We all know that even the slightest of missteps can result in significant injuries for your horse. Luckily, there is a range of available boots and protective items that can protect your horse’s sensitive legs from damage during performance. In particular, bell boots can be a solution for horses who overreach while being ridden or while out in the paddock.
What Can Bell Boots Prevent?
In horses, “overreaching” refers to when they rear hooves reach too far forward when moving. This kind of reaching may cause minor nicks on the front hooves when moving around the paddock at a walk, but it can cause significant injury while galloping around a jump course.
Bell boots get their name from their bell shape. While they are often worn with tendon boots or other performance boots that protect the legs, bell boots are designed to shield the heel bulbs and the coronary bands of the front hooves.
How Can You Tell If Your Horse Needs Bell Boots?
Unfortunately, some owners only discover that a horse needs bell boots when he suffers a major hoof injury. By looking for some of the signs that your horse needs bell boots, you may be able to reduce his chances of sustaining an injury:
Losing front shoes in turnout
If a horse regularly overreaches, he may eventually pry off his front shoes in the paddock.
Scrapes, dirt, or bruises
If you notice that your horse’s front legs routinely have dirt marks or scrapes, he may be accidentally causing problems by clipping his front legs with his hind legs. Often, scrapes and dirt marks will be most noticeable after a ride.
Losing hind shoes
If your horse regularly loses hind shoes, bell boots may help temporarily. However, this is an issue that a farrier will likely need to look at, as it sometimes means that your horse will need corrective shoeing.
Having horseshoe studs
If your horse has studs in his shoes, he likely has an easier time navigating difficult terrain. These studs also make it much easier for his rear hooves to dislodge the studs and even remove the shoe. For horses with horseshoe studs, bell boots are always a wise idea.
What Types of Bell Boots Are There?
Generally speaking, you can find bell boots for your horse in two different styles — pull-on and open. Pull-on boots stretch over your horse’s hooves, making them a bit of a challenge to put on and take off. However, if your horse is a jumper, these boots are the most secure and come with the least risk of coming off.
Open bell boots usually have a hook and loop closure, so you do not have to pull them over each hoof. This feature makes them generally easier to put on. However, open bell boots are not quite as secure as pull-on boots, and there is a greater risk that they will come off during training or turnout.
While they are not especially common, some companies offer bell boots with a no-turn design. Most bell boots have circular tops, and they may rotate if clipped by the horse’s rear hooves. Molded designs sometimes offer extra protection for the heel bulbs, and they are designed to stay in place even when kicked.
Some bell boots incorporate a soft lining on the part that comes into contact with the coronary band. While this softer lining may be more difficult to clean, it does have the advantage of reducing the risk of chafing or discomfort for your horse.
Which Material is Best?
You can find bell boots in almost every imaginable style. There are bell boots for horses who need a softer boot, those who are extremely hard on their boots, and almost everything in between.
Gum rubber is the traditional material for bell boots. Most of these boots are pull-on, and they may need to be warmed up in order to easily pull over your horse’s hooves. Many gum rubber boots are thicker toward the bottom of the bell shape. This feature helps cushion your horse’s hooves and protect the boots from excessive wear. Gum rubber bell boots are lighter than most alternatives, making them a wise choice for owners of horses who can be fussy about wearing boots in general.
Rubber is essentially a modern alternative to gum rubber. These boots are durable, but they do tend to be a bit heavier. Rubber is also an option for riders who want their bell boots in unique or custom colors. Gum rubber bell boots usually only come in the characteristic light brown color of gum. Rubber, on the other hand, can be dyed with almost any color imaginable.
Polyvinyl chloride is a dense, affordable plastic that you can find in almost any application. PVC bell boots are an extremely durable choice for you and your horse. Hoof strikes and general wear over time can cause boots to wear out and eventually break, and many very durable options are also prohibitively expensive for many. PVC bell boots have hook and loop closures, so they may be more likely to come off than pull-on designs. However, their sturdy build means that they are likely to outlast many alternatives.
A comfortable horse is much more likely to perform well, and a set of open-cell foam bell boots helps keep your horse comfortable when performing. These boots have an outer shell that is lined with comfortable foam. The foam helps to evenly distribute both shock and heat. If you have a horse who becomes startled when he clips his own boots with his rear hooves, a shock-distributing technology like this one may help him stay calm and focused.
This softer material is often harder to clean than rubber or PVC. However, many neoprene bell boots are designed to absorb shock from accidental kicks. Some horses may also be more comfortable with their softer design. You may also be able to find bell boots that combine a harder outer shell with a cushioned neoprene inner layer.
Carbon fiber is a material that is known for being incredibly strong while also staying lightweight. Carbon fiber bell boots tend to be harder to find and more expensive than most alternatives. However, for horses who are very hard on bell boots, a carbon fiber set may be a wise investment. Their light weight also makes them a good choice for sensitive horses who may be distracted by a heavier set of boots.
How Do You Choose a Size?
Most companies recommend that you make sure you can fit a finger comfortably between your horse’s leg and the top of a bell boot. However, if you are like most equestrians and order at least some of your supplies online, you may not be able to try bell boots on your horse before you buy.
Many bell boot manufacturers offer measurements in their online listings, but some only use a small/medium/ large sizing system. Generally speaking, small bell boots are made for ponies, and medium boots are best for smaller horses like Arabians and some Quarter horses. Large boots will usually fit Thoroughbreds and smaller warmblood crosses, and extra-large boots are usually designed for most sport horses.
Of course, if you cannot try boots on your horse before buying, it may be worthwhile to reach out to the vendor yourself for guidance. Luckily, many vendors do let you return your bell boots if they do not fit your horse.
How Long Can Your Horse Wear Bell Boots?
Horses who overreach likely do it whether they are cantering in the paddock or walking down a barn aisle. However, with bell boots, it is not a good idea to have your horse wear them all day and every day. Most owners prefer to keep bell boots on when riding and when their horse is in turnout, as these are the situations when overreach-related injuries are likely to happen.
However, riding and turnout also can cause dirt particles to lodge under your horse’s boots. If this grime buildup is mot regularly removed, it can cause chafing. In minor cases, chafing is distracting and unpleasant. In severe cases, it may cause sores above your horse’s front hooves. These sores can become infected, and a horse with sores is unlikely to be able to wear boots for a time.
As often as you can, make sure to remove and clean the boots and your horse’s legs after riding or turnout. Doing so will prevent a buildup of dirt. It also gives you the opportunity to check your horse’s legs for spots where the boots have begun to rub. If you can catch rubs early, you may be able to prevent painful sores from developing.
Not every horse needs bell boots, but in horses who overreach or who are otherwise at risk, investing in a pair has the potential to reduce injury risk. If you think your horse might need bell boots but are not entirely sure, it may be a good idea to ask your trainer or farrier. Farriers will be able to assess your horse’s hooves and tell you whether bell boots, corrective shoeing, or a combination of both will be most helpful.