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Leather Information and Care

THE TANNING PROCESSS

Due to its unique and resilient properties the majority of riding equipment is made of leather.

Leather is defined as “hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, that has been tanned to increase its durability”.

Making leather is a highly skilled and lengthy process which can take up to two weeks to complete.

The GRAIN 1 is the finished, or sealed side of the leather, which is often dyed and embossed to provide an even texture and disguise any flaws. Below the grain is the CORIUM 2, a mixture of protein and collagen fibres arranged in a ‘spaghetti’ type structure. These fibres give leather its durability, strength and flexibility. The FLESH 3 side is the underneath and will usually be in contact with the horse. This side is rougher and more absorbent and is more likely to lose moisture, but is also more porous to “accept” conditioners and oils.

Finished leather is composed of approximately 10% fats and oils and around 14% water, which both provide lubrication for the collagen fibres, the balance being protein. Regular care and cleaning maintain this balance and its resilient properties.

GRADES OF LEATHER


Leather hides vary in thickness depending on the type, age and sex of the animal. To achieve the thickness required for its ultimate use, the hide is usually cut into two sections or layers and then machined appropriately. Best quality saddles would only utilise the top grain leather.

SOURCES OF LEATHER

Cow hide : Is a bi-product of the cattle industry. It is readily available, cost effective and renowned for its durability.

Calfskin : Produces soft and supple leather with few imperfections. Most commonly used in Europe.

Buffalo hide : Another durable type of leather. Most commonly sourced in the USA and Asia.

LEATHER FINISHES

Full grain leather : The grain surface of the leather has not been corrected by buffing, although the creases of the grain pattern will have been supplemented by the addition of several coats of pigment and if required, a deeper grain may be embossed. This produces the durable leather, most commonly used for saddlery.

Corrected grain pigmented

leather : The grain has been buffed and sanded to minimise imperfections and to prepare the surface for pigment coating. An artificial grain may be applied creating a uniform surface. Due to these many layers of pigment coating, the breathability of this leather is reduced and it may have a stiffer feel.

Aniline : A form of finishing that does not use pigments and so produces a very natural looking leather. As grain imperfections cannot be hidden, only the very best quality hides can be used, making such leather more expensive. Due to a minimal protective finish, aniline leather can have less resistance to staining and discolouration, so care should be taken to protect it.

Nubuck/Suede : Nubuck is very fine due to the tight fibre structure in the grain layer, whereas suede has a looser fibre structure with a distinctive rougher nap. Nubuck and suede require specialist cleaning to prevent damage and staining of the nap.

Vegetable tanned : Uses vegetable extracts in the tanning process to give a natural looking, brown coloured leather. The colour of this leather improves and darkens naturally with age.

FINISHING LEATHER SPECIFICALLY FOR SADDLES & BRIDLES

Cow hide is most commonly used for tack due to its exceptional durability and strength. Calfskin, pigskin, or suede may also be used on more expensive saddles, especially on areas such as the knee pads and skirt. The top grain cut of the leather is generally used, with a pigmented finish for additional durability and resistance to staining.

English and European leather is preferable as they are renowned for their superior quality. This is due to both the quality of the original hides and the meticulous, traditional manufacturing processes.

Cheaper alternatives also tend to have dyes which are not colourfast, are prone to discolouring and have poor resistance to wear and tear. Often these items may crack and split after very little use.

WHY CARE FOR YOUR TACK?

Once a leather item is in use, microscopic cracks and splits occur in the leather. These cracks provide an entry site for water, dirt, grime, grease and salt from sweat, which work their way into the leather.

This weakens and damages the collagen and protein fibres in the Corium eventually causing irreparable cracks and splits. This together with heat, can cause drying, cracking and hardening. However with regular care and maintenance, this can be avoided.

If leather is properly maintained it can remain functional, supple and in good condition for many years and importantly retain its value.

The type of finish used dictates how the saddle or bridle should be cared for. For example, aniline leather is easily stained and so you should be aware that conditioners containing dyes or oils may permanently darken the appearance of the leather. On the other hand pigmented items tend not to be as absorbent to conditioners, particularly when new, so use a conditioner sparingly but often.

As a general rule when cleaning, conditioning and oiling, always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.

WHY CARE FOR YOUR TACK?

The type of finish used dictates how the saddle or bridle should be cared for. For example, aniline leather is easily stained and so you should be aware that conditioners containing dyes or oils may permanently darken the appearance of the leather.

On the other hand pigmented items tend not to be as absorbent to conditioners, particularly when new, so use a conditioner sparingly but often.

NEW LEATHER

A new saddle or bridle is an investment, so it’s important to look after them from day one. New leather items often feel stiff and will usually benefit from light oiling before use.

NEATSFOOT COMPOUND

As a general guide, a thin layer of Neatsfoot Compound should be applied to the grain and two thin layers to the underside or flesh.

Repeat the process whenever the leather feels dry or stiff.

Take care to oil stirrup leathers only very lightly as supple leathers will stretch much more easily.

Some items now come pre-oiled and ready to use, while others have a protective layer which is easily removed by cleaning and then treating as above. Once it has been in use for a short period of time, new leather will soften and ‘give’, so minor fitting adjustments may then be required.

It is always important to first check the type of leather used on your saddle or bridle and how the leather has been finished before starting any type of treatment.

MAKE SURE IT’S CLEAN FIRST

Ideally, all saddlery items should be wiped after use to remove the damaging salts found in sweat and grease and be thoroughly cleaned at least every five times it is used.

To ensure thorough cleaning, where appropriate, tack should be taken apart and each piece then cleaned individually.

Just as you would shampoo your own hair first, it is also essential to clean leather before applying a conditioner. This ensures that the surface of the leather is free from grease and dirt and therefore porous to accept a conditioner.

Belvoir Tack Cleaner is specifically designed to remove grease and dirt quickly and easily, without “over-wetting” the leather or damaging the stitching. Too much liquid may cause swelling of the collagen fibres, which ultimately stretches and weakens the leather. Quick drying Belvoir Tack Cleaner is pH neutral to ensure that the leather structure is not weakened and contains anti-fungal agents to inhibit the growth of mould and mildew.

Traditionally, Saddle Soap has been used to clean and condition leather. This should be avoided as it does not effectively remove grease and dirt and could actually seal them in leaving a greasy residue. For muddy leather, carefully remove the mud before cleaning, taking care not to scratch the surface of the leather.

Remember to always use a saddle cloth as this will absorb sweat and grease and protect your saddle. Cleaning leather is a good opportunity to carry out safety checks; look out for wear and tear to billets, buckles, straps and stitching. Any repairs required should be carried out immediately to avoid further damage and unnecessary cost, and of course to ensure your safety.

THEN CONDITION

Once the leather has been thoroughly cleaned and allowed to dry, it may look slightly lighter in colour and parched. It should now be treated with a conditioner to moisturise protect and keep it supple.

Prevention is better than a cure!

If possible, try to avoid getting your tack wet as this can cause severe damage to the delicate fibre sub-structure. If your saddle or bridle do become soaked, caring for them correctly can minimise potential damage.

When leather becomes waterlogged, the inner fibre becomes stretched to accommodate the absorbed water. In this state, the leather is then weakened as the fibres are distorted from their normal strong organisation.

 

As the leather dries, the conditioning oils evaporate with the moisture, leaving the fibres with little or no lubrication.They then stick together in clumps leaving the leather feeling stiff and dry.


It is essential to lightly condition the leather whilst it is still wet, thus permeable and responsive.  Always wipe off dirt and mud carefully, before it has had the chance to dry. Belvoir Leather Balsam or a very sparing application of Neatsfoot Compound is then recommended.


It is essential to dry all wet leather items as naturally as possible away from direct heat such as radiators, heaters or fires. If not, the accelerated drying process causes the rapid removal of moisture and conditioning oils.

If these steps are followed, your tack should not become stiff, dry or watermarked.

Whenever possible try to prevent your tack getting wet in the first place by investing in a waterproof saddle cover. Also, be careful in the rain, as the colour from waterproof jackets or chaps could run onto your saddle, and leather is more easily stained when saturated.

Leather contains moisturising and lubricating oils which were added in the tanning process. These oils are gradually lost as the leather is used. The once plump and flexible fibres of leather gradually become thinner and more rigid.

Instead of flexing and stretching, the fibres become tight and stiff. In a similar fashion to bending a piece of metal repeatedly, they will eventually weaken and break, causing cracks.

NEATSFOOT COMPOUND

Using an oil such as Neatsfoot Compound will revitalise the fibres in the leather so that they can move freely again, much like oiling an engine.

As a guide, apply one or two thin layers to the absorbent flesh side of the leather. The leather will become strong again, less brittle and less likely to snap.

 

CARRS LEATHER OIL

For excessively dry leather or leather in need of revival, an intensive conditioning oil such as Carrs Leather Oil is more appropriate.

Apply a thin coating to the flesh side of the leather and allow to soak in for at least 24 hours. Particularly dry tack may benefit from a thin, additional coating applied to the grain side, which will also help to restore the colour.

If the leather still appears dry another application may be required, however take care not to over oil, wiping off any excess as it cannot be removed once absorbed.

Over oiling ‘collapses’ the structure of leather, leaving a slick, oily feel. So little and often is more effective than a thick application.

Although cracks cannot be repaired, their appearance can be minimised by oiling and conditioning.

Mould and mildew thrive in warm, dark, damp conditions. They penetrate deep into the fibre of the leather which can weaken them and cause permanent damage. Be aware that if leather is poorly stored mould and mildew can grow very quickly.

Any such mouldy leather should be immediatley removed from the tack room to prevent the spread of spores to other saddlery items. Wipe away the mould and mildew with a Belvoir Tack Cleaner Wipe taking care to dispose after use to prevent further contamination.

Then clean with Belvoir Tack Cleaner Spray as this has anti-fungal properties to help prevent the regrowth of mould and mildew. Use an old toothbrush to clean stitching and awkward places, and condition as normal. If a saddle has been badly affected by mould and mildew, some staining or mottling may remain. Whilst this cannot be removed, it may with correct care fade over time.

Mould and mildew penetrate leather to its core and so are impossible to remove entirely. However, spores will remain dormant if the correct preventative measures are taken.

Try to keep your tack room dry and light, perhaps using some low level storage heating, or a dehumidifier and wipe your tack everyday after use with tack cleaner.

It is also important to remove any damp saddle cloths, numnahs and girths, as they should be left to dry away from tack.

STORAGE

To maintain leather integrity, optional storage conditions are essential.

The tack room should be dry and a consistent room temperature with good ventilation is ideal. High temperatures will cause protective oils and moisture to be drawn out of the leather. It is also important to protect leather from direct sunlight and fluorescent light, as this can cause premature ageing and fading.

Tack should ideally be stored off the ground, and saddles should be placed on saddle racks to preserve their shape.

Using a saddle cover protects it from dust, debris and accidental scratches. However, do not use plastic or waterproof covers as they can encourage the ‘moist’ conditions which attract mould. A breathable saddle cover is preferable and cotton is ideal. If tack is not going to be used for some time, it should be carefully stored to preserve its condition. Leather straps are best stored flat so bridles and leathers should be taken to pieces and stored unbuckled.

 

 

***All information on this page courtesy of Carr & Day & Martin