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).”
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!