|Where Does My Saddle Come From?|
Colleen Meyer is interested in every detail about saddles, and that means she’s explored the origin of saddle leather from cow (or buffalo or deer) hide to finished product.
“There will be variations in the leather depending on where the cow lived its life, not just leather that comes from some particular country. It’s due in part to the environmental stress that the cow went through before it became your saddle,” said Meyer.
Hides that come from cows living in cold climates will have densely packed pores, and that leather is thick, dense premium leather, versus the leather made from cows who were raised in warmer climates like India or Argentina.
Another point to take into consideration is that large pieces of leather, such as those used in saddles, come from mature cows.
“You have to be dealing with a pretty big hide, mature cows,” said Meyer. “It’s unlikely that they’ve gone through their entire life without getting scarring. They have to grow to a certain length before you can cut an entire panel out of that side. When people find little flaws or inconsistencies in their fullgrain leather, they should look at it as a badge of authenticity.”
Developments in leather technology have given riders more options for their tack.
“These days it’s pretty common to use oil-impregnated leathers that don’t require the lengthy break in that leather did generations past,” said Meyer.
Different grades of leather are used for different parts of the saddle. Stress areas—the edges of the seat, the place where your boots and leathers rub against the bottom of the flap, in some instances the knee flaps on a jumping saddle—are going to wear more.
“Some leathers wear like iron. Buffalo will wear for an incredibly long time,” said Meyer. “Many saddles are covered with a veneer of soft, grippy leather that’s bonded to the hide underneath. Those thin leathers will wear through at friction points more easily than a thicker piece of hide. But they feel and look gorgeous.”
Obviously, this isn’t the best-case scenario, but with loving care, tack can recover from all kinds of tragedies.
“I get a lot of stuff up here, particularly with the Stubbens and the Passiers, which don’t have soft leather to begin with, that come in like beef jerky,” said Hazelton. “I’ve had saddles come in with the leather so brittle that I had to oil it before I dared to work on it because the leather would tear.”
When tack arrives in terrible condition, the first thing Hazelton does is clean it. Her next step is to oil the dried-out leather.
“I use a two-inch paint brush, and I dip the ends of the bristle in a light oil like Effax or tanners oil. I find that I can get the oil down into seams and into the welting, so I can access the stitching more easily,” she said. “I’ve had to do three or four coats before I could get the leather pliable enough to peel the welting back and access the stitching.”
If leather has dried out that badly, it won’t ever have the same integrity as if the abuse had never happened.
“Sometimes you can get that saddle back so it’s OK as a colt-starting saddle, but I wouldn’t say go out and foxhunt in it,” Hazelton said.
Meyer also cautioned that once you’ve allowed your tack to get to a certain point, it may take more than one session to revive it.
“You don’t know exactly what that leather is lacking or is going to respond to,” she said. “Very good leathers are somewhat easier to revive than leathers that were not a very high quality in the first place. I think working things into the leather with the warmth of your hands is a big part of it—you somehow have to get the pores supple again. Hydrophane, which comes from England, has a range of products, some of which are for leather revival, but aren’t necessarily suitable for daily use.”
If the saddle isn’t extremely dry, then Hazelton will use a lederbalsam product instead for conditioning. She also occasionally runs into the opposite problem: overenthusiastic conditioning.
“I’ve seen people bring saddles in that they oiled to the point where the flocking or the foam in the panels absorbed the oil. That’s a really nasty mess that necessitates taking all the wool out and replacing it,” she said. “If you find that your tack is slimy and limp, or you apply a coat of conditioner and it just sits on the surface of the saddle, chances are you’re doing a little bit too much of a good thing.”