Q: What is the difference in the leathers used to make saddles these days? How does it differ from leather used in the past? How do I know what is best and what to avoid?
Susan Gale, Texas
A: Dressage is a traditional sport, and even though we have been witnessing a slight evolution in the shape of the dressage saddle, the most commonly used material is leather, particularly cowhide. Nevertheless, today there are many available finishes and treatments for the surface of leather, which can give it a different texture and look. From a Nubuck finish to a grainy finish, texture, particularly on the seat, allows for a better grip, and therefore, gives the rider a sensation of safety. Considering the fact that today’s breeding produces dressage horses with increasingly powerful gaits, it is mandatory that a rider feel safe in the saddle. Texture on cowhides or calf hides is not natural. It is created by embossing the leather during the tanning process.
Water buffalo hide has been invading the market for the last 10 years as it naturally is supple, buttery, grippy and durable. Water buffalo leather is currently the number-one choice for most riders in search of quality. It can be used for the seat and knee pads or for the entire saddle, providing the rider with unbelievable comfort and a sensation of grip. Of course, like any other material, water buffalo can come in different qualities. A good water buffalo has to be soft to the touch, thick, dull-looking (anything shiny will be slippery) and show a nice texture on the surface. The texture of the water buffalo is natural and not embossed like the texture on cowhide leather. Since not all textured-looking saddles are made of water buffalo, ask the saddle maker to ensure you get the quality you want.
Many saddles in the past were made out of slick, slippery cowhides. The tanning methods were not as efficient as they are now, and the leather had the tendency to change color, going from dark to light. The hides were also more rigid and were prone to cracking more easily if not cared for properly.
When looking for good-quality leather, check for the following:
The touch. The leather has to be supple and not dry. It should not feel like cardboard. Whether the saddle is made from water buffalo, calfskin or cowhide leather, the skin should feel smooth and nourished. You can also check the quality of the leather by bending the flap. The skin should not show any wrinkling, cracking or looseness on the surface. That could be a sign that several layers of leather have been bonded together.
The color. The leather should be treated colorfast, which means that the dye should stay on the leather and not transfer onto your breeches. You might check by rubbing a white piece of fabric on the seat of the saddle. A minimal amount of color should show on the piece of fabric if the leather is not treated colorfast.
The security. Try the saddle to make sure that the leather seat provides enough grip and comfort.
The look. The leather should not show signs of scars or blemishes. The black or brown color should be deep in the layers and not only on the surface. The texturing should be even. Everything else is, of course, a matter of taste.
Leather is a natural material that breathes, evolves, changes. It is mandatory that you clean and condition the leather regularly to keep the saddle in good shape. Depending on where you live, saddles might need more nourishment, particularly in dry regions such as Nevada, California or Arizona, due to the lack of natural humidity in the air and the abundance of sun.
Paul Selvey is a master saddlemaker specializing in custom-made English saddles. He has made saddles for Olympians Charlotte Bredahl, Jan Ebeling and Christine Traurig and is based at Superior Saddlery at Middle Ranch, Lake View Terrace, California (superiorsaddlery.com).