All Wrapped Up — the Purpose of Polos.

Polo Wraps

Okay, let me preface this post by saying that I’ve never “gotten” polo wraps. I just don’t see the point. In my book, they are just one more thing to wash. However, judging by the prevalence of multi-colored wraps in horse catalogs, I decided to spend some time looking into their pros/cons.

Polo wraps are leg bandages made of fleece or other stretchy materials that many people use to wrap horses’ legs when ridden or lunged. Originally used by polo players, they are also widely used by dressage riders and also by hunter/jumpers. In fact, many people don’t leave the barn without them and report having dozens of sets in their tack room.

When you ask people why they use polos they generally say that they 1) look good, 2) offer protection and 3) provide support to the horse’s tendons.

The first two are true.  Wrapping your horse’s legs in polos can help protect them from dings, interference or a whack from an errant polo mallet. And they do look nice.  I know dressage riders who say that it helps you see the horse’s legs better when you are evaluating movement.

But whether polos offer support to tendons and ligaments is very much under debate. In an article in The Horse, To Support and Protect, Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, who has pioneered research on locomotion and sports medicine, notes,

“Polo wraps do not support the leg. They give some protection against trauma, but less than some of the boots.”

“The degree to which this makes a difference for normal horses doing submaximal work has not achieved a consensus of opinion. Bandages placed too loosely are ineffective, and those that are placed too tightly are a disaster.”

Dane Frazier, DVM

The problem as I see it is that if bandages are wrapped too loosely then they run the risk of unraveling while the horse is being worked. If they are wrapped too tightly, or wrapped unevenly, they can cause damage to the tendons and ligaments the rider is trying to protect. A “bandage bow” refers to the inflammation that occurs to the flexor tendon when a wrap is too tight or the pressure applied is uneven and bruises the tendons. Usually the damage is not permanent and can be treated using NSAIDs and cold treatment.

I certainly would never use polos on a horse being ridden cross country because when polos become wet they absorb water and can sag or unravel.

In The Horse article, Frazier explains, “The major blood vessels to the distal limb are on the flexor surface of the leg. A bandage applied too tightly can result in limb edema, pressure points, or even circulatory disturbance with limb- and life-threatening avascular necrosis (a disease resulting from the temporary or permanent loss of blood supply to the bone).”

How to wrap Polo Wraps
I learned to wrap polos from front to back, but research shows the direction of the wrap is not important — what’s critical is that the tension be consistent and that it not be too tight.

There is some debate too over how polos should be applied. I learned to wrap so that the tension on the bandage is applied from front to back on the leg with the bandage pulled tight over the front of the canon bone. However, according to research there appears to be no right or wrong direction to wrap provided it is not too tight and does not have areas of tension.

A more important concern heat. According to Clayton,

“There’s the concern about overheating of bandaged tendons. Temperatures around 45°C (a few degrees higher than normal tendon temperature) have been recorded in the core of the superficial digital flexor tendon, even after strenuous exercise of short duration (Goodship, et al., 1993). Heat is generated by the stretch-recoil cycle in the tendons, yet bandage wraps reduce normal cooling of the legs by convection.”

Heat that develops in the central core of a tendon should be allowed to dissipate as quickly as possible following work to avoid tendon degeneration.

Clayton says, “I recommend cold hosing the legs after removing wraps if the horse has worked hard, especially when using sports medicine boots.”

I guess the good news is that it’s one less thing I’m tempted to buy at the tack store. Until there is evidence that polo wraps offer a real benefit, I’ll stick to protective boots!

6 thoughts on “All Wrapped Up — the Purpose of Polos.

  1. Wonderfully useful info as usual, thanks Liz.

    I’m not a big fan of polo’s, so not disappointed, though surprised they don’t provide the support I thought. That keeping heat in is an issue…interesting. Going to keep cold hosing in mind for use after boots.

    I use polos mostly to keep ice applied to *my* body. Works great. 🙂 Pretty good too, for keeping an arthritic joint warm.

  2. I played polo so of course used polos for years. I like them better than boots – if I do arena work I don the polos instead of boots. I don’t like the heat that boots hold in. The wraps are cooler. The point of the wraps for me is the leg protection, not the tendon support. Since I don’t use boots on the trail (too much heat buildup) for endurance, I don’t want my horses tendons used to the “support”. BUT I feel they have a bigger chance of bumping themselves in the arena, so I want the protection. Polos work well for me.

  3. I really like this artical and I think that using boots or polo wraps go either way. On one side is the personal view, the other facts. What I believe however is that if the horse is started with ground work at two years old, gets 30 days of light riding, and let stand at pasture for another 30 days, the legs have time to strengthen to the work, and when you put them back to work start lightly and work up. The legs should be able to hold their own. On the other hand, I personaly dont believe in making horses jump 6 foot high fences, weather the horse likes to jump or not. That strain on their legs is greater than racing them, with all the weight landing on the front legs first and then the back to even it back out. In racing, the running is normal for the horse, so in turn their legs are better adjusted to the strain. Given everyone has their own opinions, this is mine.

  4. I’m pretty much on the side of no wraps. Getting the tension just right is a skill acquired by experience and I’m not willing to practice on a living breathing horse. I’ve considered practicing on the fiberglass horse outside the tack shop, but he’s not very active.
    I admit that wraps look so very cool, but cool doesn’t carry much weight when the vet says, uh oh, we have problems.
    On the other hand, I believe the original purpose of polo wraps was to allow me, the spectator, to see what team the polo pony was on.

    Boots have a purpose, especially if you have a horse that interferes or forges. But otherwise, I’m more on the bare legs side of the concept.

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