Types of Leg Protection and Why It’s Important

Horses are powerful animals, but they’re also delicate—especially their limbs. So is it any wonder that we want to protect them? Because of the conformation and nature of horses, most specialty boots and wraps are designed specifically to protect the lower portion of the leg or foot. How do you know what you want or need for your horse? It all depends on your horse and your discipline.

Anatomy of the Equine Lower Leg—What You’re Protecting

Many injuries to a horse’s body or even the upper portion of their limbs typically heal in standard fashion thanks to layers of muscle, fat, and accompanying blood supply.

This is why injuries to the lower leg tend to be extra-challenging. In fact, some describe the equine lower leg as a bit of an Achilles heel simply because small injuries are not only common but also can be difficult to heal. The area from the knee down in the front limbs and the area from the hock down in the hind limbs are purely bone, ligaments, tendons and blood vessels wrapped in skin.

Why Leg Protection Is Important

The vital structures in the lower limbs are what leg protection is designed to guard from harm—harm that can come in a number of dreaded forms:

  • Splints—The delicate bones to either side of each cannon bone can suffer fractures. The splint bones taper as they descend, and the inside splint bone often bears greater stresses than the outer one. Popped splints happen when the periosteum covering the bone or the interosseus ligament that ties the bone to the cannon bone suffers injury.
  • Interference Lesions—Fetlocks are often the chief victims, but any place on the lower leg is vulnerable to abrasions. Some contact may cause bruising or swelling, but nicks and cuts can also result—especially with repetition at the same location. Infection, joint injury and degeneration, and arthritis are all concerns with these types of wounds.
  • Overreach Injuries—When the hind legs interfere with the front legs, injuries can result. Strikes usually involve the pasterns and heels and can be slow to heal simply due to the range of motion, making proud flesh an additional concern. Overreaching can also impact the hoof wall, causing cracking and chipping, and shod horses can be especially vulnerable. As a side note, self-inflicted injuries from feet can occur as high up as the elbow thanks to issues like shoe boil, wounds sustained when horses lie down and hoofs make contact with elbows.
  • Speedy Cuts—These injuries often occur higher on the cannon bone and tend to happen while a horse is working at speed. These can be particularly dangerous in shod horses as the shoe edge can damage soft tissue.

These injuries can degrade performance, cause lameness, take a long time to heal, and carry long-term impacts. That’s why so many riders invest in leg protection.

Criteria for Choosing Leg Protection

Knowing what to use can be confusing with the wide variety of products available. Naturally, you want to use the right products, but like everything else equestrian, you need to ensure it fits your specific horse and your discipline.

Whatever protection you select, cleanliness is important. Wraps, boots and your horse need to be clean to begin. Spending that extra couple of minutes thoroughly grooming legs will not only ensure a better fit but also save your horse from discomfort, irritation and wounds from dirt or small bits of debris.

Types of Boots and Wraps

Boots and wraps exist for every equine activity, and they range from the softest strips of fleece to netting to leather, neoprene and contoured carbon fiber. Becoming aware of all the options available is the first step in ensuring you make the best choices for whatever you and your horse are doing.

  1. Polo wraps are perhaps the most readily recognizable leg protection as they’re seen in just about every discipline—from jumping to barrel racing. The long, soft fleecy strips come in every color imaginable to match the rest of your ensemble, but they serve a greater purpose than simply fashion. Riders use them not only to protect their horse’s lower legs from brushing injuries but also to provide tendon support and uniform compression to reduce inflammation. Just as proper fitting and application are important for boots, wrapping polo wraps and other bandages properly is crucial. The fleece strips have stretch, so it’s vital that they’re applied evenly with just the right tension over the front of the cannon bone without pinching the long tendons in the back of the leg. The wrap angles down the cannon bone, around the fetlock and then back up the cannon bone, but it’s only fleece. So while it does offer protection against contact from the opposite foot, it doesn’t provide much actual support for the fetlock joint.
  1. Brushing boots go right to the heart of why we put boots and wraps on our horses—to protect them from themselves. Just like people, horses can knock a foot against the opposite leg. This is called brushing or interfering; if they do it often enough or hard enough, they can injure themselves. Knocking knees together can also be a problem for some horses, and knee boots can provide a solution. Brushing boots cover the cannon bone and fetlock with soft materials that will mold cleanly to the horse’s leg yet be sturdy enough to handle minor impacts. Most have a soft inner liner surrounded by a tougher outer shell secured with adjustable hook-and-loop tabs or buckles. Some will have added reinforcement on the inner portion, and may also be called splint boots. Brushing boots are popular for just about any discipline because they’re so versatile, you can easily put them on all four legs, and they come in a wide range of materials and colors. You’ll find them everywhere—from the jumping arena to the riding trail to the dressage or reining arenas with performance horses making tight turns and crossing legs over legs.
  1. Sports medicine boots and orthopedic boots take brushing boots in a slightly different direction, focusing on comfort and flexibility while adding a bit of support that cradles and wraps under the fetlock. The idea is to give protection against brushes yet add a little support to the flexor tendons and suspensory ligament. Some have an additional sling or even a double sling that offers the fetlock joint extra support. These are often used for horses who have a tendency toward soft-tissue issues. Sports medicine boots are user-friendly, as they’re easy to put on thanks to contouring and hook-and-loop closures, easy to clean and come in extensive colors and fun patterns. Many riders in the Western disciplines like reining, cutting, and barrel racing as well as those who ride in the English disciplines, like them because of the protection and support they offer horses doing exacting footwork.
  1. Tendon boots and fetlock boots are often used together for demanding equine sports like jumping, cross-country and eventing, barrel racing, roping, and even rehabilitation. Tendon boots are used to support and protect the sensitive tendons of the forelegs from trauma—particularly for jumping. Open-front tendon boots leave the front of the leg exposed so that padding doesn’t interfere with a horse’s awareness of where its legs are in relation to obstacles when jumping. Closed-front tendon boots protect the front of the leg as well and are used for cross-country and its substantial obstacles.
  1. Fetlock boots – also known as ankle boots – protect the insides of the hind fetlocks from brushing injuries. They use a padded shell similar to those used in tendon boots to cover the inner fetlocks and fasten or wrap around the lower portion of the cannon bone.
  1. Skid boots are similar to ankle boots but protect the back of the hind fetlocks during the skidding stops used in Western disciplines. The boots fasten around the lower cannon bone much like fetlock boots, but the padded shell accommodates the back of the joint.
  1. Bell boots, or overreach boots, fit around the lower pastern and bell over the coronet and hoof. They’re basically cups designed to protect the heel bulbs and front shoes from the reach of a horse’s hind feet. Some horses’ hind feet strike the front in various gaits—especially in extended gaits like those used in dressage or jumping. This can cause injury to the front foot that can be slow to heal—especially if it happens repeatedly. It can also loosen or even pull front shoes. Bell boots also protect the coronary band from hooves and other hazards—think cross-country or eventing.
  1. Ring boots or fetlock rings encircle the lower pastern to protect the coronary band. Like an abridged form of bell boot, fetlock rings can be helpful for horses who tend to bump one foot into the other or step on themselves. Like bell boots, they can be worn for activities where you want that type of protection—dressage, jumping, reining, or barrel racing, for example. Note that fetlock boots are different from fetlock rings.
  1. Shipping boots and travel wraps can be helpful when you’re trailering your horse. However, your horse needs to become accustomed to these types of protection long before it’s placed in a trailer alone with them on. That said, shipping boots and wraps give an extra padded layer of protection so that if you have to make a sudden stop or unexpected turn, your horse’s legs and feet are protected while they catch their balance.
  1. Stable boots and stable wraps for horses are a lot like compression socks for humans. They typically cover from the knee or hock to the coronary band and can improve circulation by also keeping swelling at bay. This can be especially helpful after a strenuous workout or for senior horses with arthritis, for example. For colder weather, they offer a way to keep legs warm, clean, and dry while a horse is not in work. Most are used overnight, for a limited number of hours. Stable bandages have a similar purpose but require that you know how to properly pad and wrap your horse’s legs with even pressure. You may use the wraps alone or apply them over padding.
  1. Turnout boots offer lower leg protection if your horse tends to be a bit rowdy during turnout.
  1. Fly boots and fly socks can be a horse’s best friend in warm months when biting flies can make the blood run, cause sores, and create breaks in the skin where bacteria and fungus can invade. Fly socks offer a physical barrier to flies that extends from the knee or hock down to the pasterns. Plus, horses in fly boots stomp a lot less, sparing shoes, hoof walls, and joints. Choose free-standing styles that leave plenty of air space around the leg, and regularly check to ensure that the boots are clean and in place.
  1. Temporary shoe boots or hoof boots fit over, around, and under the hoof much like a human sport shoe. If your horse is shod and throws a shoe, you can slip on a temporary shoe boot until your farrier can fix it. If your horse is barefoot and you want to ride on hard, rough or rugged terrain, shoe boots will provide soles protection and grip while still allowing feet to expand and contract normally. You can put them over shod hooves or use them while transitioning a horse from shod to barefoot.

High Stepping With Leg Protection

The first time you put any wrap or boot on your horse’s legs or feet may be an event. High stepping, picking up and putting down feet, pawing, backing up, and even bucking or running away are possible reactions. After all, the sensation of something foreign being fastened to a foot or leg can be scary. It takes patience, preparation, and practice on our part to desensitize our horses and ponies to yet another piece of equipment and make it a positive experience.

Equally important is working with your vet and your farrier to ensure that your horse doesn’t have a physical or underlying health problem that requires more than a wrap or boot and that hoofs are trimmed or shod to ensure your horse’s optimal comfort and perfo