Horse Health

Can You Support a Horse’s Leg with a Boot or Bandage?

I am a big fan of your horse’s legs.

No one will cheer for them louder than I will when it comes to carrying you up and down the trail, around the barrel, to a sliding stop, over a fence, trotting in place, jumping over a fence, or whatever activity you choose to ask your horse to participate in. Whatever it is that you ask your horses legs to do for you, your horse has no more enthusiastic supporter than me. I support your horse’s legs. GO, YOUR HORSE’S LEGS!

What? Oh, I see, you’re not looking for THAT kind of support.

Well then, what kind of support are you looking for? Ah, I see. We’re talking about “support” in terms of “give assistance to.” I’m all for that, too.

But I have to ask two questions.

  1. What kind of assistance are you trying to give?
  2. Does the means of assistance that you’re using actually do the job?

Seriously, those two fundamental questions that you might think about asking before you do, well, just about anything. If you donate to a charity, for example, wouldn’t you like to know what your money is going for? Wouldn’t you want to know that the money that you’re giving is actually being used for the purpose that you have intended?

Honestly, I don’t think people ask those two questions enough: certainly not when it comes to their horse(s). Regardless, in this article, let’s quickly take a look at the “support” provided by the myriad bandages and wraps that people drape on their horses.

One thing that’s curious right off the bat is that there’s really no consensus—heck, there’s not even any clear statement—about what it means to “support” a horse’s leg. As near as I can tell, the idea is that bandages used in this capacity will help keep the horse’s leg from being overly stretched, or help it get back to its normal position… or something.

When a horse strides, the horse picks his leg up in the air, the leg swings forward, and the horse lands on the leg. When the horse lands on the leg, all of the weight of the horse comes down on the leg. When this happens, the soft tissues of the leg stretch; the leg sort of acts like a spring. The tendons and ligaments and supporting structures are actually quite elastic. This is a wonderful thing because it allows the horse’s leg to adapt to the various stresses that are put on it. Imagine if the horse’s leg were as stiff as a post—he wouldn’t be able to move with the fluidity and grace that pretty much everyone loves.

If you’re trying to come up with some way to “support” this fluidity and grace, you’d certainly not want that support to be too stiff. If you’ve ever had a cast on your leg—or a snow skiing boot—you are getting TONS of support, so much so that you can’t walk normally. Happily, there’s not any way that you could provide THAT much support to a horse’s leg with a bandage. In fact, you wouldn’t want to—with that much support, the horse’s leg couldn’t bend and absorb all of the stresses put on it. Of course, you certainly wouldn’t want the “support” to be too little—that would just be pointless. Why put something on your horse’s leg that is less effective at doing its job than the horse’s leg does on its own?

What you must be looking for is just the “right” amount of support. Right off the bat this is problematic because, honestly, nobody has any idea what the “right” amount is. In addition, the amount would have to vary between individual horses. Big horses, with a lot more mass, would cause more force to be applied to the leg than a miniature horse. Horses running and jumping would put a lot more stress on their legs than a horse walking on a trail. A horse that’s tired would presumably need more support than a horse that’s fresh out of the box—in tired horses, tissues fatigue and become less elastic (which ultimately leads to injury). Unfortunately, nobody seems to have ever measured this sort of thing. Plus, it would probably be changing all of the time as the horse moves.

All of which pretty much means that it’s largely impossible to really know if support boots and bandages really do any good.

Add to that the fact that any “support” that is initially provided by a boot or bandage is probably pretty much done within a few strides. I’m reminded of this because a really good article just came out in the veterinary journal, Veterinary Surgery. The study was done at the Texas Equine Hospital in Bryan, Texas, and at the veterinary school at Kansas State University. The study, “Effect of Bandaging Techniques on Sub-Bandage Pressures in the Equine Distal Limb, Carpus, and Tarsus,” looked at how well six different types of leg bandages affected the pressure under the bandage in three different areas of the horse, using eight healthy horses.

First, they found that pressure wasn’t uniformly applied to the limb—it was higher in some areas that others, which wouldn’t be good, I’d think, if you were going for real “support.” Second, they found that after horses walked 50 feet, pressure under a bandage decreased dramatically with most bandages, which has also been shown before. (They did find that elastic bandages around the horse’s knee maintained pressure better that did standard bandages, but this is probably only relevant when trying to keep swelling down.) Regardless, if the pressure under a boot or bandage decreases right away, presumably, so does the support.

It even gets messier, support-wise. Boots or bandages add weight to the horse’s leg. It has been shown that when you put weight on a horse’s leg, the horse lifts his leg higher. That should mean more force is put on the leg. Boots and bandages should also trap heat inside the horse’s leg—it’s hard to see how heating up an exercising horse’s leg would be good for the leg. If you just put a boot or a bandage around a horse’s cannon bone, it’s hard to see how that would do anything at all—the force would just go right through the middle of the whole thing.

At least there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of harm that comes from putting boots or bandages on your horse’s legs to support them. Maybe they might occasionally deflect a stray glancing blow from another limb. Regardless, no one has done any sort of a study showing that horse’s who wear such things have higher or lower injury rates, or anything like that. Maybe, after all, they’re pretty harmless. I guess it’s really up to you if it is worth doing something so that you can proudly say, “At least I didn’t hurt my horse!” On the plus side, they’re colorful, dynamically designed, and attractively packaged. So at least there’s that.

To sum it up, I find the whole subject of “support” boots and bandages rather curious, albeit well-intentioned. It’s pretty easy to understand why you’d want to do something to help support your horse’s legs if you horse is in some sort of an athletic competition. It’s just really hard to figure out what “support” means and even harder to figure out if any of the boots and bandages that people put on horse’s legs do anything of importance. Or, to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, “Never was so much done to so many with so little [information].”

Still, I am a big fan of your horse’s legs. You can count on my support.


About the Author 

Dr. David Ramey is a 1983 graduate of the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to being a full-time equine veterinary practitioner in Encino, California, Dr. Ramey is also an internationally recognized author, lecturer and blogger. Dr. Ramey is a vocal advocate for the application of science to medicine, and—as such—for the welfare of the horse.