Neoprene: Choosing and Using

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Most equine trainers look to horse boots to cushion legs and offer some support for their animals. While not a guarantee against all injuries, boots can offer some protection—but it’s important to understand materials and fit. And, as with most training tools, the simpler the better, especially when it comes to putting them on and cleaning them off. That’s why many have turned to neoprene products, a rubber-like material that cushions the structures of the horse’s leg.

Cushioned Protection

Neoprene is a polymer, polychloropene. As an easy-care synthetic, it’s replaced rubber as a protective lining. Neoprene’s other features include:

• shock dampener: The foam lessens sharp impact.

• quick compression: The foam squeezes under pressure, then rebounds to its normal thickness when pressure is released. “Neoprene offers uniform compression,” said Gerald Detty of Pro Orthopedic Devices, Inc.

• mobility and comfort: The foam wraps smoothly to hug the bones, tendons and ligaments. The horse’s leg expands and contracts when he walks, trots and canters, so the boot must be a “soft” wrap rather than a brace, to match the horse’s range of motion.

• tensile strength: Neoprene is strong and elastic, with four-way stretch.

• insulation: Detty explains, “Neoprene holds in the body heat. In return, the body wants to cool off that area, so it increases the blood circulation to that area.”

Neoprene offers contour fit in galloping boots, splint boots, ankle boots, bell boots and skid boots. For stable wear, you’ll see neoprene knee boots and hock boots. It’s also used in girths and cinches, tail wraps, neck sweats and shipping helmets.

Each of these products begins as a sheet of neoprene, laminated onto nylon fabric. The flat piece is shaped into the sleeve to flex with the leg’s movements.

Detty compared the horse’s leg to the human leg, saying, “There’s not a lot of difference, except where we’ve got an ankle, they have a hoof. The soft wrap is easy to design. The big difference is in the materials.”

Choosing Quality Materials

Like all synthetics, neoprene is available in various grades, and its composition influences cost and performance. In the tack shop, all boots may look the same. But after three months’ daily use, lower-quality boots may begin to deteriorate. When you’re shopping, look for boots that sport brand name foams such as Stomatex, Poron or Ensolite.

In its purest form, neoprene has a dense cell structure to retain its shape and flexibility. It’s a closed-cell foam, which means that it won’t compress fully and will instantly rebound. Neoprene that’s nitrogen-injected offers the best insulation for heat retention.

To reduce cost, neoprene is often blended with another polymer, Styrene Butadiene Rubber, or SBR. But blends are not durable. Detty explained, “Neoprene blends lack stretch and will break down, crack, rip and tear. The foreign manufacturers bring in SBR fillers, and these can be as low as 20 percent neoprene.” He added that the neoprene blend will become stiff and crumble as it deteriorates.

Another foam, vinyl nitrile, is substituted by some boot manufacturers. While it’s similar to neoprene, it’s less expensive and absorbs less shock.

Neoprene is made in various thicknesses, usually measured in millimeters. A typical boot is about 5-mm thick. Better ones are in the 9-mm range and low-end models can be only 3mm.

While standard neoprene is not breathable and creates compression with heat, breathable neoprene offers “cool” compression. Breathable neoprene is perforated for air circulation, allowing moisture to escape. A study on humans showed a reduction in sweat—worn directly against the skin, breathable neoprene allowed 50 to 60 percent sweat removal.

Choosing Quality Construction

A boot is shaped into its form through gluing and stitching layers of neoprene and fabric. Built from quality material, boots should retain their shape and conform to the leg.

Study a boot’s construction to see how the product is fabricated. Neoprene in boots is encased in fabric layers, to protect its edges from tearing. The outer fabric is usually nylon or lycra. Some boots use a molded vinyl (PVC) outside shell as the first layer of impact against a hoof striking the opposite leg. You’ll even see Kevlar-type materials to resist abrasion. Whatever the layers, they should maintain the flexibility and stretch of the neoprene base.

Look for smooth edges and secure stitching. In general, a boot will wear first at its edges, which tend to tear or deteriorate. “Heat-welded” edges may increase the boot’s longevity.

Feel the thickness of the cushion to estimate its function. If your computer mouse pad is made of neoprene, you can test the feel of how the foam compresses before you go shopping. Then do the same on the boot, feeling for a firm or soft quality. Typically, open cell foam squeezes flatter. Closed cell foam feels denser, and provides more support.

Most boots are sold in small, medium, large and extra-large sizes, to fit the height and diameter of the leg. A boot’s edge shouldn’t press into a joint—check the fit at the knee, pastern and hock.

The Boots in Action

Realize the limitations of even the firmest boots. Michael Collier, DVM, has conducted studies on these products and points to the value of circumvential, or surrounding, support. Such support can reduce the risk of hyperextension, or a fetlock joint overextending to the ground.

He noted that a boot with circumvential support features a sling—a strap that cradles and helps support the pastern and fetlock. “It’s not going to prevent that fetlock from going down,” says Collier. “Boots aren’t designed to cause a change in the ability of the animal’s limb from going to the ground. The limb will go to the ground if it wants to, whether that boot’s on there or not. What the boot will do is give some support, especially in the animal that’s not fully conditioned.”

Collier cautioned that no boot can absorb even as much as 50 percent of the shock from impact. “The maximum you can get is 25 or 30 percent. It has to be done with a very conforming boot with a well-developed fetlock sling that comes around and really supports, is wide enough, and fits cosmetically to the horse’s limb so it’s cradling the back of the fetlock.”

In addition, neoprene retains heat, so the leg is basically encased in a wetsuit. “It can generate excessive heat,” said Collier. “Don’t leave the boot on all the time. Take it off and put it back on later.”

The horse can also develop contact dermatitis from wearing boots too long. Detty noted, “People may say, ‘I burned my horse with a set of boots,’ because the hair fell out. That’s the horse’s reaction to the contact dermatitis.”

He added that the breathable neoprene can combat this condition. “It will allow air to go through it. Because it’s antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal, it’s healthier for the horse.”

Boot Maintenance

Because boots must withstand stresses of constant flexion, maximize your investment in quality boots with regular care. Keep boots clean by removing dirt, sand, manure and mud. Detty advised, “Wash the boot in dishwasher soap or a mild detergent in cold water. Hose off after each use, and wash every two weeks.”

Extend the life of your boots by storing them out of direct sunlight. Excessive heat can cause neoprene to crack, especially if it’s a blend.

As with everything in life, quality is the difference between $20 and $100 boots—or boots that last for three months or three years. And as a horse professional, the wear and tear you put on equipment is far greater than the average enthusiast. So, while saving money up front may seem appealing, constantly replacing boots doesn’t pay in the long run. The good news is that neoprene products are built to last—if given the right maintenance and care.

Quality Hook and Loop Fasteners

The best boot loses all value if its straps fail—then it can slip off, leaving the leg unprotected. A boot that unfastens without slipping free can even cause injury to the horse if he spooks or trips on the flapping boot.

Like neoprene, quality fasteners remain sound and intact. Hook and loop closures have replaced buckled straps for quick fitting and removal. The “hook” section attaches to the loop fabric.

For maximum security, look for boots with double-locking, or even triple-locking, closures. Pull straps tight and fasten firmly so they stay in place. Neoprene’s compression cushions against a tight strap’s pressure.

Protect fasteners from damage. Detty said that when “people complain that their boots “don’t stick any more,” this is often because they have slammed the boot in a tack room door or otherwise crushed the hook fabric. Look closely at the hook section, he said, and “you see that they broke off all the hook material,” so the closure system no longer works.

Detty noted that fasteners like the genuine Velcro brand tend to last longer. “We specify the Velcro with a minimum requirement of 1,000 cycles. If you use those boots every day for a year, the Velcro is still going to stick.”