OLDWICK, NJ -- The scenarios may vary but the sinking feeling is always the same. Maybe your horse insists that you wade first when you reach the stream you have to cross to get home. Or you come back from riding a particularly sloppy trail with your boots, your girth and your stirrups so mud splattered that there's hardly any leather showing. Or the heavens open up just as your Western pleasure class enters the ring. Whatever the reason, you groan inside and give yourself a mental kick for not taking any precautions to keep your leather from getting sopped.
Water is no friend to leather. When leather gets wet, water forms temporary bonds with the oils lubricating the leather's fibers and floats them away. This leaves leather drier and stiffer. The protein bonds holding the leather fibers together become brittle and are more easily broken.
Water can also ruin the appearance of fine leather. Water moves some dyes, leaving spots, splotches and streaks when it finally evaporates. "Erasing" these water marks is almost impossible once they occur.
An ounce of prevention can protect tack, boots, and other leather goods from water damage. Truly "waterproofing" leather means creating a barrier that water can't get through from either direction. That's not always desirable. Most products that protect leather from water damage are better described as making leather "water resistant" rather than waterproof.
Which water protection product is most appropriate depends on both your purpose and your personal preferences about things like application methods, odors, and how the product affects the leather's surface. Your choices fall into three basic categories:
Grease-based dressings form a physical barrier that keeps mud and water away from the leather's pores. They are a good choice for leather items like your barn boots or your horse's galloping boots that take a lot of abuse from mud, rain or snow. They are a bad choice for nappy leathers like suede or nubuck, however, because they lay down the nap and darken them. Using grease-based products also makes it unlikely you will ever put a high shine on a smooth leather again. Other trade offs include stickiness that attracts dirt and the objectionable odor of some products.
Many people prefer the convenience of a spray to sticky dressings. Silicone sprays repel water and this can make the leather's surface feel a little slippery. That's a factor that needs to be considered when they are used on saddle seats, bridle reins or other tack where slipperiness might be a disadvantage. Water-based silicone sprays are a good choice for napped leather like suede or nubuck but oil-based silicone sprays may affect the color of these porous leathers. Silicone can have a drying effect on leather so be careful not to overuse it.
Acrylic copolymer spray is the newest entry in the leather care market. This spray forms a microscopic net that is too fine for water molecules to penetrate but porous enough to allow water vapor to pass through. It creates a unique, flexible coating that protects individual leather fibers from rain and wet while maintaining the breathability of the leather itself. Acrylic copolymer spray is not slippery and does not affect the color of leather. In fact, one major manufacturer now uses acrylic copolymer spray to fix the dyes in the porous suede seats on its show-quality Western saddles.
Tack shops and horse supply catalogs also carry wax-based products that can be rubbed onto clothing such as jackets and dusters to make it water resistant (note that some wax-based products are appropriate for leather, others for fabric). Some leather care sprays are also suitable for treating either outerwear for riders or turnout rugs for horses to make them water resistant.
Remember that any treatment you apply to protect your leather from water will eventually rub off or be cleaned away. Periodic renewal is necessary to maintain the water protection.