Why Use Wool?

Wool – The High Tech Material
By Mike Easton
Content Review – Dr. Joyce Harmon, DVM
In the equine world it seems that each year we are presented with new ideas about training, health care requirements, and tack.  Some of it is a new twist to old ideas, or a new twist with a new idea, or simply nothing has changed – just a marketing ruse.Technological advancements in the fields of chemistry and physics created many materials.  Open and closed cell foams are some of the modern space aged materials, but when applied to the equine world are they correct?  The design intent, of foam, was to provide a new source for compression protection using  inorganic raw materials.  And a high percentage of these foams came as a result of the NASA space program.  Product development arose out of an idea, which seemed good in principle only.  In reality the new product was developed and marketed without testing by reputable scientific sources to prove whether the product had natural therapeutic benefit and structural fit for the intended activity.Instead these 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.  High tech fibers, open and closed cell foams, air filled pockets and layered combinations could be presented in bright colors, soft to the touch, and have a feel of real comfort.  Companies with access to large sums of marketing dollars could now be a driving force.
Web-NZ-sheep-shearingBut in the age of modern miracle fibers and foams, scientific research supports that the almost forgotten fiber made by God still remains the original high-tech fiber.  That material is WOOL.

The old-timers in the tack world used wool for years and had great success with it.  Even the avid modern day hunter has found that all the high tech fiber in the world does not surpass the attributes of wool.  Today’s sportsman and equine owner are learning what sheep in the hottest and coldest climates of the world have known for thousands of years.  When it comes to thermoregulation and all-around performance for protection, the original “high-tech fiber,” 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.  Wool can absorb up to 30 percent of its own weight in perspiration/water vapor; synthetics [absorb] less than 5 percent of its weight and have very limited wicking ability.

Because of the structural nature of wool, the surface energy (measure of attraction between water and the internal surface of the capillary) is very high.  This hydrophilic – “water-loving” component is the aspect that delivers sweat and heat away from the horse’s back.  The sweat is the horse’s means of eliminating heat.  The sweat is transferred away from the skin as a result of [the wool].  Open and closed cell foams have no wicking ability and simply TRAP MOISTURE AND HEAT.

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 pressure points.  The problem is that pressure is transferred through the pad to the horse’s back, and is often made worse after adding the pad.  When a pressure point [exists], damage to the underlying skin and muscle occurs.  Swelling of the skin, and edema or fluid under the skin or in the muscle occurs as the bruising causes fluid to leak out of the cells.  When you eliminate bruising, you eliminate the swelling and pain that goes along with it.  NOTHING replaces a correctly fitted saddle!Synthetic materials (fibrous, open and closed cell foams) trap heat, do not wick, and increase chances of heat-related pressure sores.  Also they have limited compression protection.  Their strength lies in ease of cleaning and colorful patterns.Unlike synthetic materials, wool fiber contains hundreds of tiny waves, called crimp, creating the millions of air pockets that give it insulating properties and the ability to breath.  It is this same component that allows wool to stretch up to 50 percent when wet, 30 percent when dry and still bounce back to its original shape.   It is this natural physical property that 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 because their molecular structure has memory constraints of less than 5% before it begins to break down and tear apart.  These same materials 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 and equine professionals that care about animal well-being.
How do we know this miracle fiber wool is what it is cracked up to be?  Dr. Joyce Harmon, D.V.M. and noted Washington D.C. equine specialist, tested saddles for correct fit and pad materials.  In researching this issue, Dr. Harmon used the Forced Sensory Array machine just like [Dr. Michael Collier, D.V.M. from Oklahoma State University when he was hired by Professional Choice to develop their Air Ride pad].  They found wool provided the best compression, wicking ability and heat protection (reduction) of all materials on the market today.Dr. Harmon’s original research stemmed from years of studying the correct mechanics of saddle fitting and bio-mechanics of saddle placement.   In a nutshell, what they found and what Dr. Collier pointed out later, was a “Shoe is to Sock” as “Saddle is to Pad” analogy.  Without putting a correctly fitted saddle with a correct type of pad, no horse, mule or donkey is free from compression related (pressure point) injury.If a saddle basically fits with the pad, then a pad can enhance the situation.  If a 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 a saddle is too wide, it will continue to tip forward through any pad.  A new pad may feel great initially, but pads have been known to simply transfer [a problem] to a new area on your horse’s back, and it takes a while for that new spot to become sore.The cure for all these problems is quite simple.  Use common sense; don’t get caught up in every new gimmick.   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.  Lastly, consider seriously “would I wear it” as a “sock” or “underwear”?  If not, then why in the world would I submit my animal to those same materials?*For the complete article, view http://www.5starequineproducts.com/research-articles/why-use-wool/