier boots will retain more heat than lighter boots. Many modern boots now incorporate vents or mesh to encourage heat loss. So that is one thing you need to look at, when buying equine leg ware.
Research On Tightness
Some research indicates that riders have a tendency to tighten the boots too much. This may be because of the fear that they will get twisted or fall off when riding, in which case they are likely either designed poorly or ill-fitting. Some people say they put them on tight to give support to the soft tissue structures such as the tendons or the joints, which is actually supported by some of the Companies producing equine boots and bandages. However, there is minimal evidence suggesting that boots provide support for these parts of the horse’s leg. Instead, a boot may reduce the flexibility of a joint and potentially move the load from one structure to another, which may not be optimal.
Another problem stemming from overly tight boots is the presence of rubbing injuries or swellings. This may cause discomfort for the horse. So appropriately designed boots have the potential to protect the lower leg from cuts and bruises, but they should not be overly tightened, otherwise choose a better fit for your horse.
Research on the Extra Weight
Firstly, any weight added to a horse will require an increased effort on the part of the horse that has to move that weight. And furthermore, weight added at the end of the limbs will have a greater impact than weight carried in the saddle area. The reason for this is that the limbs, like the legs, move faster than the main body. As we mentioned earlier, all soft tissue is placed close to the bone for aerodynamic purposes. In other words: all unnecessary weight has been removed, so the horse can move faster.
A research conducted on racehorses shows that horses shoed with ordinary steel shoes (weighing 260 g each) use significantly more energy than horses shoed with racing plates (80 g each). The reason for this increased use of energy is that the horse must perform extra work to pull the limb off the ground into the swing phase of the stride and again to control the weighted leg while it is in flight. So, the weight of a boot has a lot to say about the horse’s use of energy.
Increasing the Quality of the Gaits
A popular movement in the dressage world these days is to wrap bandages around the leg and all the way up to the knee. It is said to increase the horse’s lift whilst in the swing phase, and thus increasing the quality of the gaits. But is that true?
Some says that the mere presence of a bandage or boot creates an increased flexion while in swing phase”, dr. Lesley Hawson, University of Sidney, concludes and adds; Although the pastern area seems to be particularly sensitive to tactile stimulation the research suggests that the flexion does not increase overall and therefore does not improve limb movement in terms of what is required in dressage,” Hawson explains.
In summary, horses have lived and worked without leg coverings for many years. Even though there is an increased risk of bumps and bruises arising on horses being worked without leg protection, there is also sufficient evidence that some types of leg coverings may also contribute to damage the limb which they are trying to protect. Maybe using legwear when turning out the horses may have a more relevant purpose?
Choose the Right Leg Protection
Boots may offer some extra protection against trauma and are easier to apply, whereas improper application (over-tightening!) of bandages may quickly result in rubs of loss of blood supply. So, a proper fit and adjustment is essential. Also, dirt may be collected between the boot and the skin, resulting in skin irritation, scientists say.
If you want to use boots or bandages, here are some tips:
- Make sure that the boots fit your horse. Not all horse legs are the same!
- Use leg protection that allows air to circulate and sweat to evaporate
- Use lightweight boots and be aware of the increased weight if wet
- Be careful not to over-tightening your boots or bandages. This may restrict the blood supply or cause a bigger load on other parts of the leg, increasing the risk of injury
- “Influence of support boots on fetlock joint angle of the forelimb of the horse at walk and trot” by Kicker et.al. 2019 In Equine Veterinary Journal
- “Effect of a bandage or tendon boot on skin temperature of the metacarpus at rest and after exercise in horses” by Westermann et al. 2014 in American Journal of Veterinary Research
- Dr. Lesley Hawson via Eurodressage.com
- Scientific and Equine Consultant David Marlin