If you’ve watched jumping or eventing on TV, you’ve probably wondered what are splint boots used for on horses. Maybe you’re wondering if your own horse needs them.
Also called brushing boots, tendon boots, or support boots, they are protective boots that wrap around a horse’s cannon bone.
Veterinary journals report a tendon injury incidence of 11-30% amongst sport horses. (1) Boots might not prevent repetitive strain-type injury, but they do offer protection against external blows.
That’s definitely worth talking about.
- Splint boots, brushing boots, sport boots, and bandages protect the horse’s delicate lower leg from concussive injuries, either from hitting external objects or from his own feet.
- The horse has no muscle around the tendons and ligaments below the knee and hock joints, which makes them vulnerable.
- Boots offer to pad to these areas but bring their own risks, like rubbing and overheating.
- Boots probably won’t prevent sprains, strains, and overuse injuries.
Purposes of Splint Boots for Horses
The primary purpose of splint boots is to protect the horse’s leg from penetrating injuries, whether that’s from his own hoof or from striking something, like a jump.
Traditionally, people have used polo wraps, especially in dressage and polo. Plenty still does, but they are trickier to put on and dangerous in any discipline, like eventing, where a loose wrap could catch on something.
Hunters and eventers have traditionally used leather brushing boots. Now there’s a vast array of materials on the market, many of which are lighter and easier to maintain than leather.
Some basic knowledge of how the lower leg is constructed helps explain why equestrians are so keen to wrap and boot their sport horses.
1. A Bit About Anatomy
Horses have no muscles in their lower legs, below the knee and hock. This lightens the lower leg, giving the animal more speed and stamina. It’s why they are such amazing athletes (2).
The superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) and the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) operate like powerful elastic bands attached to the muscles in the forearm and gaskin.
This video gives an overview of the biomechanics of the horse’s lower limbs.
Though horses are fast and athletic, the lack of muscle covering makes the suspensory apparatus in the leg – the tendons and ligaments – vulnerable to injury.
Then you have the unbalancing effect of carrying a rider, coupled with the demands put on them by equestrian sport, whether it’s lateral movements, jumping solid objects, or executing sharp, fast turns.
You can see why lower leg injuries are so common and why it’s important to take as many precautions as you can.
2. Impact Protection
The type of protective boot you choose depends on your horse, your discipline, and the type of protection you require.
Dressage horses, reining horses, and barrel racers, for instance, are more likely to interfere with themselves when executing spins or lateral movements.
They might clip the sides of their fetlocks or their tendons with one of their other feet.
Also, any horse who wings or dishes may need a similar level of extra padding, even just for ambling down the trail.
If you are regularly finding scrapes and cuts on the inside of your horse’s fetlock joints, it probably needs protection.
Boots can protect the cannon bones from impact injuries, like hitting a fence or wall, as well as from interference.
People trail riding on tough terrain or on a klutzy horse might also use boots to prevent injuries from natural hazards such as rocks and logs.
3. Tendon Support
You’ve probably read or heard that brushing boots and polo wraps to support the horse’s tendons and ligaments.
Some, such as horse sport boots, seem designed for that purpose, with a neoprene wrap that crosses underneath the fetlock joint.
However, science doesn’t really support that theory. Total Equine Vets, a practice based in Leesburg, VA, explains, “Boots and bandages cannot offer protection from concussive forces.’
‘Concussive forces are the pounding the structures of the limb experience as a horse runs or jumps.’
‘Boots and bandages cannot offer significant support to the tendons. Even bandages with straps that wrap around or under the fetlock offer only minimal support to the limb.”(3)
A 2010 study found that support boots reduced the extension of the fetlock joint of horses in walk and trot by 1 degree. (4)
However, a cantering horse generates a force of over 1000kg of pressure on the SFDT and DDFT. A jumping horse will surprise that.
There’s no evidence that a little strip of fleece or neoprene will significantly reduce those forces.
The authors of the study themselves acknowledged, “The long-term consequences of the reduction of maximum fetlock extension are still uncertain.
Such a reduction over a prolonged period might negatively affect fiber alignment in the healing tendon.” (4)
Why You Shouldn’t Use Splint Boots
After reading everything I wrote above, you’ll be off to the nearest tack shop to buy a set of boots.
Don’t splash out just yet. They aren’t a panacea, and they may cause other issues.
The biggest problem associated with their use is heat. Brushing boots insulate the legs during exercise, generating excess heat in the SDFT and DDFT.
Studies have suggested that overheating could actually make the tendons more vulnerable to injury. (5)
Equine tendons reach a temperature of about 45 degrees during galloping. They act like big rubber bands, and if you stretch and release a rubber band hundreds of times, you will generate a lot of heat.
According to Dr. David Marlin, the proximity of the tendon to the surface of the skin means that ordinarily, a fit, healthy horse is well-adapted to this temperature increase.
But when the leg is insulated, the heat has been shown to kill tendon cells, which causes an inflammatory response. Inflammation can result in tendon damage. (6)
Some materials are more breathable than others, but anything you put around your horse’s cannon bone will have insulating properties to one degree or another.
Another risk is restricted blood flow. If you put these boots on too tight, they can compromise the arteries and veins pumping blood to and from the foot. (6)
Thirdly, boots can cause rubbing or friction injuries. Debris can get caught underneath them. The skin is also more vulnerable to injury if the boots do not allow sweat to evaporate properly.
The increase in weight can also affect the horse’s gait. The boots themselves don’t weigh that much, but some materials absorb water. Imagine running with a heavy, soggy neoprene wrap attached to your leg.
If you’re using them cross-country, trail riding, or on the hunt field, you should buy non-absorbant ones.
Lastly, studies have shown that too much pressure squeezing the tendons increases the likelihood of inflammation. (7) Therefore, it is important to not overtighten boots or bandages.
A Word About Turn-out Boots
You’ve undoubtedly seen a horse in a field wearing protective boots.
Many owners use them to prevent turn-out injuries, whether it’s from the horse striking itself or getting kicked by another horse.
They’re useful for horses who might go a bit wild in the field.
They also protect the leg from mud and infections like mud fever.
However, you should be mindful of the risks (as discussed above) associated with overheating the tendons.
Debris can also work its way underneath the boots, causing chafing and abrasions.
And you might find yourself slogging through a muddy field, looking for them. Horses are very capable of discovering new and ingenious ways to open velcro straps.
Most boot manufacturers recommend that boots stay on for no more than 12 hours, so if your horse is out for long periods of time, you probably should not use them.
Do Splint Boots Help Horses?
You may now be wondering if splint boots help or harm horses. Like so many other aspects of horsemanship, it depends on your horse and how you use them.
If the risks of your horse injuring himself by stepping on his own leg or hitting a solid object (like a jump) outweigh the risks of heating his tendons during exercise, you might want to use boots.
The drawbacks of boots can be minimized by buying ones made out of appropriately breathable material, removing them straight after exercise, and learning how to put them on correctly.
Trainer Callie King explains how different types of boots for horses work. She shows you how to safely and correctly boot up your horse.
Tips on Selecting Splint Boots to Use for Your Horse
If you have decided that your horse would benefit from boots, you’ll be confronted by the vast number of them on the market.
Though they range from traditional materials, like simple leather or neoprene, to high-tech synthetic materials, they can be divided into four basic categories.
Once you know which type best suits your needs (and your horse’s), the specific brand depends on your budget and personal preferences.
1. Protective Boots/All-purpose Boots/Splint Boots/Brushing Boot
These are the most popular form of leg protection, wrapping around the entire leg, covering the cannon bone, the tendons, and the inside of the fetlock.
They have extra padding on the inside of the leg, which protects the splint bones from concussive injuries.
Usually, the outer shell is made from neoprene or leather, while the inner lining can be neoprene, wool, or fleece.
Because the materials hold onto moisture and dirt, they are easier to maintain when used for flatwork or jumping within the arena.
Most are not made out of the lightest, most breathable material (as with anything, some high-end ones are), so read on if you want boots for fast or sustained work, like cross-country or endurance.
2. Open Front Boots/Tendon Boots
These boots are open in the front, exposing the cannon bone, but they have more padding around the tendons than a brushing boot.
They’re light and primarily designed for jumping. When the horse lands from a jump, he brings his hind legs forward, risking a strike to a delicate tendon on his front leg. These boots protect him from that sort of injury.
At the same time, riders want a horse to be aware of their leg position hopefully discouraging them from hitting rails. The open front lets them feel the rail, and it also saves weight.
3. Cross-country Boots
Similar in design (and purpose) to the open-front boots but made from materials that are lightweight, quick to dry, and easily shed dirt and water.
If you’re doing any fast work outside of the arena, these are the ideal boot.
4. Sports Medicine Boots
Generally made from neoprene, they wrap around the whole lower leg, from the knee or hock to the pastern. The neoprene offers some protection against concussion or interference.
Unlike other types of boots, they have a strap that wraps underneath the fetlock joint, putatively supporting the suspensory apparatus.
As I said above, the jury is still out on how much support a flap of neoprene and velcro realistically provides, but SMBs remain popular amongst reiners, barrel racers, and dressage riders.
What’s the difference between sport boots and splint boots?
Sport boots have a strap that supports the fetlock. Splint boots do not.
Do splint boots prevent splints?
They have thick padding over the splint bones, so yes, they can prevent damage caused by impact.
Can splint boots be used for jumping?
They are frequently used for jumping because horses can easily hit fences or themselves.
How do you put on rear splint boots?
Make sure both the boot and the leg are clean. Wrap the boot in its correct position around the leg and pull the velcro so it goes from the cannon bone towards the tendons.
You want it tight enough to keep the boot secure but not so tight that you cut off circulation.
Now that you know what splint boots are used for on horses, you’ll see that they are a useful safety tool in the arsenal of protective gear.
They are not faultless, nor are they necessary for every horse. Although they should be used with consideration, they can be invaluable for certain disciplines and horses.
With a bit of research, you can decide whether you need them and which ones are most appropriate for your horse and your riding.
So, do you put splint boots on your horse? Let us know in the comments section!
- 1. Equine tendons: reducing the risk of injury [Internet]. The Veterinary Nurse. Available from: https://www.theveterinarynurse.com/review/article/equine-tendons-reducing-the-risk-of-injury
- 2. Horse Leg Anatomy – Form and Function | Equimed – Horse Health Matters [Internet]. EquiMed. 2017. Available from: https://equimed.com/health-centers/lameness/articles/horse-leg-anatomy-form-and-function
- 3. Equine Leg Protection | Total Equine Veterinary Associates’ TEVApedia [Internet]. www.totalequinevets.com. [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://www.totalequinevets.com/client-center/resources/TEVApedia/equine-leg-protection
- 4. Peham C. Examination of the influence of support boots on the fetlock of equine forelimbs. A kinematic study in walk and trot on the treadmill [Internet]. Research Gate. 2004. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286687531_Examination_of_the_influence_of_support_boots_on_the_fetlock_of_equine_forelimbs_A_kinematic_study_in_walk_and_trot_on_the_treadmill
- 5. Veterinaria F. FOLIA VETERINARIA VYDÁVA UNIVERZITA VETERINÁRSKEHO LEKÁRSTVA A FARMÁCIE V KOŠICIACH 2017 PUBLISHED BY THE UNIVERSITY OF VETERINARY MEDICINE AND PHARMACY IN KOŠICE SLOVAKIA. 2017;61. Available from: https://www.uvlf.sk/document/folia-veterinaria-volume-61-issue-4-dec-2017.pdf#page=15
- 6. Marlin D. Why Aren’t Protective Boots Common Practice in Racing? [Internet]. Dr David Marlin. 2020. Available from: https://drdavidmarlin.com/why-arent-protective-boots-common-practice-in-racing/
- 7. Morlock MM, Kobluk CN, Jones JH, Rolsten GK, Faass JK. Influence of bandage material on pressure distribution under the bandage on the distal forelimb of the galloping horse. Gait & Posture. 1994;2:253–60.
Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.
Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
Follow on TWITTER and FACEBOOK
Read her Latest articles
Learn more about HER