Wrapping legs is a skill that every horse owner should have, and preferably before they actually need to do it. There's no need to routinely wrap a horse's legs, but situations that call for it include:
- Protecting and covering an injured area
- Providing warmth to stiff/old tendon, ligament or fetlock problems
- Control of swelling and movement with acute injuries
- Protection during shipping
Improperly applied wraps can do a lot of damage. The blood supply to the tendons in the back of the horse's leg is easily compromised if the wrap is too tight, if it is applied with uneven pressure or if it slips down and bunches up as a result.
- Choose the right bandage for the right circumstances. A horse needs a different bandage for the stall vs. when you're riding him.
- Practice getting the correct tension on the bandage because if it's too tight it can injure his tendons, but if it's too loose it will slip.
- Clean the section of the leg to be wrapped and then brush the hair so that it lies smoothly.
- Which direction you wrap a leg isn't critical, so pick which works for you, whether you're left- or right-handed.
- Learn to judge where to start the outer bandage so that you finish wrapping at the top of the leg.
How much tension to use when applying a wrap depends on the materials and is something you just have to learn by experience. A properly applied bandage will stay in place without slipping and will lie snug against the skin, but not snug enough to indent it. You should be able to slide a fingertip between the bandage and the leg.
Practice first with a regular stall wrap, also called a stable wrap or standing wrap. This will have an inner layer of cotton or fleece and an outer bandage to hold that in place. The inner cottons are available in pony/mini sizes, 12" or 14" lengths. The 12" cottons are for front legs, where the cannon bone is normally shorter than behind. Your outer bandage will need to be between 9 and 12 feet in length and 4 to 6 inches wide.
First, make sure the leg area that the bandage will cover is clean. Brush the hair so that it is lying smoothly.
You can find several different sets of instructions on how to wrap legs properly. One frequently quoted says to always wrap from outside to inside, front to back, going clockwise on the right leg and counterclockwise on the left. However, if you're right-handed, the counterclockwise wrapping is awkward, making it difficult to apply smoothly, and vice versa if you're left-handed.
The important things to remember when bandaging are:
- Always start the wrap over bone, not the tendons.
- Bring the wrap around the front of the cannon bone first.
- End the wrap along the cannon bone as well. If you are right-handed, start the wrap on the left leg on the outside of the cannon bone, wrapping clockwise. On the right leg, start the wrap on the inside of the cannon bone, again going clockwise, to come across the front of the cannon bone first. If you are left-handed, reverse this.
Apply the cotton so that it lies smoothly along the leg, with no wrinkles. While holding the cotton in place lightly with one hand, begin the outer bandage by tucking it under the end of the cotton for a short distance, then wrapping in the same direction, first down to cover the fetlock joint, then back up again to end at the top of the leg. Each layer should overlap the one before by about half the width of the bandage.
Stretchy materials are easier to work with than cotton-flannel bandages, but can also be pulled too tight. As a rule of thumb, never stretch to more than 1.5 times the resting length of the fabric, and never, ever stretch as tight as it can go. To get an idea of how much pull/force this requires, first unravel a 4- to 6-inch length of bandage, hold it in front of you and gradually stretch until it is 1.5 times the original length.
One of the trickiest things to learn is where to start the outer bandage so that you finish wrapping at the top of the leg without too much bandage left over, or not enough left. This is going to depend on the length of your bandage (9 or 12 feet), the width (between 4 and 6 inches) and how much stretch it has, as well as how long the horse's cannon bone is. In most cases, you're just going to have to experiment with your bandaging materials to find out what works best, but in general the outer bandage is started anywhere from halfway up the cannon bone to just above the fetlock joint, worked down to take in the fetlock, then brought back up again.
When you first start learning to wrap legs, you'll feel like you could use at least one other hand and will likely botch your first attempts. Be patient. Like any skill, it just takes practice. Having someone experienced give you a few lessons makes all the difference in the world.
Wrapping Wounds and Injured Legs
Whether it's a pulled tendon, a wrenched ankle or a nasty wound, wrapping can improve a horse's comfort by controlling swelling and, in the case of wounds, keep the injuries clean.
Wrapping over a wound, whether sutured or open, can be tricky. You don't want the cotton in direct contact with the wound because of lint. It's less of a problem with the disposable sheet cottons, but these can end up sticking to wound drainage.
Your best bet is to cover the wound with regular gauze sponges that have been lathered with plain petroleum jelly, Skin Rejuvenator (Veterinus DermaGel) or an antibiotic cream. Do not use Telfa because it won't adhere well. Smooth this out so that the edges are all well stuck to the skin before you begin wrapping.
When wrapping injured legs, be careful with pressure. Too much pressure is painful and, when combined with the swelling from the injury, can cause additional damage. Wrap just tightly enough to ensure that the bandage does not slip down, and check it every few hours to make sure there is no swelling appearing above or below the bandage.
When your horse is shipping, sudden stops and sharp turns can throw him off balance. In the scramble to regain his balance, it's fairly common for the horse to step on himself, usually along the lower leg or coronary band. This can result in some serious injuries that you can avoid by using shipping wraps.
Shipping wraps must cover the pastern and coronary band. For horses with fairly short cannon bones, 14" cottons and long polos will usually get the job done. For longer cannon bones, you may need to go with regular stall wraps and a pair of bell boots, or invest in a good pair of one-piece shipping boots that cover the pastern and hoof well.
Wraps During Riding
Wraps are used during work to protect the lower legs from bumps, either from the horse's own feet or jumps, and to provide some support to the fetlocks and tendons/ligaments.
Expert application is even more important than wraps for stall use because there is a much higher risk of the bandages sliding down due to the greater movement. This can put uneven pressure on the tendons and cause injury. Wraps that come loose and unravel are an even greater danger, for obvious reasons of the horse getting tangled up in them and spooking or even falling.
Bandages for use during work are generally much lighter and thinner than stall wraps. Instead of thick cottons, thin disposable cotton sheets, such as the BB Satin Star leg wraps, are usually used. A sheet of this is cut to size and covered with either a self-adhesive wrap, like Vetrap, or a stretchy polo wrap. When more protection and support are needed, rubber sheets may be used as the inside wrap, with rubber or elastic bandages on the exterior.
If your horse could benefit from the protection or support of a wrap when working, but you don't really feel comfortable with the idea of using one, consider a sports boot instead.