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Riders: Protective Equipment

Polo bandage

A properly-applied polo bandage, complete with a "V" at front of fetlock joint.

Ah horses. They're always working on some way to injure themselves, aren't they? You would think that an animal which evolved to escape by outrunning predators would be less of a klutz, but then again, they didn't evolve to carry a rider, so I guess we can cut them a little bit of slack.

Nonetheless, horses sometimes tangle up their legs while they're working, and we can help prevent injuries by judicious use of the proper protective equipment.

Before we go further, it's important to note that carefully-constructed scientific trials have shown that no boot can support the tendons and ligaments in the horse's lower leg. Protect, yes. Support -- and when we say support, we basically mean "prevent strained ligaments and bowed tendons" -- no. Nope. Not gonna happen. Boots don't support, unless they're so rigid (think splints and casts) that they immobilize the horse's leg. And we don't want to ride a horse with an immobilized leg, do we?

Also, recent research warns that the extreme heat that builds up under protective equipment when the horse works can actually cause harm to tendons, so spend a moment deciding if your horse really needs the protection, or if you're making him wear protective equipment because, well, it looks so damned fashionable.

But if a horse interferes (the generic term for hitting one leg with another) we can provide him with some protection in the form of boots or bandages. In the dressage department at William Woods, we'll use either a standard brushing boot, or properly applied polo bandages. (Note: I'm speaking for the dressage department only in this post -- other disciplines might do things differently, so be sure to check with your trainer before booting up.)

Here's an nice article from TheHorse.com that gives a good overview of protective equipment: Boots and bandages to support and protect.




Well-fitted bell boots

Well-fitted bell boots rest snugly (but not tightly) around the horse's lower pastern. The bottom of the bell boot shouldn't come in contact with the ground when the horse is at rest.

Bell boots: Bell boots protect, but don't prevent, a horse from overreaching -- stepping on his front-leg heels with the toes of his hind legs. In WWU Dressage land, we use bell boots on any horse who wears bar shoes or pads, in a sometimes-futile attempt to keep the horse from pulling off his shoes.

Dressage horses are prone to missteps as they learn new movements (lateral work and extended work in particular). Bell boots are good insurance against the horse injuring himself, and deciding that this whole dressage thing isn't really as fun as you had promised.

Too-large bell boot

This bell boot is too large, and will shift around too much on the horse's foot, possibly causing sores on the pasterns and heels.

For dressage work in an indoor arena, bell boots with hook-and-loop (Velcro) fasteners are perfectly acceptable, as long as the hook-and-loop is clean and maintains its "stick-ability." For more rigorous activities like jumping and galloping cross country, pull-on bell boots are more reliable, but much more challenging to put on.

Don't stress too much about the direction of the hook-and-loop fasteners when you put on standard bell boots. The boots will turn on the horse's foot, anyway. If the boots are shaped to conform to the horse's hoof, they should have a tag somewhere that indicates "left" and "right."


Good brushing boots

Properly-fitting brushing boots cover the inner portion of the fetlock joint, where the horse is most likely to strike himself with his other leg.

Brushing boots: We like brushing boots, because they're easy to put on, easy to clean, and hard to injure the horse with.

There are dozens of styles of brushing boots (also known as splint boots, galloping boots, or tendon boots). Spend some time with any tack catalog, and you'll be amazed at the variety available -- and you'll be appalled at some of the prices! The cost of some boots will tempt you to only use polo bandages.

The best brushing boots don't interfere at all with the horse's movement. They should be lightweight and thin -- the farther the boots protrude from the leg, the more likely the horse is to strike the boot with his swinging leg. They should also be easy to clean and dry. (For that reason, I'm not a huge fan of boots with fuzzy "sheepskin" linings -- they cause the horse's legs to heat up and sweat, and then take forever to dry once washed.)

For dressage work in arenas, boots with hook-and-loop closures are sufficient. Make sure there's no lint and dirt clogging up the hook-and-loop, or the boots  might fall off at an inopportune moment (and there's never an opportune moment for boots to fall off!).

Brushing boots need be applied only tight enough to prevent them from slipping down. Use the contour of the horse's fetlock joint to keep them in place. The fastener straps should be on the outside of the leg, and in general, pointing toward the back. But there are tricky double-velcro boots that will break that rule, and you can learn more about them, and proper boot fitting, on this page.


Polo bandages: Do them right, or don't do them at all. At the least, a poorly-applied polo bandage looks unprofessional. At worst, it can permanently damage the soft tissues in your horse's lower legs.

We dressage people love our polos -- honestly, we just think they look cool, especially white ones (hot pink, not so much). It's common practice at dressage shows to wear polos for award ceremonies, and they're great for showing the horse's legs in photos and videos.

The only way to develop the skill to apply polo bandages is to practice. And then practice some more. And then keep practicing. Eventually, you'll get to know how to bandage a variety of leg shapes, using a variety of polo bandages (some shorter, some longer). But you should never be relaxed and nonchalant when applying your polos. Be mindful of the correct procedure, and the dangers inherent in any bandage, every time you put on a polo bandage.


Need more info? Here's a page with more on polo bandages, including a photo comparison of good and bad bandages.


Stocked-up leg

Heads up!: Don't apply either boots or bandages to a stocked-up leg. As the horse begins exercising, the swelling will dissipate, and the boot or bandage will loosen, which can be very dangerous. If you want to use protective equipment on a horse who has stocked up, walk him (under saddle or in hand) for about 15 minutes, and then apply the boot or bandage after the swelling has subsided.

The photo at right is of a stocked-up leg. Note the lack of definition in the cannon bone and fetlock joint. Because horses have poor lower-leg circulation unless they're moving, stocking up is not unusual in a horse who spends most of his time confined to a stall. If the swelling is soft, lacks heat, and goes away with 15-20 minutes of activity, it's probably nothing to worry about -- unless you put a boot or bandage on the fat leg, which then gets loose, unravels, tangles up in your horse's legs, and causes him to trip, fall and catapult you into the arena wall. Then it's something to worry about!


Competition rules: Protective equipment is legal for warm up at all dressage competitions, but is NOT legal in the show ring. Wearing boots or bandages into the show arena will result in elimination. Make sure you have someone standing by, ready to remove your protective equipment before you head down the centerline!



Some of the content of this post was taken from the upcoming iBook "The Bandage Book" by Karen Pautz. Once it's on iTunes, I'll post about it!

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