Leather and saddles go together like pork and beans, and nothing is likely to match the appeal of that traditional pairing. Despite the best efforts of highly creative folks in the synthetics industry, no man-made hide can equal—much less surpass—the genuine article in terms of comfort, durability, flexibility, and sheer good looks. And even if it could, it still wouldn’t give a saddle that familiar leathery smell that we associate with horseback riding.
These attributes don’t come cheap, as leather saddles cost more than synthetic ones. It’s easy to understand this when you realize that one saddle uses the equivalent of one entire cowhide. A lower price makes imitation leather more accessible to some riders, and its lighter weight and easier maintenance are distinct advantages in certain situations.
Even so, the hands-down favorite for the English riding tradition is genuine leather. You cannot beat Mother Nature at creating a breathable substance that grows softer with age and stretches to accommodate your body.
Learn the basic terminology that saddlemakers use when talking about leather:
• Saddle Skirting: These are the heavy hides used to make saddles, which tanneries deliver to saddlemakers as sides.
Skirting varies from piece to piece according to:
• Weight: Thickness of the skirting.
• Grade: Quality of the skirting.
Every skirting has two sides:
• Grain (Smooth) Side: This is the side that usually faces outward on saddles (on Western saddles, it’s the side that features decorative tooling).
• Flesh (Rough) Side: This is the side that usually lies against the horse on English saddles, although saddlemakers may deliberately construct some parts, such as the saddle flaps, with the flash side as the exterior. This creates more of a grip between the flaps and the rider’s legs. When the flash side faces outward, the leather is called “rough-out.”
Leather Grade School
Leather’s many wonderful properties make it n excellent choice for saddlemaking purposes, but only some of the English saddles on sale today can boast top-grade leather. The quality of leather varies dramatically from tannery to tannery (and therefore from saddle to saddle). Inferior grades of leather do not hold up well and can dramatically reduce the life span of your saddle. That’s why it is better to buy a high-quality synthetic saddle than a low-quality leather one.
Examine the leather on saddles within different price ranges. You will soon notice a distinct pattern, with the saddles sporting the best grades of leather fetching the highest prices. To get a saddle that will endure for many years, you do not need to purchase one with the best leather on earth, but you do need to ensure that the leather is good enough to weather well. Here are some tips to help you find good-quality leather:
• Give the leather the touch test. It should feel soft and supple, not hard and dry, and it should have a substantial weight to it.
• Make sure that the leather is thick enough to do the job. A saddle features different thicknesses of leather to correspond to usage patterns. Leather that stretches to accommodate contours, such as the hide covering the cantle, needs to be thin to be flexible. Leather at the points of greatest stress and strain, such as the seat and the stirrups, should be thicker. Leather’s characteristic thickness is one of its main advantages over synthetics, so buying a saddle with leather that is too thin is a waste of money.
• Flex the leather with your fingers. If it does not bend but instead cracks, it is too brittle to withstand the rigors of riding.
• Inspect all edges for signs of curling, a surefire indication of an inferior hide.
• If the saddle is new, its leather should be free from major flaws, scratches, gouges, or other imperfections. If the saddle is used, it should be relatively free of these marks, although some evidence of wear and tear is to be expected.
• It’s natural to be drawn to bright, shiny objects, but avoid saddles with high-gloss leather. That sheen is a lacquer finish intended to make the leather look so pretty that you won’t notice its inferior grade. The finish will also prevent the leather from breathing and cause it to crack when flexed.
Take the time to appreciate the different grades of leather used in the saddles you examine, and learn to recognize quality. Doing so will help you find a saddle that will age gracefully along with you for many years.
Back to Saddle Buying