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Types of Horse Tack Leather Explained
 By Saferaphus   •   11th May 2017   •   612 views   •   0 comments
I was flipping through a mail order tack catalog and noticed the wide range of prices for bridles, saddles and other gear made from leather. Comparing prices, you can buy leather tack for little more than the cost of synthetic tack. But, some is far more expensive. Why the difference? Now, with a harness maker in the family, and handling the stuff all my life, you’d think I’d have a ready answer. But when it came to some of the terminologies like ‘top grain’ and ‘premium’ that I was seeing in the catalog, I had some things to learn.



So, when you go into a tack shop, why is there such a huge difference in price points? Tack can be made from the hides of cattle, goat, pig, sheep and deer, and most have a combination of leathers. For example, a western saddle may be mainly leather from cattle, but have a sheepskin lining under the skirts and deerskin on the seat. An English saddle may be made from a combination of pigskin and cattle leather. And, before a saddler starts putting the leather on the saddle, there is the tree to consider - what it’s made of and what its feature are - such as adjustability or weight. Another thing you may not see, but is very important is what padded areas such as the flocking on an English saddle are made of - whether that’s stuffed with wool or synthetic. All of these things combine to determine the value.

But there are a few words that describe leathers that give you some idea of the quality of the stuff. The leather used for tack is tanned with chemically using chromium salts or vegetable tanned using tannins extracted from the leaves, bark, stems and roots of plants. The leather can be either finished with oils, waxes or depending on the tanning process may be dyed.

Vegetable tanned leathers are used for expensive tack such as show saddles and bridles. Chrome tanned may be better for trail riders as it’s more resistant to water. But, overall, veg tanned leathers will last much longer. How can you tell the difference? Most manufacturers will readily label vegetable tanned leathers, knowing that these are the most desirable.

Hides are often split horizontally into layers. Items that are labeled ‘full grain’ however, are not made of split leather. They are simply cut from the full side of leather and this means it is the strongest and most durable. The reason some of the straps on a harness or bridle may be different thicknesses has to do with where on the hide the pieces are cut. Leather from the neck area of a hide may be the thickest, the back slightly less thick, while the thinnest pieces come from the belly area. So a lot more planning has to go into where and how to cut the various parts needed for a piece of tack than if you were cutting from a material of consistent thickness. Top grain may also show small natural flaws like scars from injuries that the animal had. While really scarred up skins are used to make splits, small flaws in full grain leather won’t affect the wear of the tack. The best hides have very little scarring, and the price tends to be higher for these.

A lot of tack is described as being made from premium leather, but it appears this is a description used by manufacturers that have more to do with marketing than a particular type of quality of leather. The exposed edges of leather on a saddle or bridle can tell you about the workmanship and quality. Rounded, smooth edges are signs of good work and materials. Edges that are dyed or painted, look cracked or rough are a sign of poor leather.

Top grain leather sounds like it should be high quality, but it’s not as good as full grain. Top grain is also called genuine leather. Items made with ‘genuine’ leather can be the lowest quality. Items made with top grain are from splits that have been printed with a leather grain. It looks like ugly leather with a waxy coating. It may feel rather cardboady or plasticy and not have that nice leather smell. This usually wears poorly, and looks shabby quickly. Reins and other tack labeled genuine leather may be stiff, and never really work in nicely. And you might find the leather conditioner such as neatsfoot oil just stays on the surface, and doesn't change the texture. Top grain that hasn’t been given a leather grain, but left suede-like may be used on seats and knee rolls.

Genuine leather may also be bonded leather. This is very weak, looks cheap and wears poorly. Because it is weak, it doesn’t make for good tack, although half-chaps and other leather accessories might be made from it.
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