Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Wool: The High-Tech Material

Written by Mike Easton;
Edited by Talena Winters
Content Review – Dr. Joyce Harmon, DVM
©2006 All rights reserved.



In the equine world, it seems that each year we are presented with new theories about training, health care requirements, and tack. Technological advancements in the fields of chemistry and physics have created many new materials with seemingly endless benefits. Open- and closed-cell foams are some of these. However, before getting carried away with applications for such materials, one must examine their proper use. Are they really beneficial when applied to the equine world?

The design intent of foam was to provide a new source for compression protection using inorganic, raw materials. A high percentage of these foams came as a result of the NASA space program. When these materials started being used in the equine industry, the idea seemed good, in principle. In reality, the new product was developed and marketed without testing by reputable scientific sources, with no proof whether or not the product had natural therapeutic benefit and structural fit for the intended activity. Instead, product developers presented new products to the public based on personal bias and testimonials—and in many instances profit margins and retail cost became the selling points.

One such incidence of product abuse has been in the area of saddle pads. High-tech fibers, open- and closed-cell foams, air-filled pockets and layered combinations are some of the newest items on the saddle pad block these days. These materials could be presented in bright colors, soft to the touch, and have the feel of real comfort. They gained instant popularity, for obvious reasons: individuals involved in the show world could provide additional flash, and those not involved could have the same flash, at less expense. Companies with the best marketing program were driving saddle pad sales, rather than what is best for the horse.

However, in the age of modern miracle fibers and foams, scientific research supports that almost-forgotten, original high-tech fiber: WOOL.


The Original High-Tech Fiber
Today’s sportsman and equine owner are learning what experienced tack men, as well as sheep in the hottest and coldest climates of world, have known for thousands of years: when it comes to thermo-regulation and all-around protection performance, wool is still unmatched.

The secret to wool lies in its complex cellular structure. Each hollow strand is engineered to trap heat while resisting the buildup of moisture. Every follicle of wool is made up of a hydrophobic (water-hating) exterior shaft and a hydrophilic (water-loving) inner core. This gives wool the unique ability to wick perspiration (sweat) away from the body and at the same time shed moisture. This is why you can’t mop up spilled water with a wool cloth. And at the same time it is why wool can absorb up to 30 percent of its own weight in water vapor. In comparison, cotton can only absorb up to 8 percent of its weight, while synthetic material usually absorbs less than 5 percent of its weight and has very limited wicking ability.

So, how does this “miracle fiber” work?

Moisture transport in textile materials works on the same principle as wicking in capillaries. Capillary wicking is determined by two fundamental properties of the capillary: its diameter, and the surface energy of its inside face (such as the inner core of a wool fiber – see diagram above). The smaller the diameter or the higher the surface energy (measure of the attraction between water and the internal surface of the capillary), the more readily water moves up the capillary.

When textile materials are woven together the spaces between fibers create a pattern that functions like capillaries. The tighter that fibers are packed together in fabric, yarn or felt, the smaller the apparent capillary diameter, and the more readily wicking can occur. Other fiber properties that play a supporting role in wicking action are fiber diameter, cross-section structure, crimp and stiffness.

Wool and Your Horse
Because of the structural nature of wool, the surface energy is very high. This hydrophilic (water-loving) component is the aspect that delivers sweat and heat away from the horses back and through a wool saddle pad.

The activity of the horse and rider produces “sweat”, which is the horse’s means of eliminating heat. The sweat is transferred away from the skin as a result of the contact with the wool pad. The capillary action of an individual wool fiber, plus the compacted density of wool then distributes the moisture throughout the pad. Wool’s ability to wick sweat away from the body leaves the skin dryer and cooler than other materials. Unlike wool, open- and closed-cell foams have no wicking ability and simply trap moisture and heat.

Take The Pressure Off
Wool’s unique ability to deal with perspiration is just one of the important components of limiting sores, or their severity, from pressure points created by an improperly-fitting saddle or piece of tack.

Another important aspect is the ability of a one-inch thick piece of wool felt to contain and limit pressure points. Under a saddle, the primary problem is one of constant pressure in areas where the saddle fits poorly. Pads of a variety of materials are often used to try and alleviate these pressure points, with no thought given to heat removal. The problem with most materials is that pressure is transferred through the pad to the horse’s back—and is often made worse after adding the pad.

A pressure point causes damage to the underlying skin and muscle through bruising. Bruising causes fluid to leak out of the cells, leading to swelling of the skin and edema (fluid under the skin or in the muscle). When you eliminate bruising, you eliminate the swelling and pain that goes along with it.

In humans, wool has been long known for its ability to prevent blisters. Blisters are formed from friction or sometimes from pressure and friction together. During blister formation, heat can build up, and it is known that wool reduces the severity of blisters by dissipating heat and pressure.

In other words, wool socks cannot eliminate the blister, but they can reduce the initial impact and severity of the injury before one decides to do something about it. Nothing replaces a shoe that is correctly fitted, but we cannot always afford to replace shoes once the mistake has been made. Therefore, we must do the next best thing—pad our feet correctly.

By the same token, NOTHING replaces a correctly fitted saddle!

What About Foam?
Synthetic materials and fibrous, open- and closed-cell foams trap heat, do not wick and increase the chances of heat-related pressure sores. Also, they have limited compression protection. Their strength lies in ease of cleaning, reduced saddle slippage (in some cases) and colorful patterns.

Unlike synthetic materials, wool fiber contains hundreds of tiny waves, called crimp, creating the millions of air pockets that give the fabric its insulating properties and ability to breath. It is this same component that allows wool to stretch up to 50 percent when wet and 30 percent when dry—and still bounce back to its original shape. This natural physical property is what makes wool such a beneficial compression protector.

If open- and closed-cell foams are stretched in a similar fashion, they begin to break down immediately. Their molecular structure has memory constraints of less than 5% before they begin to break down and tear apart. Synthetics also break down much quicker than wool when subjected to heat, sweat salts and pressure. Despite the influx of new fibers and foams being introduced into the equine world, wool continues to hold its own, and be a mainstay for top saddle makers, equine professionals, and anyone that cares about animal wellbeing.

Show Me The Proof
How do we know that this “miracle fiber” is what we claim it is? Dr. Joyce Harmon, DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), noted Washington, Virginia equine specialist, tested saddles for correct fit and pad materials. Dr. Harmon’s research used testing procedures similar to those used by Dr. Michael Collier, DVM, from Oklahoma State University, when he was hired by Professional Choice to develop their Air Ride pad. Her conclusions for pad material use, saddle fit, and placement that provides complete equine protection came only from a desire to benefit the animals.

In researching this issue, Dr. Harmon used the Forced Sensory Array machine, just as Dr. Collier had. They found pressed wool felt with high virgin wool content provided the best compression, wicking ability and heat protection (reduction) of all the materials on the market today.

Dr. Harmon’s original research stemmed from years of studying the correct mechanics of saddle fitting and the biomechanics of saddle placement. In a nutshell, what they found was a “Shoe is to sock as saddle is to pad” analogy. Without putting a correctly fitted saddle with the correct type of pad, no horse, mule or donkey is free from compression-related (pressure point) injury.

The saddle must still fit the horse after the pad is added. If a saddle basically fits without the pad, then a pad can enhance the situation. If the saddle is too narrow, no pad will solve your problem, any more than a thick sock will correct the fit of those dress boots you have in the back of your closet. If the saddle is a bit too wide, a thick pad can really help the situation if it is made from material that will not compress much (wool and some dense types of foam). However, if a saddle is very much too wide, it will continue to tip forward through any pad.

Socks and Saddle Pads
So how can you tell what is going on with your pad and saddle? Saddle up your animal with its new pad, making sure to seat the pad by pulling it up into the saddle gullet. Next take a 20-30 minute ride, which allows the animal to heat up. Now stop and check to see how well the saddle and pad have stayed in place. Remove the saddle and pad, checking the sweat marks on the underside of the pad. What you would like to see is a fairly even sweat pattern across the entire pad.

If your saddle fits worse after adding a pad, then it means the pad is incorrect for your saddle—usually it is too thick. However, wool felt can require at least one hour of heated riding to seat and form to a saddle and animal conformation correctly. So many riders today insist on double padding, but if one remembers the “shoe-sock” concept, two socks in a shoe is just like two pads under a saddle. Some aspect of the sock or pad is always slipping or moving
around. This creates and exacerbates pressure point problems, and diminishes the likelihood of achieving the close contact needed for a good saddle fit, for both horse and rider comfort.

Even if your horse feels great with the new pad, you must still be alert for old behavior issues for the next six months. A new pad may feel great initially, but pads have been known to “cure” a problem while simply transferring it to a new area on your horse’s back! This new area can take a while to show sore spots.

The Bottom Line
The cure for all of these problems is quite simple. Noted horseman, Ray Hunt says, “It’s what happened before that you didn’t want to have happen.”

Use common sense: don’t get caught up in every new gimmick without checking out the background from several sources. Endorsements don’t make a product, because most endorsers are paid for their association.

Use a good reputable saddle maker that knows and understands correct saddle fit. Check their background and whom they trained under. Find a time of year that your horse is in good using condition so that the saddle maker can fit your animal when it is not over-fat or too thin!

Lastly, when considering pads, consider seriously the question, “Would I wear it as a sock or underwear?”

If not, then why in the world would you put it on your horse?

Mike Easton is co-owner with Laurel Easton of Wells 5 Star Equine Products, which produces high-quality wool felt saddle pads and other therapeutic equine products. The couple lives in Arkansas with their numerous cats, dogs, horses, and mules!

Dr. Joyce Harmon has written several books on equine health, including Western Saddles-How To Fit: Pain-Free, and English Saddles-How To Fit: Pain-Free. She is renowned in the equine world for her holistic approach to equine health.


Talena Winters is the owner of Winters Distributing, one of 5 Star Equine Products top retailers on the web.

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