The spring run of rodeos in California wraps up this month, and, per tradition, spending April and May in the Golden State means roping in the mud sooner or later. ‘Tis the season, as they say.
Since the beginning of time, timed-event cowboys have debated whether it’s best to boot up horses in muddy conditions. Some have said that horses need to suck it up like the cowboys riding them—and a few still do—but, protective gear has evolved. And, with rope-horse prices at an all-time high, it makes sense to protect your investment—rain or shine.
Fifteen-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header Clay Tryan won world team roping titles in 2005 (with Patrick Smith), and 2013–14 (with Jade Corkill).
“When people take the boots off their horses when it’s muddy, it cracks me up,” Tryan, the Montana native who currently lives in Texas, said. “That’s the opposite of what makes sense. I’ve had horses overreach so bad that I couldn’t use them for a while, sometimes even with the boots on. They’re more likely to slip in the mud, and hit themselves. It’s just cheap insurance. Our horses are everything. Why not do everything we can to protect their legs?”
But, cleaning boots after a mud run can be a little less than fun.
“I use bell boots and protective boots all the way around,” Tryan said. “When it’s really muddy out, I put Vet Wrap over the top of my horse’s boots. It helps to not ruin them. Otherwise, they get watered down and so heavy that they don’t even stay on sometimes. But Vet Wrap works.”
Dr. Ed Hamer savvies this subject as both a horse doctor and a team roper, even though his work at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, California, in the Santa Ynez Valley keeps the University of Nevada at Reno undergrad, who also graduated from Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, too busy to rope much these days.
Between 1996 and 2005, Hamer roped quite a lot and won five saddles, including one from the USTRC’s 1997 Desert Classic in Indio with Robert Estrada. Last year, he placed second at the renowned Rancheros Visitadores ride, and he has gained additional rodeo-horse insight being married to Tina Barlogio Hamer—cousin to five-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho.
“We’ve all been to plenty of ropings in the mud,” Hamer said. “Some arenas hold up pretty well. They can have standing water on them, and still aren’t too bad. Others that have no real bottom to them turn into bogs, and are just a mess. It depends mostly on what’s underneath.
“I do recommend that ropers boot up their horses when it’s muddy. Interference injuries like overreaching are diminished by bell boots, for sure. I think bell boots are most important, because these horses get up underneath themselves and can hit themselves. Splint boots protect against that, as well, but can be a false sense of security against tendon injuries. Tendon and ligament injuries can’t always be prevented, even with splint boots. But the concussive effects of an overreach can be minimized by bell boots and splint boots.”
There can be direct and indirect benefits to using leg protection, in Hamer’s opinion.
“Horses step on their heels quite a bit when you’re roping on them, and bell boots can especially keep them from getting cut by a hind shoe when they overreach,” he said. “An example of an indirect benefit is the advantage in cold conditions of splint boots keeping some warmth around a horse’s legs.”
Hamer and virtually all vets urge ropers not to leave protective boots on their horses all day long, regardless of conditions.
“They need to come on and off—splint boots especially,” Hamer said. “If you’re roping in sand, take them off and shake them out every hour or two. If it’s muddy, take them off and hose them off between runs. Most rodeo guys are pretty good about it. Some jackpot guys don’t always take the time to even loosen their cinch between runs, much less take the boots off of their horses. But doing that at least every couple hours is a good idea.”
Hamer often hears another advantage to booting and de-booting when getting soundness-related calls from cowboys.
“They’ll say, ‘Hey, I was putting the boots on my horse the other day and I noticed…,’” Hamer said. “The problem might have nothing to do with the boots, but that’s how they found it. Putting the boots on your horse before you rope, and taking them off afterward lets you get your hands and eyes on your horse’s legs. That’s an opportunity to spot something you might not otherwise see.”
Clay Smith and Paul Eaves were the leaders of the pack in the world team roping standings at press time. Missouri native Eaves, who now lives in Millsap, Texas, is clear on this subject.
“If you care about your horse, you boot him,” said Eaves, who’s roped at the last six straight NFRs. “There’s more than one decision to make when it’s muddy. If I’ve decided to ride my good horse, I’m going to boot him to protect him as best I can. Protecting your horse is important all the time, and more accidents happen in bad conditions, because they slip and put their foot in the wrong spot.
“There are also times when you just change horses. A couple years ago at Oakdale (California), we won the first round, then it rained really hard. I rode my good horse in the first round, then I got off of him and rode a young horse that had never been to a rodeo before on our second steer. The steer really ran, but we placed in the average. It just wasn’t worth riding my good horse. I wasn’t the only guy who did that. Clay did the same thing. It’s a judgment call.”
Yet another Clay—ProRodeo Hall of Fame heeler Clay O’Brien Cooper—cautions ropers that there’s a good chance you’ll be sacrificing a set of boots when you use them in the mud.
“You’re probably going to ruin your boots,” Cooper said. “A lot of times, when you get them wet like that, they’re not very good anymore. But if you like your horse, you boot him. If you’re going to ride your good horse, you’ve got to boot him.
“You’re trying to protect your investment. I have my good horse insured. Putting protective boots on front and back of the best, most valuable asset you have is just smart business.”