We bet you don’t think twice when reaching for a set of boots and attaching them to your horse’s legs, it is also doubtful that you question their efficiency as you trust and have confidence in what the manufacturers tell you. However, having spoken to the founder of one of MMH’s favourite boot manufacturers and horsecare experts, Margaret Donnelly from Equilibrium, we will certainly be giving these must-have items a lot more credit!
In the beginning…
Set up by Margaret in 1999 Equilibrium Products was developed from the passion of one dedicated horse owner hunting for a solution to headshaking. Three years previously Margaret was determined to help her horse Timmy who suffered from the frustrating condition and after racking her brains and researching she came up with the concept. “We tried everything traditional to help relieve the headshaking and it was only when I studied him and realized he wanted to itch his nose, or hide it away, that I thought of creating the Nose Net to offer him something to not only protect his nose – but provide something for him to rub it against as well,” she tells us.
“Of the various masks and nose-nets I ran up on my sewing machine, the one that offered most relief without creating any other problems was a simple close-fitting semi-circular net,” she explains. “I was then asked to create one for someone else on my yard and from there I decided to investigate the potential for manufacturing them on a larger scale.”
“I started by going to the Royal Veterinary College who referred me to Dr Daniel Mills at De Montfort University, he was at the time conducting clinical trials and he got very excited by the product!” Margaret goes on to say, “They had a database so we sent the product out for trials and it came out as the most effective, with a 79% success rate. From there we found a supplier in Leicester – who is still making them now – to put them into production!”
From just one product to a worldwide market
In 2001 the Nose Net was exhibited at the industry’s trade fair, BETA International, and having already at that point gained the endorsement of British Dressage and quit her full time job at the Body Shop, queues quickly formed at the stand where the Equilibrium business was launched!
What was such a taboo subject had now been brought in to the forefront by Margaret and changed the way people perceived headshakers. Up until then people had hidden horses away that suffered from this problem but the development of this carefully designed and tested product began to improve the wellbeing and comfort of a huge number of horses and this epitomizes the company’s ethos and approach.
“The aim of Equilibrium always has been and always will be to develop products that really make a difference to horse welfare where and when there is a need for them,” she says. “We run a very tight, targeted product range and unless we feel that there is something that no one else offers or that we can improve the welfare of a horse by producing something, we don’t bother. Our company is very professional but we all have the perfect balance of empathy with ordinary horse owners.”
Now, Equilibrium is based on the outskirts of a small village, next to a working yard, and most of the ten members of staff have many years’ experience of horse ownership. Selling products to 22 different countries around the world the company maintains their dedication to creating effective solutions to help horse owners address common problems and protect their horses. Margaret and her team have in the last 10 years created products for fly and sun protection, an award-winning magnetic and massage therapy range and an extensive collection of protective and supportive products for those all important legs!
Loving those legs…
The Stretch and Flex range of boots was the initial protective legwear created by Equilibrium and this was once again developed through Timmy’s needs! “Being a sensitive part thoroughbred, Timmy often got rubs and sores from wearing boots so after seeing a new fabric Nike was using in orthopedic wraps I decided to investigate,” she tells us. “I discovered that the company that made it was British and that no one else was using it in the equestrian market and developed the Training Wraps.”
From there the company researched the different levels of protection needed for various disciplines and that is how our favourite boot range, Tri-Zone, was developed. “The Tri-Zone range came from the idea that a boot needed to be developed with the correct protection levels for the job it was intended for.”
Margaret continues, “We wanted to break through the traditional way equine boots had been manufactured using a scientific approach and after about 18 months we had developed the first brushing boot and then spent a further six perfecting the design!”
Once the boots had been perfected Margaret was keen to put them through their paces. “I went to BETA for advice on how we could test various protective materials and they put me in touch with the laboratory who were used to test the safety standards in body protectors.” From there the company’s Tri-Zone range seemed to expand to cover all angles! “We then developed the tendon boot, the fetlock boot, the vented tendon boot, fetlock lite boot, cross country boot and latterly the Tri-Zone Allsports boots using a triple layer ‘Airlite’ system,” she tells us.
The name Tri-Zone, very simply, comes from the three levels of protection that are incorporated into all Tri-Zone boots. Taking the Tendon Boots as an example, the Tri-Zone range takes modern technology to the limit, but why? “The outer shell of the boot is made from TPU and is moulded to create three protection zones that offer extremely high impact resistance.” Margaret tells us. “Created in one piece, the gradient between the zones of the outer shell also acts to actively encourage shock waves to disperse away from the tendon. The inner lining of the boot is made from EVA - a material renowned for its outstanding flexibility and high impact absorption - with a corrugated finish that channels heat and sweat away from the skin. The overall aim is to achieve a balance between the necessary levels of protection, leg cooling, flexibility and weight.”
What makes Tri-Zone so special?
It is quite a responsibility to take care of protecting and supporting the millions of equine legs in our industry but Margaret does not seem fazed! “We understand that horses’ legs are vulnerable and as an owner of five horses myself we do not approach boot design lightly,” she states. “We speak on behalf of all horses owners and encourage BETA to establish a boot standard which will assure adequate protection for each discipline.”
“In the design process we use scientific experts to test and research our product as well conducting field trails in busy professional yards,” she goes on to say. “We strive to use the latest technology and always look at new methods and materials to make each product better and more affective. The problem with the boot market as a whole is there are too many brands on the market offering the same products which ends up confusing the horse owner.”
The process involved in creating a pair of Tri-Zone boots – taking the cross country boots as an example – is far more extensive than you could imagine and a bit like a cooking process! “Firstly TPU (plastic) is poured into a mould with the vents placed in the mould,” Margaret divulges. “Then the EVA internal lining is shaped into the mould. The whole lot is stitched together and each pair of boots would take approximately one hour to make. The boots are made in a number of different countries where they have the specialist materials and expertise to produce the boot to a very high standard of craftsmanship.”
Studying doesn’t have to be boring…
In 2009 Equilibrium faced the height of controversy after conducting a study in to the levels of protection many equine boots offer. It created a bit of a stir but produced some very interesting information. “Whilst the purpose of the seminar was to share the research data in order to put the wheels in motion for developing an industry wide test methodology, the variations in the results were so extreme that they caused concern for the welfare of the horse,” Margaret says.
Why do we boot?
The sort of injuries that tend to occur in our horses limbs are affected by the sport that the horse is doing and the level at which the horse is training or competing. Each equine sport has a different profile of training injuries, related to the type of training and competing the horses are involved in, stretching particular tendons and ligaments and compressing and twisting certain bones and joints. Equally, accidental external injuries vary by discipline.
Boots are used primarily to provide protection or support. The many structures within the leg are all vulnerable to injury and this risk can be reduced by the use of appropriate boots. However, there is minimal information to suggest that boots provide support for soft tissue or osseous structures. Using boots to restrict movement can lead to the creation of new problems elsewhere.
The primary reason for using boots during training and competition is to protect the lower leg which is vulnerable and frequently injured, but there are considerations in the use of leg protection that include weight, restriction of movement or blood supply and overheating.
Equilibrium’s seminar was taken by Dr Murray and Dr David Marlin – both prolific names in the veterinary profession – and the following information was portrayed.
· Any weight added to the lower leg requires more energy to be put in to get the leg moving and further energy to stop it and make it swing back again. Thus, adding small amounts of weight to the end of the leg in the form of a boot or a bandage significantly increases the effort the horse must make to run and can also alter the stride characteristics. And some boots or bandages can absorb up to their own weight in sweat and water. Dr Marlin recommended that the boot or bandage weight should be marked on its label.
· Very stiff boots can restrict the range of movement of the lower leg, compromise tendon function, lead to soft tissue injury, and/or affect stride characteristics and performance. The ideal is a flexible, light boot that provides an adequate level of protection.
· The temperature inside the tendons of horses galloping without boots has been shown to reach on average 45°C, and it has been proven that around this temperature tendon cell death and tendon inflammation occur. Heat-retentive boots will increase leg and tendon temperatures much more than boots that allow heat to escape.
Thermal imaging was used to assess the extent to which boots insulate the leg (i.e. keeping the heat inside the boot). A thermometer inside a hot flask of hot water around which each boot was individually wrapped was also used to measure the rate of heat loss for each boot. It is clear that there are significant differences between boots; some allow heat to escape from the leg much more quickly than others. Dr Marlin called for manufacturers to indicate to horse owners how insulating their boots are. He also recommended simple good management practices, such as removing boots soon after exercise and cooling the legs.
As protection is the overriding reason boots and bandages are used, tests were developed to measure how well boots protected against concussion and penetration injuries. The testing was carried out using a custom made test rig consisting of a tower from which either a blunt hammer or a cutting blade (to stimulate different types of accidental injury) could be dropped onto the boots in a controlled fashion. The boots and bandages were tested at forces measured or estimated to occur when horses hit fences or brush or over-reach.
In the concussion tests, half the cross country boots tested were considered not to provide adequate protection. Three out of four open fronted tendon boots and three out of four bandages tested also provided less protection than reasonably expected, and indeed in some cases, boots actually amplified (increased) the damage.
A rewarding enterprise
As you would expect, running the business has had its challenges however Margaret finds it hard to think of a negative point. “The high points are always when we get customer feed back telling us what a difference our products make to their horse,” she says. “I still feel really strongly about the Nose Net and feedback that I remember vividly was from a customer in Canada who wrote to us and said, ‘thank you for giving me my horse back’. Two other points that stick out in my memory was when British Dressage agreed to allow the nose net in competitions and when the BSJA approached us to develop the Fetlock Lite for the young horse classes. I really can’t say that there has been a low point!”
Now Equilibrium is an established business they are able to give back to the industry. “By sponsoring some of the major series where the horse owners are actually competing, we believe that we are reaching as many horse owners as possible,” Margaret says. “We are supporting the industry especially in this day and age when many events could not be run without financial backing.”
Equilibrium never fails to impress us with the array of new products launched so as ever we were keen to get an inside scoop as to what the future holds however I don’t think Margaret wants to spoil any surprises so she just gave us a little teaser! “We are currently looking at producing other products using the same Airlite technology as we used in our highly successful Allsport Boot that we launched last year. We don’t put a date on launching a new product as until it is 100% perfect. If it is not good enough for my horse, then it is not good enough for anyone’s! ” Watch this space!
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