Human athletes use a soothing balm to ease muscle aches caused by strenuous exercise. For equine athletes after training or competition, the groom rubs a soothing brace into the horse's legs, covers them with cushion wrap, and then applies standing wraps.
Properly done, the groom will rub the topical treatment into the horse's legs while delivering a deep massage. This enhances blood flow, thereby reducing inflammation and soreness. (Grooms often refer to their occupation as “rubbing horses” because it is an integral part of their job.)
Dr. C. Reid McLellan, executive director of the Groom Elite program, teaches grooms the knowledge and skills they need to competently care for racehorses. Wrapping legs is an important segment of Groom Elite's 101 course.
McLellan, a former trainer who served as the Racing Education Manager at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, said standing wraps serve four purposes: Protection, support, medication enhancement, and looks.
Looks? It's a matter of professionalism, McLellan said. An owner visiting his or her horse at the barn expects to see it “done up” in pristine, white standing wraps. The groom's effort makes even a $5,000 claimer look like it gets Triple Crown treatment.
“Sometimes a horse doesn't need standing bandages, but it looks like the trainer knows what he's doing if the horse has standing bandages on,” McLellan said.
This also is the reason trainers direct grooms to wrap more than just one leg, even if the opposite leg needs no attention.
“If an owner comes in the barn and sees just one leg bandaged, then it's 'Oh my God, my horse has a broken leg.' So we're going to put a dry bandage on the other leg, just for looks. But it's not necessary.”
McLellan said even if the horse is lame on one leg and consequently spends more time standing on the opposite leg, that opposite leg does not need support. He explained that the stay apparatus that enables a horse to sleep standing up, particularly the check ligaments, supports the horse; also, the horse does not have muscles in its legs below the knees and hocks.
Ay, there's the rub
Alcohol, liniment, astringent sweat lotion, and wound dressing are some of the medications rubbed into a horse's leg before applying a wrap. Technically, all these except wound dressing are called rubefacients, which cause dilation of the capillaries and an increase in blood circulation.
Sweat lotion and poultice require different handling. Both are designed to draw out fluid and swelling. Cover sweat lotion with sheet cotton or paper towels to absorb the fluid, followed by plastic wrap to induce sweating. Then cover that with cushion wrap and a standing wrap. For poultice, cover it with wet brown paper, then apply the cushion and wrap.
“There is no therapeutic value to the wet, brown paper. It is simply to keep the poultice off the quilt,” McLellan said. “Poultice is not really a medication. It's a mud pack that draws fluid out of the tissues. Poultice works better if you don't put anything over it. The problem with that is that horses, especially young ones, will rub it with their nose, and you end up having poultice on their face instead of their legs. The other problem is that they lie down in the straw or shavings, and those stick to the poultice and rub it off.”
Padding must be used under the standing wrap to provide support and protection for the horse's leg by cushioning it.
“Cushion wraps can be roll cotton, brushed cotton, fleece, or synthetic,” McLellan said. “The early ones were made in the form of cross-stitched quilts. Some people call those pillow wraps. No-Bow is a cushion wrap made of brushed-cotton material. I love them. They are the best I ever used because they really form to the horse's leg more uniformly than quilts. About the only other thing that forms to the leg like that is roll cotton.”
Cushion wraps serve another important purpose: keeping the outside of the standing wrap free of medication that might cause a positive drug test. When teaching students to wrap a leg, McLellan insists that the cushion wraps extend past the edges of the standing wraps to keep them from being contaminated.
“If a horse has medication on his leg and that standing wrap touches that medication and later that same horse is going to run, or that bandage gets put on another horse, it could cause a contamination positive. So you have to be extremely careful with that,” McLellan warned.
Before the introduction of Velcro fasteners, standing wraps were held in place by large safety pins…until a dislodged pin allegedly thwarted Spectacular Bid's quest for the 1979 Triple Crown. After winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Spectacular Bid finished third in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Bud Delp later offered the excuse that Bid had stepped on a safety pin that fell off a leg wrap and stuck in the frog of his left front foot the morning of the race.
Trainers across America immediately banned safety pins from their stables, yet many others found the excuse farfetched.
“One of the greatest horses to ever look through a bridle didn't win the Triple Crown because of a bandage pin,” McLellan said. “As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather have Velcro than bandage pins, because I don't have to worry about pins coming off, a horse stepping on them or swallowing them.”
Everyone who ever wrapped a leg has been warned, “Do it right or you'll bow the horse.” McLellan said bowing the horse's tendon won't happen if the standing wrap is applied uniformly. He explained how a bandage bow occurs.
“If they're putting it on tight at the bottom, loose in the middle, and tight at the top, that's when you have a chance for blood to pool up because you have a constriction in one area, a looseness in the middle, and a constriction in another area,” McLellan said. “If a groom puts a bandage on with uniform pressure all the way up that leg, it is very difficult to actually bow a horse.”
Start the standing wrap on the side of the leg, midway between the knee and the fetlock. Spiral the wrap toward the midline of the horse, going downward to the fetlock and then back up to the knee, fastening it there.
“As you wrap over the cannon bone, that's when you pull the tension,” McLellan said. “You will see it roll the tendon toward the inside, which is the natural way the tendon rolls. … Anything I put on a horse's leg is going to go the same way around the horse's leg. So it is going toward the midline of the horse as it goes over its tendon and is coming toward the groom as it goes over its cannon bone.”
One final warning about leg wraps: Check them often to assure they are achieving their purpose, and never allow a wrap to remain on the leg for longer than a maximum 48 hours, unless directed otherwise by a veterinarian.
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