Leather Therapy Makes Leather Behave...Beautifully

Tan My Hide, And other Leather Lore

Creating quality leather for horse tack is a multi-step process that begins with selection of top grade hides. First, hides soak for many weeks in tanning liquors that make them more chemically inert. Vegetable-tanned leathers steep in solutions with extracts of tree bark or other plants and tree parts that contain astringent chemical compounds called tannins.

The untreated hides emerge from the tanning liquor preserved but not pliable. To make the firm, boardy hides supple again, they are treated with fats to lubricate the fibres and soften the leather. At one time, men known as curriers hand rubbed fats into the leather. Now, hides are mechanically tumbled with a fat liquor, an emulsion of fats and water with a neutral pH that will not move the tannins or salts out of the fibres, to soften them. Around 1900, leather makers discovered how to preserve hides much more quickly by soaking them in solutions with chromium salts or other chemicals. Some modern leathers are created using both vegetable and chrome tanning processes.

Bleaching and dying are the final steps before the leather is ready to become a saddle, bridle, or other horse gear. Leather can be dyed in a confusion of over 500 colours and the names of different colours are not standardised from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Dyes vary enormously in terms of quality and stability. The difference between a good dye and a bad one is almost impossible to judge by eye. Cheap dyes are easily moved by water or cleaning products. The messy result is colour that bleeds onto hands or clothes. Worse still are colour shifts that may be impossible to correct without redying the leather tack.

Dyes and glazes can be used to hide blemishes in the leather or to dress up lower grades of leather. Glazes may look pretty but they prevent the leather from absorbing conditioners and their shiny look seldom lasts. As the leather is bent or passes through buckles, the glaze may wear away, crack, or even peel. When a leather conditioner is applied, the leather absorbs it unevenly and the tack gets a mottled appearance.

Vegetable tanning is a time-consuming process but it produces firm, water-resistant leathers prized by knowledgeable horsemen. “Oak bark leather” has long been the gold standard for top quality saddles, bridles, and harnesses. Flexible, extremely strong chrome-tanned leathers are used for billets, stirrup leathers and other places where strength counts. Latigo leather is both vegetable and chrome tanned. Mechanically buffing the surface to raise a nap creates suede leather.

While most horse tack is made from cowhide, pigskin was once favored for the seats of English saddles and other places where durability counted. Buffalo hide is strong and durable but can be more flexible and stretchy than cowhide. Manufacturers point out that animal nutrition is an important factor in the ultimate strength and quality of a hide. The inexpensive price of some imported leathers can reflect low-cost animal care and unsophisticated tanning methods that produce inferior leathers.

Good leather feels firm, neither mushy nor rigidly stiff. The flesh side, if visible, should look tight, not ragged or stringy. Tack can only be as good as the leather it is made from. The finest workmanship in the world will not turn cheap leather into premium tack. Consider your tack a long-term investment in the safety and comfort of both you and your horse. Buy the best quality you can afford.

Anna Carner Blangiforti
President and Founder
Leather Therapy Products