Horse Leg Protection: Yea or Nay?

Weigh the risks and benefits of various types of boots and wraps before strapping them to your horse’s legs.
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horse wearing boots, trotting in arena
Riders often apply boots and wraps to their horses’ legs for protection. | iStock

Weigh the risks and benefits of various types of boots and wraps before strapping them to your horse’s legs

Tough, solid cannon bones, able to withstand thousands of pounds of weight-bearing yet incredibly vulnerable. Complex fetlock hinge joints filled with bone, cartilage, and synovial fluid that could leak or get infected at the slightest compromise. Long, dynamic, injury-prone tendons that take months to repair and, even then, rarely return to normal. Poorly vascularized leg skin that is, quite frankly, a bugger of a thing to heal.

Seriously, why would we ever put such delicate structures at risk—especially when we know there’s a host of commercial options out there designed to protect them?

Simple answer: Because science is also telling us those options could be capable of doing more harm than good. So, what’s a rider to do? In this article we’ll tackle the tough questions about why to wrap—and why not to—as well as the benefits and risks.

The ‘Hot’ Tendon Topic

In a 2022 Middle Tennessee State University study, researchers showed horses’ skin temperatures were higher in covered legs than in bare legs, “supporting the hypothesis that convection cooling is impaired by boots and wraps during exercise,” says study author Lucas Brock, MSc, now an equestrian coach and instructor at Morehead State University, in Kentucky.

The findings led to strong reactions on social media, with many riders expressing fear that boots, wraps, and bandages dangerously overheat horses’ tendons. But it might be too soon to make such conclusions, as Brock did not investigate the effects on the tendons themselves, says Brad Hill, DVM, of Equine Athlete Veterinary Services, a nationwide clinic group based in Williamston, Michigan.

RELATED CONTENT | Do Boots and Wraps Overheat Horses’ Legs?

Sizing, application, materials, weather, and other factors can affect the way tendons respond to boots and wraps, Hill says. About 90% of his clients work their competition horses in this equipment, and he says he rarely sees superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) injuries as a result. “I’m not trying to dispute what the study suggests,” he explains. “Just in practice, I haven’t seen that direct correlation.”

Plus, many of Hill’s clients successfully relieve chronic pain or swelling in their horses’ limbs by adding heating ointments or wraps designed to warm the leg. “I haven’t really seen that cause damage to the tendon or ligament, in my experience,” he says.

Historically speaking, riders have even used wraps to purposefully warm their horses’ legs—especially in cold weather—to increase blood flow and thereby prevent injuries, says Simone Westermann, ­DrMedVet, previously associated with the University of Vienna, in Austria. In her team’s 2014 study of leg temperatures in 10 sport horses at rest and while trotting, they showed leg skin indeed heats up under boots and wraps during exercise. But we don’t know yet whether that’s good or bad.

One thing we do know is horses’ tendons are naturally 1.4 F hotter than surrounding tissues, which have normal temperatures of 98.6 F, Westermann reports. In fact, tendons heat up to an average of 110 F during intense exercise even without boots, wraps, or bandages. While this equipment is probably heating tendons as well as the skin her team measured, we have yet to discover how hot they’re truly getting, our sources say.

Even so, scientists on previous studies have shown that overheated tendon cells can die, leading to inflammation and structural weakening of the tendons, says David Marlin, PhD, independent equine science consultant, president of the UK National Equine Welfare Council, and owner of ­DrDavidMarlin.com. In human medicine overheating has been linked to Achilles tendon injuries.

More research might help resolve the debate. But in the meantime such discussions raise awareness. “I think a lot of people have got the message now that if you are going to put boots on, you put them on at the last minute and then take them off as soon as possible after exercise,” Marlin says. “And then you cool the leg to try and reduce that tendon temperature.”

He recommends cold hosing, ice packs, or ice boots just after exercise to reduce ­inflammation—even if it’s not visible—and to “help remove the heat they acquired during the workout,” he says.

The Physical Pressures of Wraps and Boots

The biggest advantage boots and wraps offer, our sources say, is how they dissipate forces or prevent skin penetration when the horse’s leg comes in contact with a jump, thorn, or the shoe of another foot.

In that sense, boots work like a soccer player’s shin guard by protecting the bones and soft tissues from cuts, bruises, and fractures. “That interference of one leg hitting the other leg can cause a horse to ‘pop splints,’ for example,” Hill says. “Or the legs can get some other sort of traumatic injury, even a wound, while longeing or working under saddle.”

Truly protective boots prevent piercing or cutting of the leg while spreading impact as evenly as possible to reduce concentrated forces likely to cause damage, Marlin says. That’s more complex than it might sound, because a steel plate over the tendon, for instance, could diffuse forces and block foreign objects, but it can also transmit high forces to the tendon, causing soft tissue concussive trauma. A soft rubber boot, on the other hand, could spread the impact while absorbing the forces before they hit the tendon but might not effectively prevent cuts or punctures.

Marlin’s team has been testing the protective effects of boots and wraps using technology similar to that used for testing helmets, vests, and other kinds of body protection. While it’s too soon to publish results, the testing so far confirms Marlin’s suspicion that different boots and wraps can have widely different protective qualities, he says.

Polo wraps are too soft to diffuse strong traumatic forces, but they can be useful to prevent scratches when trail-riding through thorn bushes, for example, Marlin says.

Hill says in his experience polo wraps provide a level of protection to the lower limb that outweighs the proposed risk associated with an elevated tendon temperature—­provided they are applied correctly.

Critically, riders must understand that sport boots and polo wraps are not the bandages and taping veterinarians and physiotherapists use to rehabilitate legs or the specially designed fetlock boots that control range of motion for therapeutic purposes, Marlin adds. Such devices provide specific support to targeted areas after being applied by trained professionals, and they’re usually only used at the walk and occasionally the trot.

Trying to imitate such approaches for daily workouts can be detrimental, he warns. The added pressure might be too tight, or it could effectively shift forces and pressures in unnatural ways. Restricting the fetlock joint might, for example, shift shock absorption up into the knee. “This might be okay under controlled conditions with a vet or physio during rehab, but it’s not something you want to do on a routine basis, especially without knowing what you’re doing,” Marlin says. “And it’s certainly not a good idea to be doing that with intensive exercise.”

Trying to get such support by strapping boots on really tight won’t work, he adds. “It’s not going to make your horse less likely to injure himself, but it’s probably going to rub and make him uncomfortable.”

Finally, says Marlin, riders must consider the downward gravitational pull of boots and wraps. Even if their weight seems insignificant, the reality is, biomechanically speaking, even a few ounces of weight added to the lower part of swinging legs affects movement. And if the boots get wet, they get heavier. “When you go through a water jump, you’ve immediately changed your horse’s gait because you’ve added more weight onto the end of the limbs,” he says. “And that may not be a good thing.”

The Social Pressures Surrounding Wraps and Boots

Physical forces aren’t the only thing at play when dealing with boots and wraps. The use—or decision against the use—of this equipment often comes under social pressure, says Marlin. “There seems to be a great need for riders of all levels to decorate their horses,” he says. “It’s like there’s this social, or even cultural, need to show you love your horse and are making efforts to protect your horse, or you want to look beautiful in a show. That’s not related to equine athletics.

“There are lots of opinions,” he adds. “And there’s a lot of peer pressure, as well as the influence of well-known riders. People think, ‘Well if Charlotte Dujardin does it, I should be doing it.’ But essentially, we have to just always go back to the No. 1 reason for putting a boot on a horse or not: protection.”

eventing horse
Horses at risk of colliding with structures other than their own feet—such as cross-country obstacles or show jumping fences—need some form of protection. | Erica Larson/The Horse

Weighing Benefits Versus Risks

To boot or not to boot? The choice to cover a horse’s legs—and with what—­depends on many factors unique to each horse.

A main consideration is whether the horse has a specific need for protection, says Marlin, based on a previous injury, for example. Maybe he’s had issues with overreach and clips his forelimbs with his hind limbs. Or she’s got scrapes on the inner fetlocks where the opposite foot strikes. “If that shoe hits the inner fetlock just right, you can get a chip fracture,” he says.

Horses at high risk of colliding with structures other than their own feet—such as cross-country obstacles or show jumping fences taken at high speeds—also need protection. Horses hacking out through thick brush or on rocky paths need boots, at the very least to protect their skin from injury.

Hill believes it makes sense to follow the lead provided in human sports. “Human athletes use compression sleeves, tape, or braces to provide some support to areas that are unstable or a source of chronic issues, and I don’t recall those applications being shown to their detriment,” he says. Horses with chronic issues might still be able to have active careers with a bit of leg support, he says, and wrapping could help stabilize more recent injuries while they heal.

Warning Signs

Our sources agree: When used correctly, boots and wraps should only help, not harm. While researchers are still working on practical recommendations for their use, riders can take precautions to ensure these pieces of equipment aren’t causing new problems.

Polo wraps must be applied with just the right amount of tension—a skill riders can learn from experienced horse people, veterinarians, or physical therapists, says Hill. Any inflammation or swelling could suggest the wrap was too tight, he says.

Wet wraps might lose elasticity and trap moisture, putting the horse at risk of dermatitis (skin inflammation), Hill adds. Never apply a wet wrap. If the wrap gets wet during exercise, riders can complete the session, remove the wrap, and dry the leg.

As for boots, they shouldn’t slip, but they also shouldn’t be overtight, says Marlin. “Try putting an ankle bandage on, and make it really tight over your Achilles tendon,” Marlin says. “Then go for a run and see how that feels. You won’t do it to your horse again.”

Riders must also consider external factors, he adds. “The hotter the weather, the thicker the boot (especially foam or fleece types), the harder or longer the exercise, the hotter the tendons are going to get,” Marlin says.

Take-Home Message

Riders often apply boots and wraps to their horses’ legs for protection. But science still struggles to support manufacturers’ claims that boots and wraps help prevent certain injuries, and some researchers suggest they might increase the risk of tendon injury. Until evidence provides clearer guidelines, riders can aim to use properly applied boots and wraps wisely, recognizing their potential benefits and risks.

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Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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