By Anna Carner Blangiforti, President and Founder, Leather Therapy Products
Time was when saddles and bridles came in basically one color--a light golden brown, the "natural" color of the hides a tanner delivered to a saddle maker. Today we know it as "London" or "peanut brittle" or some similar designation. Back then, it was leather's plain vanilla color. It took a combination of sun, rain, sweat plus the fats and saddle soaps old time horsemen used to clean and supple their leather to slowly create the dark patina that marked a seasoned horseman's tack.
No more! Like ice cream, leather now comes in dozens of shades. Depending on their needs and tastes, modern riders can find leather tack in colors ranging from bleached white through multiple shades of brown to black. Manufacturers have learned how to successfully dye leathers to please a wide range of tastes.
While old time horsemen expected their leather to change color over time, today's riders are often more concerned with keeping the leather the same color it was when they bought it. The trick is to use leather care products that are easy on both the leather and on leather dyes. Some of the old standbys used by grooms of yore are no longer the best possible choices on the market. Saddle soap, for example, can have a very alkaline pH which may chemically affect dyes. Liquid conditioners containing petroleum-based oils tend to darken leather and give it an "oily" feel that attracts dirt.
While you can't control every factor that may affect the long-term color of your tack, here are some tips on how to keep your leather as close to its original color as possible:
Don't be too quick to clean brand new leather. Instead, use a conditioning product for several weeks to help dyes to set completely. Some cleaners can break the weak hydrogen bonds between dye and leather fibers. Then the dye leaches out.
Avoid hard rubbing on new leather--instead, use a liquid conditioner that is easily and completely absorbed leaving no oily residue to trap dirt. Clean your leather using a pH-neutral product that lifts dirt out of the leather's pores and stitching lines without leaving excess foam or any gummy residue behind. Alkaline products, like many saddle soaps, may move dyes.
Many one-step cleaner/conditioners have heavy, greasy bases that attract dirt which can change the leather's appearance. Conversely, an anionic product like Leather Therapy WASH actually creates a negative electrical charge that helps repel dirt. Avoid saturating the leather when you clean it. Condition your leather occasionally using a lightweight, penetrating animal-based oil like Leather Therapy Restorer & Conditioner that mimics the fatliquors used by quality tanners to supple and soften new hides.
Avoid conditioners formulated with thick, greasy bases that only reach surface fibers and do not penetrate deeply to thoroughly condition the interior matrix of leather fibers . Avoid petroleum-based conditioners that tend to darken lighter colored leathers. Read labels carefully (the word "compound" is often a tip off that you're holding a blended product containing a petroleum distillate) and use your nose to sniff for a petroleum odor.
Avoid greasy or waxy waterproofing products that tend to stay on the leather's surface and attract dirt. They may mottle some kinds of leather and should never be used on suede. Keep suede saddle seats or chaps looking great with a water repellent spray that preserves the leather's nap while sealing out rain or other moisture that can spot or mottle the leather's original color.
Keep light-colored leathers out of the sun which tends to darken them. Use saddle covers to help maintain the saddle's original color. A Western saddle that has been lacquered or shellacked to give it a showroom shine will tend to become mottled as the rider wears that coating off parts of the saddle, particularly under the thighs and legs. The same thing happens to saddles and bridles made from cheaper leathers that have been "glazed" to produce a uniform color and surface. As the glaze is rubbed off, the leather beneath will no longer match the color of the glaze. If this will be a problem, choose tack that does not have an applied finish.
Quiz sales personnel about the leather used in a saddle's construction. Many English saddles, for example, are made from several different kinds of leather. Although a factory dye job makes all the pieces look alike when you buy the saddle, over time the differences may become more noticeable, especially if one of the leathers is more porous than the others. Inspect tack closely to be sure that dyes or glazes are not being used to camouflage poor quality leather. Cheap tannages from some overseas producers trying to compete on price are sometimes made with poor or inappropriate dyes that may bleed, turn color, or otherwise disappoint the buyer.
Anna Carner Blangiforti's hand-raised Arabian gelding Justinian provided the inspiration for her Leather Therapy line which includes Leather Therapy Wash, original Leather Therapy Restorer & Conditioner and new Leather Therapy Water Repellant. She is founder and president of Unicorn Editions, Ltd.