The Rupp Report: Olympics Not Only For People

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

August 12, 2008