Water, particularly rain water and its pollutants, is no friend to leather. Here's how to take care of your tack after you've been caught out in the storm.
If you ride far enough and often enough, it's inevitable the day will come when you're caught out in a drencher. If you've planned ahead, you reach for your slicker and slog on with a smile. When you get back to shelter, you'll scrape your horse and towel him down, then you'll find yourself some dry clothes and something warm to drink. If you're smart, you'll also tend to your tack before the mud dries on and the leather dries out. Timely care can also prevent the blooming of mold and mildew problems, which once established can become a major nuisance.
Inside Your Saddle
Water is no friend to leather, especially rainwater and its pollutants. At the microscopic level, leather is made up of a tangle of collagen fibers resembling a pad of steel wool. In the tanning process hides are soaked in chemicals to prevent its fibers and their bonds from decomposing. Then natural fats and oils are tumbled with the hides (this was once a hand process known as "currying") to keep the protein bonds from drying out and to make the leather supple.
Keeping those protein bonds lubricated and supple is the key to long-lasting leather. If the bonds dry out completely, they shrink, become brittle and break. Once broken, they can't be mended. The leather is permanently weakened. Soaking dried-out leather in oil may make it supple and bendable again, but it can't repair damaged fibers or restore their strength.
When water penetrates leather, it forms temporary bonds with the oils that lubricate the interior fibers, then floats those vital oils to the surface as it evaporates. That's why the leather feels stiffer - to both you and your horse. And that's exactly what happens when your equipment gets drenched.
The solution to your rainy day ride and its potential damage to your tack is to take action to get some therapeutic oil back into that wet leather before its fibers completely dry. Remove dirt, sweat and mud from the wet leather with a damp rag. If the leather is really dirty or traces of old conditioner have floated to the surface, use a non-greasy, neutral pH leather cleaner to get the surface clean.
Wet leather needs to absorb conditioner deep within its fibers to replace currying oils flushed out by water. While the leather is still damp and its pores are still open, apply a light coat of a penetrating neutral pH leather conditioner which duplicates the fat liquors tumbled with freshly tanned hides to make them supple. Capillary action will pull the conditioner down between the fibers. Thick or waxy conditioners tend to stay on or near the leather's surface, so look for conditioners with a neutral pH and avoid cleaners or conditioners with a harsh, alkaline pH. An alkaline pH, such as that of soaps, can damage and eventually weaken leather fibers.
An Ounce of Prevention
One thing taking quick action to re-lubricate your leather can't do is to restore its appearance once dyes are affected. Water moves some dyes, leaving spots, splotches and streaks when if finally evaporates. "Erasing" these water marks is almost impossible once they occur. Often, stripping and re-dying is the only recourse to restore an even color or the original depth of color.
Preventing the problem with an appropriate waterproofing product is much easier. 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.
Grease-based dressings form a physical barrier that keeps mud and water away from leather's pores. However, they are sticky, attract dirt, and cannot be used on nappy leathers like suede.
Silicone polymer sprays are non-greasy and can be used on suede as well as smooth leather. They can make leather surfaces slippery, however, can affect the color of porous leathers, and can have a drying effect on leather if overused.
Acrylic copolymer is the newest option for waterproofing. It forms a microscopic net too fine for water molecules to penetrate but porous enough to allow water vapor to pass through. It creates a unique, flexible coating the protects leather fibers from rain, maintains the breathability of leather, is not slippery, and actually acts to fix dyes in porous suede.
In our frenetic multi-tasking times, most of us are guilty of tack neglect at one time or another. Next time you're caught out in the rain, don't think of it as the ruination of your tack. Look at it as an opportunity to stop putting off that leather conditioning and waterproofing you've meant to do but just haven't gotten around to yet.
Anna Carner Blangiforti is founder and president of Unicorn Editions, Ltd., makers of Leather Therapy Products. Read more tips on leather care at www.leathertherapy.com.