Safe on the Trail: Leg Protection for Trail Riding with Horses
Trail riding is one of the most popular equine pursuits, and for good reason. It’s (usually) peaceful, relaxing, and a rare opportunity to get outside, embrace nature, and enjoy your horse away from the confines of the show ring and arena.
But trail riding isn’t always all picnics and peace.
Uneven terrain, muddy conditions, fallen trees, and water crossings can all spell trouble to the unprepared equestrian.
To ensure your trail riding experience is as safe and uneventful as possible, let’s take a look at some common trail hazards, as well as the best leg protection options to keep your horse’s delicate lower legs safe.
Muddy, Slippery Conditions
Poor footing is one of the most common (and dangerous) trail concerns.
Mud creates slick conditions that can cause horses to slip and makes it difficult to regain traction.
The best leg protection for muddy conditions begins in the hooves (or slightly below them, to be particular).
First off, obviously avoid slippery spots if you can: change your route, or venture slightly off the trail to avoid a muddy spot if it’s safe to do so. Failing that, consider applying studs if your horse is shod and you know the route will be slippery, as shoes can give less traction than bare feet.
A barefoot horse may be able to traverse slippery conditions better, but they’re by no means invincible. A hoof boot like the Easy Boot Trail is specially designed to provide extra traction and hoof protection for trail horses.
Muddy wraps are no fun for anyone. If you deck your horse out in full coverage sports medicine type boots, some manufacturers make boot covers to help keep them clean. If you’re an avid outdoor rider, these are a great way to protect your investment and cut down on cleaning time.
Tree Roots and Fallen Branches
If you’ve ever gone hiking, you’ve probably tripped over enough tree roots to appreciate what a hazard they can be. Just like mud, avoiding a dangerous situation is the best protection, so avoid guiding your horse over exposed tree roots or fallen branches if at all possible.
If avoidance isn’t possible, here are 2 options to protect your horse’s lower legs.
Splint boots are a good source of protection for this hazard as they cover the front of the leg, unlike tendon boots.
Properly applied polo wraps that encircle the small sesamoid bones of the fetlock joint offer even more coverage and can help lessen the impact of striking a log, but the fleece doesn’t protect against lacerations.
A horse can easily knock a hoof or pastern on a low lying branch, running the risk of damaging the sensitive coronary band, where hoof and pastern meet.
If your horse has a tendency to overreach or you’re concerned about coronary band damage, bell boots are a good idea. Pull-on boots generally stay on best but are also the most difficult to get on and off.
Velcro bell boots are a breeze to put on and take off but are easily pulled off by underbrush. If you’re using them, consider a strip of duct tape over the Velcro fasteners to make sure they stay on.
Water crossings pose a few risks, such as spooks or slips on wet riverbanks, as well as unknown riverbed footing.
Go slowly, and choose your footing very carefully. Avoid rushing or deep water, and be prepared to choose a different route if a crossing proves dangerous.
Water crossings can soak boots and increase the likelihood of them shifting, binding, or falling off entirely. Unless your horse truly needs boots, it may be best to leave them at home.
If you absolutely must put boots on your horse when you know you’ll be crossing water, avoid anything with sheepskin lining, as fabrics will quickly become soaked. Leather boots will need to be cleaned and conditioned after getting wet, and synthetic boots allowed to dry before being used again.
If you know you’ll be facing a water crossing on the trail, try a trick from cross country riders and racehorse trainers: tape.
A wrap or two of electrical tape will help to secure Velcro tabs on boots (and polo wraps too, but leave the polos at home if you’re going to be crossing water). Make sure to tape with even pressure around tendons and leave yourself a small “courtesy tab” to help you peel the tape off later.
Horses get hurt. No matter how diligently you try to protect your horse on the trail, there’s always a chance he’ll get injured.
Pack a small first aid kit for the trail. A disinfectant spray, vetwrap, and gauze pads should be enough to cover most minor wounds until you can get home.
The absolute best way to keep your horse safe on the trail is to pay attention. Rodent holes, downed wire, and backcountry bogs can all be dangerous hazards that you can’t buy boots to protect against. Your horse is relying on you to be alert and help him avoid dangerous situations, so always pay attention to your surroundings.
If there’s no cell phone service on the trail, consider bringing a satellite phone, walkie radio, or another communication device to get help in the event of an emergency. Always let someone responsible know when you’re leaving, where you’re going, and when you plan to return.
After the Trail
When you do get home, remember to allow your horse plenty of time to walk home and cool down to avoid tying up. Water him sparingly for the first half-hour back if it’s been a hot day or he’s been working hard to avoid colic.
Give him a post-ride inspection for lameness or injury, especially if he’s had a slip or a run-in with some downed timber. Swelling from slips and abrasions from underbrush are two of the more common injuries trail horse’s legs see.
Feel each leg, front and back, with the same hand to check for signs of heat or swelling. Any issues should be iced immediately.
Lower legs are notoriously hard to ice, so you may want to consider investing in a set of Ice Wraps to keep in the freezer (they also work great for human bruises, too!). Failing that, running cold water over a bump can help reduce swelling.
Trail riding can be tons of fun, and a great way for both horse and rider to unwind.
When it comes to leg protection for trail riding, there are several options for riders to consider. But more important than any boot or wrap is common sense and paying attention. Avoid hazards if at all possible, and let your horse go slowly and pick his footing in uncertain areas.
When it comes to boots, remember that fit is key. A horse is better off without any leg protection at all, than he is with dirty, poorly fitting, or soggy equipment.
What are your top tips for staying safe on the trail? Share with other riders in the comment section below!