We are often asked by riders what they should be aware of when choosing protective boots for their horses. Because there are so many different types of boots made by a multitude of manufacturers, it's easy to get confused . Unfortunately as it stands today, there is no governing body for horse protective wear so manufacturers are left to 'self affirm' - i.e. explain to you why their particular items are best for your horse. This can lead to a lot of conflicting messages leaving the average horse lover dazed and confused.
Over the years there have been studies published showing the benefits of one type of boot over another and also why a particular boot type is bad for your horse. Although these studies might look to be published by a reputable source, on closer inspection it sometimes becomes apparent that the study was actually paid for by the very company that the study praises without any other company's products in the study for comparison!
So in this month's blog, we shall endeavor to lay out some very simple concepts and leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.
A good protective horse boot should do a few things. It should keep your horse's legs cool and well ventilated, it should keep your horse's legs protected from a hard strike or outside elements, it should support the rigors placed on the horse's legs during work and it should be comfortable for your horse to wear.
Let's start with the first point. Horse's legs breathe better without any boots. That's a fact. If heat and ventilation were the only considerations then no boots would be the answer. But....horse's legs are also delicate as anyone who has faced a large vet bill knows. When we ask our horses to jump, canter, gallop at speed or do most of the movements associated with horseback riding, then we need to consider some sort of protection as well as ventilation.
So....in order to get the most breathable environment for your horse's legs, you need to start with a material that breathes. Back in the day when the local farrier made boots, each pair was hand crafted for its owner and was usually made from leather or fleece - materials found in nature. During the 1950s and 1960s a new type of manufacturer emerged and, realizing that there was a need, mass production became necessary. Finding materials that were inexpensive and plentiful was a tough job, but luckily for them there was a material that had recently been introduced for the wet suit industry - a material made to keep out the cold and act as an insulator. That material was neoprene.
Hugh Bradner, a University of California, Berkeley physicist is often considered to be the original inventor and "father of the modern wetsuit." In 1951 he realized that a thin layer of trapped water could be tolerated between the wetsuit fabric and the skin, so long as insulation was present in the fabric in the form of trapped air bubbles. The air in the fabric meant water would quickly reach skin temperature and continue to act as thermal insulation to keep it that way. The suit did not need to be dry to be insulative. Dr. Bradner clearly understood that the air (gas) in the wetsuit fabric provided the best thermal insulation. In the same way, neoprene wrapped around a horse's leg will retain heat.
During the 1970s and 1980s more manufacturers appeared and they too chose neoprene for their horse boots. Cheap and readily available, it was the ideal choice of a lot of the Chinese factories that were now starting to manufacture to satisfy the growing demand from competition horses. In the 1990s after a few alarming studies on the effects of overheating in horse's legs and how excess heat could be a contributor to bowing of a horse's tendons, a few companies started punching holes in their neoprene to be able to make the claim that it was 'breathable.' Although in comparison to unperforated boots this was an improvement, the overall structure of neoprene still remained closed - hardly ideal for a material wrapped around a horse's leg during intense exercise.
More recently 'Limestone based' neoprene has been touted by some companies. Although limestone based neoprene is not made from petroleum base like regular neoprene so is kinder on the environment, tests have shown that it actually improves heat retention by as much as 40% over regular neoprene. Great for wetsuits - not so great for horse boots. Neoprene is also not anti bacterial or anti fungal. Ever noticed that funky 'barn smell' in your horse's boots after a few months? That's all those nice little critters living in them.
Dermatophytes, or microorganisms that cause fungal diseases, thrive in warm, moist environments. Horse boots that don't "breathe" can increase the horse’s susceptibility to conditions such as contact dermatitis, irritation and hair loss. Fungus can survive in a pair of boots and can spread from horse to horse through the tack.
Good horse boots will use antimicrobial fabrics in their liners. An antibacterial compound incorporated during fabric manufacture inhibits growth of microorganisms associated with disease of the skin.To reduce heat and encourage evaporation, look for breathable fabrics. Obviously Majyk Equipe has made the choice to avoid neoprene in its products. Our liners are all made from a proprietary bio foam material - highly breathable and cooler than neoprene.
Next you want good protection. Interestingly, most horse boots are made in a single mold process, meaning the material is formed in one mold to make the entire boot. This means that the durometer of the material used has to be all the same consistency - there can be no harder or softer areas. This creates a dilemma - do you want a softer boot that will be comfortable for your horse or a harder, stiffer boot that will offer better protection in the delicate areas? Majyk solved this problem by making a dual density jump boot - harder in the areas where more protection is needed and softer where it wraps around your horse's leg. This results in the perfect combination of protection and comfort - something that's very hard to achieve.
In Cross Country boots, most protection is provided by hard plastic inserts (strike guards) that are inflexible and made of one piece of hard plastic. While this type of protection is good at protecting the soft areas of your horse's legs, it doesn't move with the horse during normal movement. We faced this by making a 'four way' flex guard that is super hard when struck, but moves with the natural gaits of your horse. These strike guards are ideal for horses that need stronger protection but don't want to be inhibited in their stride. While this might be enough for most horse boots, we also use another material - ARTi-LAGE- inside our strike guards. This material is a soft foam based material that is soft and pliable in its natural state but forms a hard wall when it gets struck. The material is 'dilatant' meaning the molecules inside are constantly moving - slowly during regular movement but fusing together to form a hard barrier if a hard strike occurs. Once the impact threat is over, the molecules return to normal. This provides two levels of protection, and explains why our Cross Country Boots are the choice of so many world class riders.
Whatever you choose to put on your horse, the more education you can get on the subject, the better. So read up and then make your choice - after all when it comes to your horse's leg protection, the wrong choice can be an expensive mistake and your horse can't tell you his preference. Make sure you check sizing thoroughly (don't just buy the same size you have always bought in another brand's boots - check out each company's size chart for detailed sizing) and follow guidelines for fit. If a manufacturer's web site doesn't have detailed sizing or explanation of its manufacturing process then move on. Your horse deserves the best research so before you reach for the cheapest option or the one you have seen on your friend's horse, take the time to read up and see what the best choice is for what you intend to do with your horse. Many of the horse boots on the market today are designed in far away factories by non equestrians that make one stock design and sell it to multiple companies. That's why you'll see the exact same boots around with different brand names. Ask yourself this - if the company that sells you boots doesn't know what goes into making them then how can they be sure they are suitable for your horse? Answer this question and your equine partner will thank you.