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The Rupp Report

The Rupp Report: Olympics Not Only For People

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

In many cases, industrial fabrics or technical textiles are tailor-made products for human beings to make their lives easier. However, racehorses, not just people, are suffering from the hot weather and the humidity in Hong Kong during the equestrian competition at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Vets And Textile Manufacturers Join Their Forces

Working with Vetsuisse, the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Zurich, and Switzerland-based knitting company Christian Eschler AG, and with support from the Swiss Olympic Association, Empa — an interdisciplinary research and services institution for material sciences and technology development within the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich — has developed a novel blanket for the horses of the Switzerland team at the Olympic Games.

The blanket is designed to protect the animals from abrupt increases in temperature, as well as the feared chill effect when returning to the stable after competing. As the horses and competitors are going through their races at the Olympics in Hong Kong, the weather is very hot and the humidity is very high. As the animals move from their air-conditioned stables to the tournament venue, they are protected from the sunshine by cooling covers. This allows them to better withstand the effects of the heat and ensure they are able to give their utmost during the competition. After the race, “sweat blankets” help them dry off as quickly as possible — one blanket is used to cover them as they return to the stables and a second one is worn in their air-conditioned quarters. These special blankets offer support to these sensitive and valuable race horses in their own efforts to regulate their temperature and prevent the “post-exercise chill effect” — the unpleasant and unhealthy uncontrolled cooling which leads to the animals becoming chilled after exercise.

The search for the optimal combination of various layers of material led the Empa team to make the first perspiration tests on a heated cylinder that simulated a human torso both in shape and size, and in its ability to transpire. The principle behind the development is that covers made of many layers have particularly good thermal insulation, which also protects the horses from the sun’s rays and keeps them cool before competing.

Shetland Ponies In A Climate Chamber
Two Shetland ponies were recruited to make the first live measurements with the prototype blankets. Horses would simply be too big for the climate chamber at Empa, which can simulate temperatures of more than 30 °C and a relative humidity of 80 percent.

After a series of tests with the ponies distributed over a two-week period, each test of a one-hour duration, the Empa team was able to confirm that the new blankets worked very well. For the complete duration of the tests, the ponies were monitored by veternerians who continuously measured physiological parameters such as skin and body temperatures, quantity of sweat, pace length and electrocardiogram values. Without the blankets, the skin temperature rose to more than 40°C because of the simulated sunshine and increase in temperature when the animals moved from their stable to the competition venue. With the multilayer cooling blankets, however, this value rose to only 38°C. The horse’s skin temperature remained cooler when the blankets — which are made of special materials, including phase change materials, that store latent heat and reflect heat radiation — were used.

Lower Temperature Differences
When the ponies were brought from the warm, humid climate chamber directly to conditions simulating an air conditioned stable without the new sweat blankets, their skin temperature dropped from 40°C to 21.5°C within a very short time. Such an abrupt drop in temperature can cause the post exercise chill effect and encourage infectious diseases to develop. With the new sweat blankets, which absorb six times more perspiration than conventional ones, the ponies’ temperatures merely fell to between 39°C and 35°C. Thanks to a reduction in sweat evaporation, the animals’ skin cooled to a much lesser degree and minimized tension on their health.

So, the equestrian Olympic events will demonstrate if the idea will pay off. However, successful games or not, this little story is another example illustrating that technical textiles have no limits in niche products.

More information is available at www.empa.ch.

August 12, 2008