Horse Leg Protection – Guide to Horse Boots and Leg Wraps

What’s the best form of horse leg protection for the riding you do? When is it needed? Risk of leg injury will always be present during exercise, travel, competition – even turnout. We ask a lot of our horses. So we protect our equine athletes by using protective gear known as leg wraps and horse boots.

The front legs carry about 60 percent of a horse’s weight; the hind legs bear the rest plus provide power and impulsion. Below the knee and hock, the leg consists of tendon, bone, ligaments, and cartilage – no muscle. All four legs absorb tremendous impact.

Besides offering overall protection to the horse’s lower leg structure, horse boots and leg wraps help minimize horse leg injury or hoof damage from contact injuries and ground debris.

What's the best horse leg protection for the riding you do?

Should you boot your horse?

The market of protective horse boots and leg wraps is forever growing. The variety can boggle the mind.  Shopping for protective boots can be even more confusing simply because of the various names given to these boots by different brands. For many, the brand becomes the selling point.

Even the seasoned equestrian will have questions now and then. If you have not yet had experience with horse boots and leg wraps, it’s never too late to learn! By knowing what each one does, you can assess whether it’s a good idea to boot your horse.

How Horse Leg Protection Is Constructed

Although the purpose and basic types of horse boots have not really changed over the years, innovative design and materials have greatly enhanced equine leg protection as far as efficiency and convenience.

Horse leg protection covering the fetlock, or ankle
Leather fetlock boot fastened with strap and buckle closure

You can find horse boots of leather, synthetic (neoprene, Kevlar, plastic) and rubber, as well as memory foam, felt and gel versions.

For many people, the fastening and closure system of the boot is important. For instance, boots may be fitted with strap and buckle, hook and stud, hook and loop closures, tab closures, or fitted using Velcro straps, often elastic. There are pros and cons to each. For example, the strap and buckle closure works well when the boot is a great fit, even after being stretched by lots of use; with velcro, the boot can always be tightened exactly to the leg.

So the choice of material and brand determines the horse boot’s design, closure system, and price. Then it boils down to a matter of personal preference, convenience, and budget.

Types of horse leg protection for schooling and riding, and what they do.

Brushing Boots / Splint Boots

Brushing boots and splint boots are different names for the same basic boot. They are also referred to as galloping boots. They can be used on the front and hind legs, and provide the best leg protection for horses that interfere, either in front or behind.

Splint boots offer leg protection for various riding disciplines
Here, brushing (splint) boots are being used along with synthetic bell boots for barrel racing.

Brushing boots (splint boots) prevent contact injuries and abrasions caused when one leg brushes against or accidentally hits the opposite leg during exercise or riding work. They offer protection during lunging and disciplines where the horse is moving and maneuvering at speed.

Splint boots have a fortified padding along the inside of the boot. The front boot covers from just below the knee and ends just below the fetlock (ankle) joint. The hind brushing boot is a bit longer to protect the hind cannon bone.

Most leather brushing boots have buckle and strap fastenings. They are tougher than most synthetic boots but require cleaning, oiling and occasionally stitching to maintain condition. Synthetic splint boots are held in place with Velcro straps, often with elastic, and some fasten with the loop and buckle. They are lightweight and easily washed.

Sports Medicine Boots (SMB) / Performance Boots / Sport Boots

The popularity of the sports medicine boot is soaring. Along with protecting the leg from contact injuries (as with splint boots) the purpose of sport medicine boots – aka performance boots, sport boots, support boots – is to help support the front and back lower legs, including the pastern and fetlock, and help safeguard against hyperextension, suspensory injuries, and muscle sprains. They are often worn with bell boots.

Overreach Boots or Bell Boots

Overreach boots and bell boots are one and the same. A very popular form of horse leg protection, their purpose is to prevent overreach injuries, caused by the toe of the hind foot striking into the heel or coronet of the front foot. Overreaching can also cause the horse to step on the back of the front horseshoe. This can lead to a loose shoe and possible damage to the hoof wall.  The bell boot acts as a shell, covering and protecting the pastern and the hoof.

Horse fitted with rubber bell boots and splint boots.
Lunging horse fitted with bell boots and splint boots on the front legs

Some pull-on rubber bell boots can be tougher to tug and stretch over the hoof than others; but once on they stay put. Some brands of rubber bell boots are now made with handy hook and loop velcro closures.

Once in a while, a rubber bell boot will flip up. “Petal” overreach horse boots have a series of movable plastic sections, or petals, which are connected to a strap fitted around the coronet. These boots are less likely to flip up because of their partitioned design.

Leather bell boots are usually fleece-lined and fasten with straps and buckles. Durable synthetic bell boots have a Velcro closure and come in every color – easy and convenient to put on and take off.

Tendon boots

Tendon boots are fitted to the front lower leg. The boot prohibits the horse’s hind foot from striking the tendons which run down the back of the horse’s lower front leg. Taller than brushing boots, tendon boots reach from the fetlock joint and up high enough to cover the tendon, without hindering the horse’s leg action.

If made of leather, these protective boots are usually lined with sheepskin and fasten with straps and buckles. Synthetic tendon boots are padded, and are cheaper and easier to clean, with strap and clip, buckle or secure click fastening.

Some are open in the front to keep the horse “careful” such as for jumpers. (See Open Fronted Boots, below.)

Open Fronted Boots – Horse Leg Protection for Jumpers

Open front boots are used by show jumpers and in equitation classes because they protect the sensitive back of the horse’s forelegs from being struck by the horse’s hind hooves, while still allowing him to feel the poles of the jump. Like tendon boots, open front boots are anatomically shaped to provide a better fit and are available in leather and synthetic.

Open front boots - a popular form of horse leg protection for jumpers
Open front boots – a popular form of horse leg protection for jumpers

Fetlock Boots / Ankle Boots

Fetlock boots are shortened versions of brushing boots, fitted to the hind legs. Designed for a contoured fit, they serve as protective hind boots against injury to the ligaments caused by knocks from the opposite hind leg. Many fetlock boots today are built with shock absorbing features. Also called ankle boots.

Skid boots

Skid boots provide the best leg protection for horses competing in reining, roping and cutting. These boots add a layer of protection for horses needing a shield between the fetlock and the ground. They are fitted to prevent pastern, fetlock and lower leg injuries which can happen when the reining horse makes quick turns and sliding stops, or cow horses as they stop hard, turn deep and then hit full stride.

Sesamoid Horse Boots

Similarly, these boots are commonly used with speed sports: racehorses, barrel racers, polo ponies, ropers, and eventers – any riding work based on the gallop or bursts of speed.

The sesamoid bones are at the back of the fetlock joint. During physical exertion, they can literally extend and touch the ground. The sesamoid boot protects the base of the fetlock joint. Without the boot, the horse’s heel is likely to sustain damage from repeated brushes with the ground as occurs during flat gallop and speeding turns.

Speedicut Boots

Speedicut boots protect the hind legs from injuries that happen when one leg strikes or brushes the opposite leg while the horse is working at the gallop or being driven. Generally, the vulnerable area is high on the leg, just below the hock. Therefore the boot is higher than most brushing boots.

Polo Wraps

Polo wraps are commonly used for lower leg protection
Basic polo wraps

Polo wraps consist of strong, shock-absorbent felt. Their purpose is to provide protection and light support.

Polo wraps are one of the most common protective items used for everyday schooling, working or lunging, and may also serve to reduce swelling and inflammation. However, there are times when polo wraps are not the best choice for horse leg protection as they do not serve well if they become loose or wet, such as while trail riding.

Unlike traditional exercise bandages or standing bandages, polo wraps do not require padding underneath. Check out this short video on the difference between standing wrap and polo wrap and how to apply each.

Horse Knee Boots

Knees are hard to “wrap” so when knee protection is needed, the knee boot is a handy item. The boot is formed to fit the horse’s knee, generally made of a stretchy synthetic material that is padded and nonobstructive. They typically fasten with adjustable Velcro straps.

Why do horses need leg protection?

Often the rigorous demands we humans ask of our mounts call for the use of protective boots and wraps. Examples are many, such as eventing, gaming, barrel racing, reining, cutting cow horses and more. Galloping disciplines such as polo or racing also require specific boots and wraps to protect suspensory tendons and ligaments.

Some horses are conformationally prone to striking themselves while exercising or competing. Examples are overreaching with their hind legs to strike the front heels, or opposiste legs knocking against (brushing) each other.

Horse leg protection varies with different aspects trail riding.
Horse leg protection varies with different aspects of your daily riding.

What’s the best leg protection for your horse? Surely one “type” does not fit all needs, and not every horse needs leg boots or wraps all the time.  The above information is about horses in action. Further topics of leg protection involve bandaging and wrapping for shipping and travel, and therapy boots.