Bandages are a useful part of a horse’s wardrobe, depending on his job and lifestyle: almost more important, however, is to master the art of applying them so that they are effective without doing harm this is essential to the horse’s well-being and may even influence how sound he remains. Basically bandages are used for work, when they are called exercise or work bandages; and in the stable or for travelling, when they are called stable bandages. (There are also certain specialist bandages, and of course surgical bandages for first aid and veterinary use, but these do not really come under the heading of tack.)
When bandages are put on incorrectly they can do a great deal of damage, and very unpleasant injuries can be caused by uneven and/or tight pressure: the legs can become badly swollen, and the skin may even rupture to reveal the tendons, the result of traumatic bruising and pinching of the skin and underlying tissues, also interference with the blood circulation and functioning of the tendons.
An old trick was to apply elasticated work bandages when the horse’s leg was flexed, as these would then become cripplingly tight when the leg was straightened – the aim was to ‘stop’ the horse in a race, which of course this did do very effectively. Tapes fastened tighter than the bandage, and bandages put on without protective padding underneath also cause injuries.
Rings of crooked hair down a horse’s legs indicate incompetent bandaging this is a not uncommon sight in the disciplines of dressage and show jumping, and moreover can be seen at the highest levels of competition! White hair in rings around the legs signifies actual injury, where the pressure has been so bad as to damage the roots of the hair which subsequently grows back white. Tightly applied tail bandages have the same effect wavy and/or white hair on the dock, and scabs or sores under it. It is not unknown for the nerves and even the bone of the tail to be damaged due to impaired blood circulation.
Loose bandages have perils of a different sort, usually of coming unravelled and tripping the horse; and of course too loose, they are not doing their job.
These are best made of some slightly stretchy fabric such as crepe, elasticated fabric or (less stretchy) stockinette (a fine knitted cotton in double thickness). However, the problem then may be that they will be pulled much too tight during application and cause injury. They have a self-tightening effect anyway, and it is very easy to put them on too tightly – apply one to yourself as tightly as you would put it on a horse, and you will soon feel the tightening effect! However, when correctly applied, the stretch quality does allow for movement of the horse’s leg, which must not be interfered with during work.
Exercise bandages (as most other bandages) must be put on over some kind of padding, firstly to cushion their effect, but primarily as extra protection to the leg against knocks and self-inflicted kicks and interference during work, particularly fast work. If they become wet they must be removed as soon as possible after work as they can easily shrink and tighten slightly on the leg. For this reason it is advisable not to use them for long rides, like a day’s hunting. It is widely but quite wrongly believed that bandaging is a significant help in supporting a horse’s tendons and ligaments during work.
It probably helps reduce the damaging vibration in the leg caused by jarring when the horse is worked fast or jumped on hard going (which should not be done anyway), but bandages can only be of any support to the leg if they are applied so firmly as to interfere significantly with the movement of the joint and it is a moot point as to how effective they are in this respect.
Exercise/work bandages are normally applied from just below the knee or hock to just above the fetlock in order not to interfere with the fetlock’s function, so cannot possibly be actually supportive to this part. Vetrap bandages are sometimes applied to below the joint, particularly at the back to protect the ergot, but the support provided by this method of using Vetrap bandages must be minimal, if anything. We should remember that the average riding horse weighs half a ton, so whatever we apply to his legs in the form of ordinary work bandages cannot possibly do much at all to lessen the effects of that weight, particularly when it is compounded by the speed at which he is going and the weight of the rider on his back.
When real support and immobilisation are needed, veterinary surgeons can apply air casts, plaster casts and synthetic casts, or a Robert Adams bandage which envelops the whole leg in thick padding and several bandages down its entire length. Otherwise, ordinary crépe exercise or tail bandages can be used to cover a dressing, as long as they are clean and put on without stretching so that their self-tightening property does not cause further damage to an injured part.
Exercise bandages are normally sold in sets of four; each one is about 8inch (3in) wide and roughly 2m (6 to 7ft) long. They can fasten with cotton tapes (which must be kept ironed flat so as to help spread their pressure) in a bow (tuckng in the ends for neatness), or with Velcro strips; they can be sewn on (particularly secure for fast work), or wide adhesive tape (Elastoplast tape or masking tape) can be passed right round the leg over the end or fastening. All fastenings must be only as tight as the bandage itself.
To remove any bandage, undo the fastening and pass the bandage quickly from hand to hand as you unwind it, bundling it up and making no attempt to roll it this is done later. It is normal to rub the leg upwards, with a final smooth downwards, to stimulate circulation in the skin.
To roll a bandage of any type start with the outside pointed end when you have finished bandaging a leg this will be on the outside and fold the tapes (if present) neatly and flat across the end; they will form a ‘core’ inside the rolled up bandage. Then hold the bandage up between fingers and thumbs and roll it downwards towards you till the straight, inside end is on the outside of the roll; or, once the roll is started, roll it down with the fiat of the hand on your thigh, or a wall or a table top.
The most effective stable bandages are knitted wool jersey or, for summer, knitted cotton stockinette; thermal, synthetic fabrics have the propensity to keep a leg either warm or cool as required; and expensive, stiff velour is also available, but this is very difficult to use and does not mould itself to the leg at all well. Stable bandages are a little wider than exercise bandages and should be a good 8ft long (very roughly 1.5m), though many of the ones you buy these days are too short.
With these, you can compensate for the insufficient length either by starting to bandage just above the fetlock; or you can buy two sets and sew them together: take two bandages and sew them at their straight ends, then cut off one of the pointed ends, over-sewing the raw edge firmly to prevent fraying, and you have one super-long stable bandage. These extra-long bandages enable you to make a much better job, for whatever purpose they are required: securing padding for warmth, or protection in the stable or when travelling; or to provide slight pressure to help keep down filled legs when the leg swells somewhat, usually in animals left standing too long in the stable and not exercised sufficiently.
Most people use a single exercise bandage for doing the tail, the crepe type being the easiest to use. Putting on a tail bandage without injuring the tail can be tricky, as padding is not usually put underneath; the bandage must be kept smooth with no wrinkles or turned-under edges, and as with all bandages, not applied too tightly just snug enough to stay on and to keep the dock hair smooth which is its day-to-day purpose. It also protects the tail during travelling, preventing it from getting rubbed against the lorry side or trailer ramp.
The Sandown bandage
Not very widely seen, the Sandown bandage has its own built-in, fleecy padding so that when used consistently on the same leg of the same horse, it moulds itself to a perfect lit. Again available in sets of four, these bandages are normally made of wool and can be used as stable or travelling bandages with no need for separate padding.
The bandage is put on from the Heecy end, and as you roll it on, you will eventually come to a non-padded part which continues over the fleecy part to hold it and keep it firm. Sandown bandages are also available in stockinette and these are used by some people as work bandages.
Gamgee Tissue consists of cotton wool inside a line gauze covering which gives it much more strength than ordinary cotton wool. It is ubiquitous in the horse world, and is used under bandages and as part of first aid and surgical dressings. It is very good when fresh, but soon loses its resilience sometimes after only one use and particularly if you wash it when it quickly becomes quite useless. It works out rather expensive because of this, even though it is more hard-wearing than cotton wool; however, one advantage is that it comes in rolls of various sizes so you can cut it to size as you wish.
Fybagee is a synthetic fabric like felt, but it has the advantage in that it can be used time and again, and is hardwearing and washable. It is resilient, yet not too stiff to mould fairly well to the leg.
Foam rubber is a poor padding material, since it becomes easily compressed, and also tends to rub the skin. It is not recommended.
Felt pads are not as good as Gamgee Tissue or Fybagee, either: they are hardwearing but stiff and somewhat inflexible.
Legs can be dried off by using anti-sweat rug pieces or coarse mesh dishcloths under stable bandages, or hay and straw which can be wrapped round the legs for the same purpose; obviously ‘formal’ padding is not needed as well.