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Puffy fetlocks - should I keep his legs wrapped?

From: Kitty

Hello Jessica,

I own a seventeen year old Polish Arab gelding. He had a moderate tendon injury last year in April. (he slipped while running loose in the arena and banged the hoof on the steel pipe rail) He was laid up for about 2 1/2 months and came back pretty well. He was sound but still had a small amount of swelling above the right rear fetlock joint. He re-injured it slightly last November in some deep mud outside his stall. He was sound after about two weeks, but still had the swelling which was even more pronounced than with the original injury. I had used standing wraps and when I started him back to work I used (and still use) sport boots. The swelling improves with wrapping and is even better after riding with the boots on, but comes back if I leave off the wrap or boot. It is especially noticeable if I don't use him for a day or two and he is just in his corral with no standing wrap on. My vet and farrier have both checked him out and tell me not to worry as long as he is sound, but I wonder what it is and what if anything I should be doing about it that I am not. The swelling is soft and never with any heat. I have tried laying him up a couple of times for 4 to 6 weeks or so at a time with no change. The swelling is not sensitive to pressure and really doesn't seen to bother the horse at all. He is pretty much a trail horse and a pet. It isn't that I am showing him or any thing like that I just worry. Any advice you have to offer would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you! Kitty


Hi Kitty! I can't offer you veterinary advice - you really do need a vet for that. But since your own vet says that you shouldn't worry, let's start by assuming that your horse is healed and sound. If that's the case, the swelling is probably nothing dire, and there's probably nothing more that you should be doing. In fact, you may be doing too much! Don't worry, you're absolutely NOT neglecting your horse. ;-)

Ask your vet about "wind puffs" or "wind galls", because it sounds to me as though this may be what your horse has. These are just swellings - fluid accumulation in tissue (that is, synovial fluid accumulation inside the joint capsule) - that are usually associated with past injuries. Once tissue has been injured and stretched out, it will always accumulate fluid more easily. Wind puffs are cosmetic blemishes, not functional problems. If your vet says that your horse is well and sound, and that his legs are fine, then trust him! Wind puffs are not dangerous or serious, they're just unsightly, and they typically disappear with exercise and then reappear when the horse is confined. Confinement makes such fluid pooling worse - if your horse is outdoors walking around all night, you're likely to see little or no fetlock puffiness in the morning, but if he's confined to a stall or a small paddock where he doesn't move much, you're far more likely to come out and find him with puffy fetlocks.

I will suggest that you NOT lay your horse up in a stall, or even in a small paddock, unless your vet has advised you to do this (and if he does advise it, it will be because of some OTHER condition, not because of wind puffs!). The best way to avoid puffy fetlocks is NOT to keep the horse confined and wrapped, but to keep him outdoors and on the move.

Boots and wraps should be used only when they're actually needed, for as brief a time as possible. They're best used as protection - they can help protect a horse's lower legs from low thorny brush, from whacks with polo balls and mallets, from contact with other horses' hooves, and from contact with their own hooves. Young horses in training, and older, unfit, clumsy horses often benefit from leg protection whilst they are learning or re-learning to balance themselves under their riders. Ask your vet about this, and unless he has a specific reason for wanting you to keep your horse's legs wrapped, I'd suggest that you put the standing bandages away. Wrapping can reduce the swelling, but keeping a horse's legs wrapped all the time is risky - a wrap that shifts out of position and pulls tight could cause a REAL injury (e.g. a bandage bow). It's not worth taking that chance just to achieve a mild, temporary cosmetic improvement.... especially since there's a much easier and safer way to help reduce the swellings.

If you can, arrange to keep your horse outside in a field instead of in a stall. The more he moves around on a daily basis, the healthier and happier he will be, and the less puffy his fetlocks will be. You are probably worried about him hurting himself if the footing is bad, but here's something for you to think about. Horses can deal with even deep mud if they're turned out full-time. The horses that seem to sustain the worst and most long-lasting injuries (talk to your vet about this!) are the ones that are confined to stalls, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, and then turned out for a brief time. Horses that are outdoors all the time are calm and relaxed about the idea of being outdoors and having freedom to move around in a wide open space. Outdoor horses are usually ultra-aware of their footing at all times, and they move carefully in deep mud and deep sand, and on slippery or very hard surfaces. On the other hand, any horse that's confined most of the time is likely to explode into frantic activity as soon as it's turned out, no matter how horrible or dangerous the footing may be.

Your vet and farrier and horse all seem to agree that there's no real problem here. You're monitoring your horse so carefully that I'm sure you'll notice immediately if he takes a lame step or has heat in a leg. I think that you should just relax, stop worrying, and enjoy your very nice trail horse. He's only seventeen, you take good care of him, and you aren't working him hard, so you should be able to look forward to many more years of trail rides.

Jessica

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