Let’s say your equine first-aid kit is well stocked with bandage materials. But do you know how to use them properly? Many wounds require a bandage, and correct bandaging technique is a skill every horse owner should have. Unfortunately, I’ve learned via my veterinary practice that very few people really know how to wrap correctly. In fact, I see so many bandages-gone-wrong that I sometimes hesitate to recommend a wrap at all, even when it’s needed.
Let’s take a look at some sample bandages, and see whether you can identify what’s wrong. We’ll begin with a basic pressure wrap, followed by two additional types of bandages you might need to use under special circumstances. Once you’ve seen common bandaging mistakes, I’ll show you how to avoid them by wrapping right. That way, when your horse gets hurt and needs a bandage, you’ll know what to do to help, not harm him.
The Basic Pressure Wrap
If your horse experiences a wound, has an unusual swelling, or undergoes surgery on a lower leg, you’ll probably have to bandage the leg using a basic pressure wrap. Here are two examples of common wrapping errors.
What’s wrong? Too tight!
To begin with, this single layer of cotton doesn’t provide enough padding to protect your horse’s leg from the pressure that’s likely to be applied by additional layers of bandage. Vetrap (the 3M version of long, stretchy bandage material), applied directly over the single layer of cotton, makes it even worse, especially when it’s pulled as tightly as is illustrated here.
An overly tight bandage can cause pressure sores on your horse’s skin or damage to underlying soft tissues. In extreme cases, a too-tight bandage can compromise the blood supply to your horse’s skin, which can cause his skin to die and slough away. Eventually, this type of injury may lead to the ugly white “bandage scars” we often see on horses’ lower legs.
What’s wrong? Too loose!
The double layer of cotton is great, but it can’t be loose and lumpy, as illustrated here. And loosely applied layers of gauze and Vetrap won’t help—they just allow the bandage to bunch up when it slips down the leg. A loose, lumpy bandage that slips is just as likely to cause tendon and ligament injuries as a too-tight one. Finally, if your horse has a wound, there’s nothing on this bandage to seal the top and bottom and prevent dirt and debris from getting inside.
Just right: Wrap like this!
Here’s how it’s done. Several (two or three) layers of cotton, wrapped smoothly around the leg, provide plenty of padding to protect the underlying tissues from pressure damage. And a stiff layer of 6-inch brown gauze wrapped snugly over this amount of padding helps to set the wrap safely in place. Notice the 1-inch edge of cotton that’s left exposed at the top and bottom of the wrap. By leaving this exposed cotton, you’ll prevent pressure damage from tight gauze against the skin. For the right amount of pressure, follow the brown gauze with a layer of Vetrap stretched approximately 50 percent. Remember to leave the 1-inch margin at the top and bottom with this layer too, preventing direct contact with the Vetrap against your horse’s skin.
Finally, seal the top and bottom of the bandage with elastic tape that’ll prevent debris from getting inside to contaminate the wound and help hold the wrap in place. This type of tape is less elastic than Vetrap, so won’t act like a rubber band against the skin. Additionally, its adhesive underside helps form a seal.
As a general rule of thumb, if you use the proper layers (adequate cotton, 6-inch brown gauze, Vetrap, and elastic tape), and your bandage looks smooth and snug when you’re finished bandaging—your wrap would probably pass the test. You’ll have protected your horse’s leg, and even more important, will have done no harm.
The Stack Wrap
What if your horse experiences an injury above the knee or hock? You’ll need to protect the area with a bandage—but a basic pressure wrap won’t do.
What’s wrong? Unsupported.
Although this bandage (page 42, top right) looks good at first glance, there’s not a chance it’ll stay put. If you wrap a wound this way today, by tomorrow the bandage is likely to slip down to the ground.
Just right: Wrap like this!
It may seem like overkill, but the only really effective way to apply a bandage to a wound above the knee or hock is to apply a “stack wrap” that covers the whole leg. Begin by setting the first stages of a basic lower-limb bandage with two to three layers of cotton and 6-inch brown gauze (just like the basic bandage described above). Next, apply a similar bandage that overlaps the bandage on the lower leg by 3 to 4 inches. The lower portion of the bandage will help hold the upper part in place. Follow with a layer of Vetrap extending from top to bottom, again leaving a 1-inch margin of exposed cotton to avoid pressure directly against the skin.
When you run your brown gauze and your Vetrap around the knee, avoid pulling too tightly across the “bump” at the back (the accessory carpal bone) to avoid a pressure sore. If you’re wrapping a hind leg, take the same precaution when wrapping over the point of the hock. Finally, seal the top and bottom of the bandage with elastic tape to further prevent slippage and protect against contamination.
When your horse has a very small wound, one that’s almost healed, or you just need to protect something temporarily (until the vet arrives), you might want to apply a light temporary bandage instead of a full bandage. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do that, too.
What’s wrong? Wrong material used.
In this photo, a tight layer of Vetrap is placed directly against the skin. It’s a problem we see all the time. That Vetrap acts just like a rubber band stretched tightly around your horse’s leg, and is likely to cause a serious pressure injury.
Just right: Wrap like this!
This temporary bandage has been applied with elastic tape instead of Vetwrap. The elastic tape has less stretch, and will stay put with less pressure due to its adhesive properties. It’s a much safer light-bandage option.