Leather Care For A Stable Connection
- Sep 17, 2001
Strips of tanned hide maintain lines of communication between you and your horse. Whether you lead, ride, or drive, the leather straps of halter, bridle, and harness influence your horse by applying or releasing pressure. The straps transmit the amount of pressure needed--when they are taut, their integrity secures the safety of you and your horse. These pieces of leather also form a bond between you and your horse, and if that bond is uncomfortable to either party--or unsafe--then the health of the partnership is at risk. A strap that connects one point to another must stretch and withstand tension, which can cause the weakest link to break first. Because your life can depend on your leather, assure reliable performance through a regular schedule of inspection, cleaning, and conditioning.
Devote attention to your tack by inspecting the leather's soundness. A quality strap will feel firm, yet flexible. In your hands, you can pull either end of the strap to feel its inherent tensile strength.
Bend a leather strap and you see wrinkles on the grain (smooth) side. Just like your skin, wrinkles result when an elastic skin surface bends. Straighten the strap, and the wrinkles should flatten. Quality leather--thick and properly preserved through chemical treatments--also will resist abrasion and moisture.
The leather tack you buy--both large pieces and strap goods--originates from animal skins, generally cattle or water buffalo hides. Agents used in the tanning process chemically cure a hide as a structure of packed-together fibers. Leather is treated through dyeing and finishing, which results in the smooth grain surface, and a rougher flesh side. In the texture of the grain, you see the pores and wrinkles of the tanned hide.
Leather is cut and stitched to form the straps of bridles, nosebands, reins, girths, and breastplates. As saddlery, leather retains its properties of flexion, strength, and a certain amount of elasticity.
Besides being supple, leather fibers must remain strong. Check leather's strength by inspecting the surface. You don't want to see cracks appear in the wrinkles or on the edges. When older leather cracks, the tanning agents have failed to preserve the fibers. A crack can split under pressure, or even cause the strap to break. Replace a cracked strap before it fails.
Most leather straps connect to other straps with metal hardware such as buckles or rings. A rein connects to a bit ring with a buckle, loop, or stud. (Some Western reins connect with leather laces.)
Stitching attaches the leather to the connectors. To maintain a stable connection, the thread of the stitches must remain intact. Check stitching as you inspect leather by using both hands to pull the strap. If you see a stitch separate, the thread could be rotting. Have a saddlery or shoe repair shop restitch the tack before stitching tears and releases a connector.
Dave Johnson, a judge with the American Horse Shows Association since 1969, has 31 years experience training hunters and jumpers at Willoway Farm in Arizona. He recommended that every month, a special check be make of all tack. "If we see threads coming loose, we fix it ourselves or take the item to the tack repair shop," he said. "We especially check girths, as a buckle can come loose on a girth."
Straps connect to other straps via holes punched in the strap. You insert the tongue of a buckle into a hole on a strap end, as in securing a girth or cinch or adjusting the cheekpiece of a bridle. The metal tongue can push against the leather's fibers and enlarge holes punched in a strap. These always should be inspected closely.
As you examine your leather straps, look for this excess wear caused by metal buckles. On a stirrup leather or bridle crownpiece used on the same horse, the tongues of the buckles usually fit into the same holes. Over the years, the regular pressure wears against the edges of leather surrounding punched holes, and the bar of the buckle can cause a permanent indentation.
Also watch for excess abrasion of the leather where a strap loops around metal hardware. Pay attention to where metal rubs against rein ends, cheekpiece ends, and stirrup leathers.
You can relieve the wear of metal into leather. Thread the tongue of a buckle gently through a hole or slot, so the metal point doesn't jab into the leather fibers surrounding the opening. With stirrup leathers on a flat saddle, swap right for left. With leather's elasticity, the left (mounting side) leather tends to stretch more than the right. When you switch sides, you'll probably fit the buckle into a different hole on the leather. You also can have the stirrup leather restitched, in essence shortening the strap so the buckle fits into a lower hole.
Besides examining strap goods, look at the larger sections of leather that comprise your saddle. You can't take the saddle apart, but look at areas of wear such as stitching around the seat, and the billets where girth or cinch buckles connect. Evaluate the condition of flaps on a flat saddle, and the jockeys and fenders of a Western saddle. You should check the grain sides and the flesh sides.
For safety's sake, you should perform a "pre-flight" inspection before you place each piece of tack on your horse. A 15-second scan of the straps of the bridle might prevent an accident. Ideally, you should conduct a fairly thorough inspection when you are cleaning your tack.
Leather accumulates dirt, sweat, and just plain grunge whenever it contacts the horse's coat and skin. To maintain the leather's reliability, you continue the care that began at the tannery. You'll apply leather care preparations to remove harmful substances. Keeping the surface clean helps preserve leather's body, or its corium (tissue layer below the skin's epidermis). The leather can "breathe" when its pores aren't blocked.
Leather's oily surface attracts dirt that can damage it. Dirt can be ground into the grain, and the salt from the horse's sweat can penetrate the fibers. The surface also can house the spores of mold and mildew, which can cause leather to decay.
Clean your leather with a formula that lifts dirt and bacteria without damaging the leather's surface grain or dye. Horsemen traditionally have used saddle soap as a cleanser, although chemists and manufacturers note that gylcerin saddle soap isn't necessarily the most appropriate choice. Glycerin is a solvent--a combination of fats and oils produced in the action of saponification (soapmaking).
Like living skin, a preserved hide thrives on a pH that is neutral to acidic. A high pH (7 or above) affects leather's composition. Herndon Jenkins, PhD, is Technical Director with Summit Industries, the makers of Lexol leather products. He explained, "Leather is stable when it's on the acidic side of neutral. It can 'detan' when it's on the alkaline side."
Saddle soaps can darken leather and remove tanning agents. Jenkins said, "If it's labelled a soap, it's alkaline. A soap, chemically, is metallic salt of a fatty acid. Fatty acids are weak acids, so the metal part is alkaline and it dominates."
You'll also notice that saddle soap can leave tack with a sticky residue. As an alternative, try cleaning your tack with a pH-balanced product, such as a cleanser with a neutral pH.
"Use a product that works with the leather," said Pino Blangiforti of Leather Therapy. "Saddle soaps are a combination of oil and soap, and the oil and soap 'fight' one another. The soap stops the oil, and the oil stops the soap. Neither are effective, and you leave dirt on the surface with oil."
You should clean leather after every use, and before you apply a conditioner. Apply the cleanser to a dampened sponge or cloth, work up a lather, and scrub the leather's surface. Clean both the grain and flesh sides of straps, and both sides of other leather parts like saddle flaps and fenders. You can best clean the surfaces of straps when they're flat, so take apart the pieces of your bridle or breastplate. On carved or tooled leather, you might need to use a soft brush. Rinse any lather with a separate dampened sponge or brush. Lather can clog holes punched in straps--use a toothpick to push out residue, or blow the lather out of the holes.
In a damp, humid climate, protect leather from mold and mildew. "Mold spores are ambient in air," said Blangiforti. He noted that a tack room in a humid climate is a "breeding ground" for mold and mildew. Clean your leather with a product that claims it inhibits the growth of spores.
Oil products nourish leather's body. Conditioning can make leather feel more pliable, while it "feeds" its fibers.
Leather dries out when exposed to excess heat or water. Water dries leather by melting the fat that seeps from its fibers. Don't wait till your leather feels hard and inflexible--condition it regularly.
"Saddle maintenance depends on your environment," said John De Bord, a Western saddlemaker of Double J Saddlery. "If the leather feels dry, it needs oil. But watch that you don't over-oil--don't get the leather soggy."
As in cleaning, balance the amount of lubrication. Leather should feel soft, but not limp. Excess oiling can make leather too "mushy," where oil seeps from its surface.
"There's no need to condition every time you clean," said Blangiforti. "Don't over-condition, so you saturate the leather and it rubs off on your clothing."
Your conditioning schedule depends on the amount and type of use your tack receives, and climate. You might choose to do a thorough oiling four to six times a year, or a light coat every week if your tack requires it because of use or conditions.
You can choose from several types of leather dressings in liquid, cream, spray, or gel form. These typically are oil-based treatments, of either animal fat or vegetable oil origin. Formulas are proprietary, but you can expect a product to contain lanolin (wool fat), fish oil, neatsfoot oil (a fluid fat from boiled ox feet), or mink oil (extracted from the skin of mink). Botanical oils include palm oil, obtained from nuts of an African palm tree, or avocado oil, extracted from the stone and flesh of the avocado fruit. Avoid oil containing a petroleum product, which can damage leather and stitching.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions when applying a conditioner. You might paint on a liquid with a brush, or wipe a cream onto leather with a damp sponge or cloth. If you can, apply oil to both sides. After the product soaks into the leather's pores, rub the grain side with a dry cloth for a soft gleam.
Some oil products will darken the leather's grain. If you want to retain a light color to your tack, look for a product that promises not to darken the shade. Or, apply oil to only the flesh side.
When trying a new brand of conditioner, test the results. "Test it on a hidden area," Blangiforti recommended. "Not all the tanneries have the same quality controls. Dyes can be either water- or oil-soluble, and the product can react to the dye."
One hidden area that needs regular oiling is stirrup leathers on a Western saddle. De Bord noted that because the tops of the leathers are hidden under the saddle's jockeys, riders often forget to condition them. He advised, "Pull the leathers down, and oil that area a lot."
You've probably seen "one-step" formulas that combine cleaning and conditioning. In cream or liquid form, they save time through a single application. Leather authorities differ on the efficacy of these preparations. One faction claims that a single preparation can't combine dirt-lifting with lubrication, but the combination products satisfy many users.
Another difference of opinion regards protecting leather through coating its surface. Adding a coating can make leather more water-repellent. You'll see beeswax as a common protective ingredient. (Waxed thread resists water and should last longer.) However, a topical application of a wax product might clog the leather's pores and prevent the leather from breathing.
Jim McGowen markets Harness Honey Leather Conditioner to draft horse and driving enthusiasts. He described this brand as more of a conditioner than a water-repellent. He said, "It controls mildew, because it keeps water from penetrating the leather. Mildew can't feed on leather unless it's damp."
Leather care products do more than enhance leather's longevity. Well-cared-for saddlery gleams with a soft luster that means the tack is more comfortable for your horse.
As you ride, drive, or train, don't take leather goods for granted. Remember that safe, strong tack helps you and your horse perform as partners. Maintain that relationship by safeguarding the leather equipment that makes it possible. If you have further questions, ask the manufacturer of your tack what products they recommend, or ask your local saddle repair shop owner.
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.