From the barefoot trimmer’s perspective, it is clear that hoof boots are superior to horse shoes in most aspects. They are light, removable and flexible, and they allow proper biomechanics while protecting the bottom of the hoof. However, we need to be objective and recognize some of the boots’ shortcomings.
First of all, the fit is a major issue. Boots that don’t fit perfectly will not only be inefficient, but can also pose safety concerns and increase the risk of injury. Which means that the trimmer must know about fitting hoof boots and also educate the owner so that they know when the boot no longer fits – if for example the flares are gone and the boot is now too small.
Unlike horse shoes, that are set for 6 weeks and don’t require the owner to do anything – boots can be labour intensive. For rehabilitation, the horse might need to wear them full time. It requires the owner to come nearly every day to check on them, clean and dry them. Not every owner can commit to that. For owners using boots for riding only, it takes a few extra minutes to tack up and untack.
When owners purchase hoof boots, they always wonder how long they’re going to last. The answer varies greatly depending on the type of boot, the horse, the type of exercise the horse is doing, etc. In rare cases, parts of the boots can break. Even if broken parts are usually replaced by the manufacturer, the waiting time to receive them can be a problem for the owners. Finally, it happens that boots cause some rubbing.
The first models of hoof boots were really large, heavy and did not fit well. For many horse people, boots still have that reputation. They are a relatively new product, and even though the existing models are constantly being improved, hoof boots do not yet have a strong positive reputation among equine professionals. It is rare that veterinarians and farriers recommend them for rehabilitation purposes.
The main reason owners look for hoof protection is that the lifestyle of most domestic horses does not form a fertile base for strong feet: soft footing, limited movement, rich feed, hoof care, etc. As a result, the horses tend to be uncomfortable on hard or rocky ground, even on gravels, because they don’t spend the day on the same type of terrain they’re ridden on. Boots allow owners to ride on any type of terrain knowing that their horse’s feet are protected.
Unlike horse shoes, who restrain the hoof in a rigid frame, hoof boots provide protection while allowing the foot to flex, torque and expand the way it would if it was bare. Therefore, the shock absorption mechanisms are intact, with an added padding to the various structures of the hoof. The destructive vibrations coming from metal impacting the ground are inexistent with hoof boots, as they are made with flexible and absorbing materials.
Thanks to their design, boots allow for pressure and release, therefore allowing proper circulation along with stimulating hoof growth: it is a virtuous cycle. For horses in rehabilitation, it allows them to move comfortably and speeds up their recovery. If your horse loses a shoe, it’s hoof will be damaged and the lost shoe will pose a risk of injury for the horses in the pasture. Besides the owner needs to wait for the farrier to come and put the shoes back on. If a horse looses a boot, which rarely happens, the owner can just put it back on.
The purchase can represent an investment for owners but in the long run the cost is significantly lower than shoeing every six weeks. If the shape of the hoof has changed and the boot no longer fits, used boots can be sold. The boots enable the hooves to develop as fully as they possibly can: some horses might no longer need them after a few months. As the feet grow stronger, the risk of injury and pathology diminishes substantially, which potentially lowers veterinary costs.
Another major advantage of hoof boots is that they can make a sore horse - laminitis, navicular - abscess - instantaneously comfortable. With the right foam pads, you can remove the pain immediately without any invasive procedure. Eliminating the pain eliminates the chronic stress and metabolic consequences that usually accompany it. The horse recovers faster and better.
My personal experience is that feet that tend to be weak - thin soles, poorly developed digital cushions, etc. - benefit from wearing boots, at least temporarily. Below are the pictures of a sound horse, comfortable being ridden in the sand. Out of curiosity, we made her wear hoof boots for 6 weeks. Not only can you see the difference in her posture and stride, but her general muscle tone improved and her feet got much stronger just from the better movement in boots.