Are Hoof Boots Right for Your Horse?

A detailed guide on whether hoof boots are suitable for your horse, covering reasons for use, selection, fitting, maintenance, and potential issues.
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Follow this hoof boot guide to decide

hoof boot
Properly sized and fitted hoof boots are becoming a more popular option for horse owners not wanting to use traditional shoes. | Courtesy Christa Lesté-Lasserre

My horses Sabrina and Solstice had great feet. Given their excellent genetics, their healthy forage-focused diet, and years of living barefoot on varied terrains, I hoped I could avoid shoeing them for my cross-country journey through Eastern France. I wanted their feet to continue to benefit from all the phenomenal shock absorption, growth, and healthy biomechanics equids have developed over time.

Still, I knew they’d be carrying me and my equipment and supplies across 1,000 miles. So I considered hoof boots to offer protection and traction. I reached out to a hoof boot company for guidance, and I got my farrier—Antoine Varlet, CAPA, of Monthyon, France—involved for his counsel, measurements, and fitting.

Throughout the process, I made a few rookie mistakes, but the experience was ultimately entirely positive, as my horses’ hooves thrived throughout my journey.

As Varlet told me, when it comes to hoof boots, “it’s important to pay close attention and to surround yourself with knowledgeable people.” With that in mind, I’ve compiled this hoof boot guide after speaking with sources who have hoof boot experience.

1. Know why you want your horse to wear hoof boots.

The whole concept of boot use in healthy horses is based on letting horses reap the benefits of barefoot while protecting them from pain and excessive wear, says Varlet. In essence, boots offer sport horses a compromise between shoes and nothing at all.

Monique Wylde Williams, MSc, an environmental scientist and equine ecologist based in Mancos, Colorado, says bare feet have more well-developed, natural shock-absorbing structures such as the digital cushions, referring to work by Debra Taylor, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM.

Shoes shift weight-bearing from those natural structures, including the frog, to the hoof walls, says Dexter Strickland, Dipl. WCF, independent farrier and certified hoof boot fitter in Derbyshire, U.K. Plus, they interfere with how the foot normally slides against the ground.

Barefoot horses get more heel stimulation than shod horses and typically have thicker, healthier soles more capable of dealing with ground reaction forces, says Sarah Albanozzo, BA (Hons), MA, PHCP, intermediate practitioner and research project manager at the University of Malta and MSc student at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland.

Rider and equipment weight, along with the work horses do, creates strains, pressures, and risks that often go beyond the foot’s natural capacities for resistance, our sources say. Feet that wear down faster than they can grow back end up thin-soled, bruised, worn, sore, and eventually lame.

While scientific research on hoof boots remains extremely limited, initial impressions suggest boots shift much of the wear and tear to the plastic sole, sparing the horse’s sole, our sources say. They also provide a protective barrier against rocks and other sharp objects that might bruise or puncture.

Hoof boots can give horses an occasional break from shoes, says Barbara Hardman, BSc(Hon), MSc(Dis), a clinical animal behaviorist in Allenwood, Co. Kildare, Ireland. “I wear trainers to run, I wear hiking boots to hill walk, I wear slippers at home, but I don’t sleep in any of them, so why should my horse?” she says. “We use this equipment to support performance, but we also need to give breaks, and this is missing in modern equestrian sports with traditional shoeing.” Keep in mind, barefoot as a base might work for some horses, but it might not for others. Shoes might be necessary to provide extra protection and traction, or to help manage conditions such as laminitis and white line disease.

2. Know when and which hoof boots to use.

Boots follow the rhythm of the working horse, our sources say. “So you’ve got protection for the foot, and then when you take them off, the hooves have their natural function as if they’re out in the wild,” Strickland says.

The time off allows the hoof to “interact with the environment,” explains Wylde Williams. “It’s like building callouses on our hands through minor stressors to our tissues over time that let you use a shovel without getting blisters.” 

Boots also allow owners to select when to let their horses’ feet develop natural resistance to ground reaction forces—even during work, says Albanozzo. Simple lateral (side-view) radiographs can tell you whether the soles have at least a healthy half-inch thickness at the toe and three-fourths at the wings of the coffin bone (depending on phalangeal alignment).

Hind feet can often skip boots altogether because they carry a lower percentage of horse and rider weight, Strickland adds. Even so, any signs of soreness or excessive or uneven wear on the hind feet indicate the horse might need boots on the hind feet as well.

On the flip side, horses already footsore from having very thin soles—especially those recently transitioning from shoes—might benefit from a few days in boots full-time, Strickland says.

3. Choose the correct boots for your horse.

Selecting the right hoof boot generally comes down to a personal choice for you and your horse, our sources say.

Some boot brands have slightly different shapes than others, for example, so one might simply fit your horse’s feet better than the others. How they fasten can also affect the fit, Wylde Williams says.

“A lot of it depends on what you’re going to be doing and how easily you want them to come on and off,” she explains. That extends even to the horse’s unique movement style, she adds. If he has a lot of action in his movement, then you’re going to want a tighter fit, she says.

Footing also matters. If you’re going to ride in a lot of sand, for example, you’ll want a boot with open heel bulbs to avoid trapped sand, Wylde Williams explains.

Styles that can accept screw-in studs offer a unique advantage for competitive riders planning for slippery grass terrain, Strickland says.

Human factors play a role, too, says Wylde Williams. Riders with arthritic hands might struggle with plastic bands that can be difficult to pull. Other people might appreciate the look and color options of the different brands.

hoof boot
Ideally, owners should seek professional fitting help from a qualified farrier or veterinary podiatrist with training in hoof boots. | Courtesy Louisa Lesté-Lasserre

4. Seek a precise fit.

Fit can make or break your hoof boot experience. Even a slight misfit can lead to lost, broken, or twisted boots, and sores on the heel bulbs, fetlocks, or coronary bands. Badly fitting hoof boots can also affect horses’ gaits and interfere with healthy movement, our sources say.

Ideally, owners should seek professional fitting help from a qualified farrier or podiatrist with training in hoof boots, says Strickland. They can take accurate measurements, advise on brands and sizes, and ensure the new boots are correctly applied, fitted, and adjusted.

If you don’t have a hoof-boot-trained professional in your area, you can contact boot manufacturers to get specific measurement instructions. Some brands ship a few sizes first to test. Ideally, test these with your hoof care professional. If in doubt, you can usually send photos to the company to get personalized assistance.

Importantly, boots should be sized about two weeks after a trim, as this allows for a better representation of the average shape of the hoof and gives the horse time to adapt his movement to the trim, Strickland says.

Valdet agrees. “Take into account the parameters of the trim for future growth and comfort,” he advises.

If the boots seem too roomy after follow-up trims, owners can try adding a pad to the bottom of each boot for a week or two as the hoof grows back out, our sources say.

Above all, people should avoid trimming the foot to fit the boot, Wylde Williams warns. “You’re just going to have to search for the boot that fits that hoof,” she says.

Finally, owners of horses with arthritis or other concussion-induced pain might need to add pads in the bottom of the boots, which also should be considered for sizing, Strickland says.

5. Train, practice, and be patient with the hoof boots.

Properly putting on hoof boots does present a learning curve; it takes a while to acquire the skills for slipping the boots over the foot and closing toe straps and gaiters (the bands that go loosely around the fetlock). But once you master the technique, it becomes fairly quick, our sources say.

You’ll also want to train your horse to hold still while you’re applying the boots, which will avoid frustration for you both. One approach involves using positive reinforcement such as a treat when she holds up her foot without leaning on you as you adjust the boot properly. She should also learn to keep that foot in place on the ground as you close the straps and gaiters.

Finally, keep in mind that boots can take some getting used to, says Albanozzo, just like when we get a new pair of shoes.

6. Maintain the foot properly.

Bare feet need regular trims whether they’re booted or not. Strickland recommends a trim at least every six weeks. Albanozzo says she’s found that every three weeks is ideal for barefoot horses with ample hoof stimulation over varied terrain.

Between professional trims, owners should check feet regularly for unevenness, chipping, or sharp edges, notes Strickland. You wouldn’t want those anyway, of course, but such issues could also affect the boot’s fit or damage it, affecting its integrity. “Keep a handheld file for between trims,” he says.

Professionals conducting barefoot trims should focus on an even distribution of load among the hoof wall, sole, frog, and bars, and with short toes to maximize the breakover, Albanozzo says.

But beyond that, healthy feet need support from a high-quality forage-based equine diet and regular preventive veterinary care. In addition, hooves need hygienic housing conditions that prevent standing in urine and manure, which weaken their structures.

For horses transitioning from shoes to barefoot, owners need to plan for about three months of adaptation with frequent boot use even outside of work (depending on sole depth), while allowing plenty of barefoot time on varied surfaces as well, Albanozzo says. She also recommends getting lateral radiographs regularly to measure sole thickness progress.

7. Maintain the hoof boot correctly.

A damaged or even dirty hoof boot could change the way it supports the foot or cause friction or pressure that leads to sores.

Owners should rinse the boots clean after each ride, making sure they’re free of mud, dirt, sand, grass, leaves, sticks, and anything else that might get stuck in them. Remove mud and rocks from the ridges of the boot’s sole using a hoofpick. Never put dirty boots on your horse, as grit can quickly lead to skin wounds and damage the hoof wall, coronary band, frog, or sole.

With each cleaning, check the boot for weaknesses, such as cracking straps, missing studs, or broken sole ridges. If you detect damage contact the boot’s manufacturer for advice and replacement materials.

Finally, check for normal wear, “like tires on a vehicle,” Strickland says. “If they start falling apart, you definitely need new boots.”

8. Recognize (and correct) hoof boot problems.

Once you get the right style and fit, well-maintained boots rarely cause any problems, our sources say. Even so, owners should keep an eye out for issues such as twisting or lost boots, or even a “squish-squish” or “flip-flop” sound, which suggest incorrect sizing, says Wylde Williams.

Watch also for developing sores—especially around the coronary band and the heel bulbs—or any rub marks on the hoof wall. If the size is correct, it’s possible there’s friction that will work itself out with time, much like when we get a sore spot from a new shoe. Treat sores with disinfectants and protective balms, and use cushioning gear such as products provided by the boot company until the area heals completely, our sources recommend.

Take note of your horse’s behavior as well—both when placing the boots and when working him, Strickland says. If the horse shows signs of resistance or discomfort, or if he doesn’t move the way he usually does, there might be an issue with the boots. “As crazy as it sounds, some of them just don’t like how they feel on the bottom, and they don’t move properly,” he says. “Sometimes they just don’t like the style of the boot, and you can change to a different boot, and it’s fine.”

Take-Home Message

Hoof boots offer an excellent way for sport horses to go barefoot most of the time but benefit from protection and traction during work without the hassle of lost shoes. Careful hoof boot selection, fit, use, and upkeep can help us maximize those benefits for our horses.

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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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