A guide to horse leg protection

A guide to leg protection

Lameness is one of the most common reasons why your horse might need to see a vet. To help prevent this problem in the first place, veterinary physiotherapist Hayley Marsh shares her practical tips on caring for your horse’s limbs.

Putting in the leg work

Horses evolved to gallop at speed and leap over obstacles to flee from danger - a trait we as riders have used to our advantage. So, to keep your horse mentally and physically sound, it’s vital that his legs are in good working order. ‘Unfortunately, however, horses’ lower limbs have very little protective muscle,’ explains Hayley. ‘The bones, tendons and ligaments in the leg are vulnerable to damage through accident, injury, poor conformation, and wear and tear. But,’ she says, ‘by taking good care of your horse’s legs before, during and after exercise, and monitoring them closely, you can limit and hopefully prevent injury. Here’s how:


Warm up

‘A good warm up before exercise is essential to avoid injury to muscles, ligaments and tendons,’ Hayley says. ‘It involves gradually raising your horse’s heart rate to increase oxygen in his blood, which in turn will increase the mobility and elasticity of his muscles and minimise the strain placed on them.’

Choosing the best way to warm up depends on your horse, the discipline you’re taking part in, the ground conditions and the outside temperature. For example, an older horse on a cold day will need to be warmed up much more slowly and gently than a younger, fitter horse on a warm day.

‘A gentle hack in walk and trot for 15 to 20 minutes on a flat, even surface should be sufficient for most horses,’ she recommends. ‘Try to avoid uneven terrain and riding your horse in tight circles.’


Use protection

There’s a wide variety of leg protection available to shield your horse’s limbs, and it’s important to use the right type of protection to prevent certain injuries.

The most common form of protection is brushing boots, which help protect your horse’s cannon bone and inside of the fetlock. Tendon boots will prevent your horse striking into the tendons of his front legs with his back feet, while overreach boots can stop him stepping on the back of his heels with his back feet. Bandages and wraps are commonly used to provide protection against knocks and scrapes.

‘If your horse regularly takes part in jumping or fast, active sports he could benefit from leg protection,’ Hayley says, ‘as would young and unbalanced horses or those with poor conformation that are likely to suffer injuries from over reaching.

‘It’s vital that any leg protection you use on your horse fits correctly, though, and is put on properly. Poorly fitting, loose or overly tight boots and bandages can cause rubbing - or worse, injury to bones and tendons. Tendons and ligaments can also get dangerously hot under boots and bandages, so it’s important to only use leg protection if absolutely necessary, and only when your horse is actually being worked.’

Check surfaces

‘When riding your horse, always consider the surface under foot and the pace,’ Hayley advises. ‘Trotting on tarred road for more than five minutes a day increases the concussion on your horse’s legs, as can trotting and cantering on rock-hard ground. On the other hand, deep, boggy bridle paths can cause terrible damage to your horse’s tendons and ligaments through overstretching and tearing. Also be

Constantly riding on deep surfaces in an arena will also put your horse’s tendons and ligaments at risk of injury, as he’ll have to work extra hard. ‘Try to ride your horse over a variety of surfaces on a regular basis,’ she recommends. Ensure you ride on grass and arena surfaces, as well as the road, to give your horse the best chance of staying sound.’


Cool down

A cooling down session is just as important after exercise, and should be similar to your warm up. ‘Cooling down allows your horse to stretch and relax, and allows time for lactic acid (a natural substance produced during strenuous activity) to be released from his muscles,’ Hayley explains. ‘It also allows his heart rate to come down slowly, all of which helps to reduce his risk of injury.’

Use cold water or ice

When a horse is worked hard - such as during a cross-country round or long, fast hack, especially on a hot day - it’s vital to cool his legs afterwards to bring the temperature of the tendons down and prevent injury. Start by removing any boots or bandages, then use cold hosing for five minutes. If running water isn’t available, soak cool boots in a bucket of cold (preferably iced) water and apply them to his legs, checking them regularly to make sure they haven’t reheated. If this happens, remove them immediately to ensure they don’t heat his legs up again.

An alternative to cold water and cool boots is clay or gel-based products. When these substances are applied to your horse’s legs the moisture in them evaporates, carrying heat away with it and creating a cooling effect. Make sure to wash off the clay as soon as it’s dried, though, as it can also have an insulating effect if left on too long.


Keep checking

Hayley recommends assessing your horse’s legs on a daily basis to catch any potential issues as soon as they arise. ‘Feel down your horse’s legs for swelling, heat and pain at least once a day,’ she says. ‘The more familiar you are with your horse’s legs and what’s “normal” for him, the more likely you are to spot anything unusual.

‘As well as checking your horse physically for any unusual signs, it’s important that you evaluate his gait for any potential lameness. Assess his walk when you lead him in from the field to check for any shortness of stride, and lunge him once a week so you can see him in action from the ground.’

If you’re in any doubt, always contact your vet. It’s also important to ensure that your horse has veterinary check-ups at least once a year. A vet will be able to assess whether the lameness is caused by an issue higher up in your horses body, and could refer you to a physiotherapist.