Friday, May. 24, 2024

Unraveling The Mystery Of Wraps

One of the most important lessons young horsemen learn is the art of wrapping legs, whether it be after strenuous exercise or post-injury. It’s a pretty simple concept, winding long pieces of fabric over padding around a leg. But what does it really accomplish?



One of the most important lessons young horsemen learn is the art of wrapping legs, whether it be after strenuous exercise or post-injury. It’s a pretty simple concept, winding long pieces of fabric over padding around a leg. But what does it really accomplish?

There are all kinds of therapeutic methods of wrapping. You can use dry wraps, which are simple leg bandages with nothing applied to the leg before wrapping. Or you can apply a substance like rubbing alcohol or liniment to the leg before wrapping it. And poultice, the application of wet clay to the horse’s leg before wrapping it, is another time-honored practice.

What do each of these wraps accomplish? The answer is the same for each: they minimize the effects of inflammation. They all accomplish that in similar ways, but to varying degrees.

Inflammation in the horse’s lower legs can be caused not only by an injury to the soft tissues, but also by the stress of strenuous exercise—landing over big jumps or galloping at high speeds. In response to the trauma applied to the leg, the body releases small amounts of fluid from the circulatory and lymphatic systems into the spaces around the tendons and ligaments. This is inflammation, which in severe cases can be seen and felt externally as heat and swelling.

The goal of wrapping a leg is to minimize that inflammation by forcing the fluid back into the circulatory and lymphatic systems, a process called osmosis.

“If you’re talking about wrapping post-exercise, you’re talking about controlling the effects of inflammation. Inflam-mation tends to lead to more inflammation. So by controlling the effects of a mild inflammation, the swelling, you are in effect decreasing the inflammation a little
bit,” said Dr. Tom Daniel of Southern Pines Equine Associates (N.C.).

Different wraps do this in two main ways—by applying physical pressure on the leg’s outer structures, which
minimizes swelling, and by increasing circulation, which expedites the process of osmosis.

While the basic strategy of wrapping is common, Daniel emphasizes that every horseman has his own theories about when to apply the various kinds of bandages.

“What everyone believes works comes from a combination of their experience, advice they’ve gotten, and what they’ve grown up learning. There are no real absolute truths to any of this, honestly,” he said.

Dry Wraps

Applying a simple bandage to a horse’s leg helps to minimize swelling caused by inflammation. “A dry wrap is basically a pressure bandage,” said Daniel. By applying an even pressure around the circumference of the horse’s leg, a dry wrap helps to physically force any accumulated fluid back into the circulatory and lymphatic systems.


“The important thing about a dry wrap is that you have to have sufficient padding. You’ve got to have even distribution of the pressure around the structures of the leg, and proper padding is the only way that’s going to be accomplished,” Daniel said.

Rubbing Alcohol

Applying rubbing alcohol to a horse’s leg before wrapping works to minimize inflammation through cooling.

“Alcohol has a true cooling effect. Alcohol on the legs themselves gives some degree of cold therapy effect, but it also has a drying effect on the skin and can have a significant irritant effect on broken skin. So you have to be careful with it. But if you want some cooling effect on the legs, that is certainly something you can do. Alcohol isn’t going to last that long on the leg; it will evaporate quickly. So you won’t lose the cooling effect by putting a wrap over it,” Daniel said.


There are various commercial liniments on the market, and many of them include rubbing alcohol as a main ingredient. But Daniel advises reading the label carefully when considering using liniment under leg wraps.

“Some liniments include a counter-irritant ingredient, which is designed to initiate an inflammatory response,” Daniel said. Ingredients such as turpentine or camphor create a heating effect and a mild inflammatory response.

“If you use a liniment with a counter-irritant as an ingredient, you’re now creating a little bit of an inflammatory response. This is part of a strategy to increase circulation and increase the lymphatic flow to that area. If you’re trying to control inflammation or reduce inflam-mation from occurring, you don’t really want to put a counter-irritant on the leg and increase the inflammation,” he said.

In a situation where a horse suffers from passive edema, a chronic non-inflammatory swelling of the lower legs frequently known as stocking up, Daniel considers liniment an appropriate choice.

“Passive edema is caused by a loosening of the connective tissue in the legs, which gives more of a space for fluid to collect,” Daniel said. “That’s why horses who have a tendency to stock up seem to always stock up. The actual physical nature of the connective tissue in their legs has changed over time, and it allowed areas of fluid collection to occur. That can be a little bit more of a challenging situation because you’re never going to recreate the normal anatomy in those legs, so you have a chronic issue.”

Increasing the circulation in the lower legs by creating mild inflammation helps dissipate that chronic edema.



Poultice is the tried-and-true post-exercise or post-injury treatment for the soft tissues of a horse’s leg, said to draw heat and inflammation out of the leg.

Surprisingly, given the amount of research that goes into so many veterinary practices these days, there’s not much scientific information about poultice’s effects. “There’s a lot of scientific opinion about it, but I don’t know of any true absolute science behind it,” said Daniel.

“Historically, clay does have an effect within the tissue in the leg. It seems to help improve circulation. We’re not sure how it does that at the cellular level. I can say that the concept works, but physiologically, there’s no real explanation for it,” Daniel said.

The heat generated by the poultice’s application also stimulates increased circulation, which in turn reduces edema.

Daniel believes that the main function of poultice is to enhance the effects the pressure bandage created. “It fills in the crevices of the leg. It gets a much better even pressure throughout all those tissues because the poultice itself creates a kind of cast. A properly applied bandage on top of that poultice is going to have much better and more even pressure around all the structures,” said Daniel.

Poultice is traditionally made of clay, whether it be kaolin, a white mineral clay, or bentonite, a volcanic clay. There are medicated poultices on the market, which include herbal ingredients that enhance the poultice’s circulation-stimulating effect.

“As long as there’s not a strong astringent in the poultice, you’re probably not going to go wrong with a lot of the medicated poultices, even if you’re not intimately familiar with what those ingredients are,” said Daniel.

Poultices are usually covered with either wet or dry paper or plastic wrap before the leg is bandaged. The different strategies result in different drying rates of the poultice. If you want the poultice to stay wet longer, covering it in plastic wrap will trap the moisture in. Wetting paper before putting on top of the poultice also prolongs the drying process, while dry paper will cause the poultice to dry quickly.

Daniel believes that poultice has the same effect on a leg whether it dries under the wrap or not. “The drying effect of the poultice is a function of the poultice itself and not necessarily specifically what it’s doing to the leg,” he said. “Most of the time when you unwrap in the morning, you have a dry poultice flaking off the leg. I think your poultice has done its job either way.”

Caution should be taken with applying poultice to a horse with sensitive skin on his legs or a break in the skin, as poultice can irritate wounds.

“A horse with sensitive legs shouldn’t have a moist, warm environment on their legs for an extended period of time. For a horse like that, I don’t want to wrap them in a way in which the poultice will maintain its moisture. I want to make sure to let it dry,” Daniel said.




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