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Puffy fetlocks and standing wraps

From: Leah

I'm finding myself faced with conflicting information without the background knowledge to know what's right and am hoping you can help me out. I've looked through the archives but have not seen this specific issue addressed yet.

Standing wraps can be both evil and good in the ways I've seen them used. I've seen horses that have them on ALL the time and become 'wrap dependant', with legs that swell up anytime they are left in their stalls without wraps on. In addition, a badly done wrap can cause issues as hopefully we all know.

However, after a hard day's ride (especially if jumping or galloping) I know one or more of my horse's legs will puff up a bit on occasion. What I cannot figure out is, if wrapping it to keep the swelling/puffiness down is purely a cosmetic issue, or if there are actual medical benefits? Swelling is typically a sign of inflammation, but inflammation can both help heal with increased blood flow as well as cause problems.

So which is it? Is it better to let the increased circulation puff the leg up, or should I wrap the day after such a ride (never need more than one night of wrapping) and treat it that way?

I know wraps can provide support, or so I'm told. If true, then I can see there being a benefit to giving a tired horse some support the day after a hard ride.

If you can help me sort out these pros and cons, I'd greatly appreciate it. Thank you!


Hi Leah! Let me begin by offering the usual disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian, and can't offer a diagnosis or a prognosis or a prescription... just some ideas and suggestions, and some topics that you can think about and discuss with your veterinarian. I do sympathize with your confusion, and I expect that some of it may be due to a misunderstanding about the most common type of puffiness that a horse can develop whilst standing in a stall. Puffiness and inflammation aren't synonymous. If one or more of your horse's legs were to become puffy DURING a hard day's ride, then you would need to consult your veterinarian immediately, because that might indeed be inflammation... which usually indicates injury.

Inflammation does involve some swelling, but it also involves pain and heat - and since you haven't mentioned either, I'll hope that you haven't found either, and that you DO routinely check for both each time your horse presents with puffy fetlocks. "Inflammation" as such is much more than mere puffiness - it's a body-tissue response to injury or irritation. In some cases, yes, inflammation can increase circulation, as the body will do its best to rush blood to any injured area, but... neither puffiness nor inflammation necessarily indicates an increase in the local circulation. Swelling will often DECREASE the circulation in and around the swollen area.

Puffiness may mean nothing but edema - that is, a swelling due to excess fluid in the tissues. The reasoning behind the traditional practice of using poultices and "sweat bandages", etc., was that drawing out the excess fluids and discouraging the accumulation of additional fluid could help decrease an existing swelling whilst preventing another one from developing. The wrap put some pressure on the leg, and the heat created by the wrap was meant to increase the blood circulation within the leg. These effects were meant to reduce actual swelling and potential inflammation (both of which could decrease circulation and slow healing time), and to help the horse become more comfortable.

It IS possible for a horse - or a human - to have BOTH edema AND inflammation. If you check your horse carefully and discover pain and heat in its fetlocks in addition to the puffiness, you'll want your vet's advice about how best to proceed and how best to manage (medications, therapeutic modalities, and yes, even bandaging) in your particular case. Heat can promote circulation and relieve pain, so the wrapping that you're doing may indeed provide more than just a cosmetic effect - but do ask your veterinarian. And if you're considering applying a "sweat bandage", with or without a "sweat preparation", be sure to discuss it with your veterinarian first. Sweat bandages can cause damage if they're applied over broken skin, if the "sweat preparation" contains certain ingredients, and/or if the bandage is wrapped incorrectly or left on for too long. Heat will increase circulation, and this can be helpful, but no positive effect is worth the potential negative effects of a badly-wrapped bandage - or one that's. You are probably experienced in wrapping, but for the benefit of other, less experienced horse owners, I should point out that it's in the horse's best interest for owners to do their first two or three wraps under the veterinarian's supervision, so that they can be shown EXACTLY how to apply the padding, how to do the wrap, how much pressure to apply, how to check the bandage, etc.

You're quite right to point out that bandages can CAUSE problems. A too-tight bandage can damage skin and tendons, impair circulation, and create sores; a too-loose bandage will typically come loose and slide down the horse's leg, at which point it can easily become a too-tight bandage covering a much smaller area! Anything more complicated than ordinary standing wraps should be used only on your veterinarian's specific advice.

That said, you may not need to do any bandaging at all. If the puffiness your horse is experiencing appears AFTER the ride, when the horse is in a stall, and there is no pain or heat involved, then that puffiness is probably not inflammation at all, but fluid accumulation, and it's unlikely to be due to exercise or to increased circulation. Exercise and increased circulation tend to diminish puffiness, not cause it.

Bandages, boots, "tightening liniments", poultices, etc., can make a temporary difference in the appearance of a puffy fetlock, but it's much like using a neck sweat to make a horse's throatlatch appear slimmer - the change is cosmetic only, and it won't last long. The "puff" in a wind puff is usually nothing more than an accumulation of fluid in the synovial pouch (that is, around the horse's flexor tendons), and not necessarily a cause for concern.

That said, it would still be a good idea for you to ask your veterinarian to check your horse's legs and advise you, because there CAN be other causes of swollen fetlocks, and it's important for you to know exactly what is causing YOUR horse's fetlocks to become puffy. It's possible for there to be a genuine medical problem. Why not get a diagnosis from your veterinarian? If there is a problem, you'll want to know how to treat the horse and how to manage the condition; if all the horse has is classic "wind puffs", you'll be able to relax and stop worrying. And yes, you could put the horse in standing bandages at night, whenever you're forced to confine him - but at all other times, allowing your horse 24/7 turnout should be enough to keep the puffs down.

It sounds to me as though you're a careful, attentive owner who is doing everything right. As long as your horse isn't lame or cranky, there's no heat or pain involved, and you see puffy fetlocks ONLY when the horse is confined after a day of particularly hard exercise, it's very likely that all you're seeing is a bit of fluid pooling. Since your horse is sound, and the puffiness invariably goes down again in just one night, I would expect that your veterinarian will be quite reassuring on the subject after s/he has checked your horse - but do ask! ;-)

Jessica

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