Supple tack is generally easier to use and more comfortable to work with. Ever sat in a really stiff saddle and then couldn’t wait to get off because it pinched and was so uncomfortable? As equestrians, we deal with stiff or hard tack at least once, if not many times in our lives. Whether we are working with breaking in inherently stiff new tack or we are dealing with beat-up or neglected tack, it is helpful to know a few exercises that can help reduce stiffness and increase suppleness.
Here are our Top 3 Tips for Suppling Leather:
1. Condition Regularly
Moisture equals suppleness, and conditioning is the tool for moisturizing leather tack.
Lightly condition your leather tack on a regular basis after you have cleaned it thoroughly. Depending on your climate and the condition of your leather, this may mean you condition once a month, twice a month, or every week.
Your leather will tell you if it needs more conditioner:
- Does the conditioner soak in within less than a minute? Your leather is thirsty and may need more frequent conditioning.
- Has the conditioner not absorbed fully after about five minutes? Your leather is not so thirsty and could probably do with less frequent conditioning. (P.S. Wipe off the excess that hasn’t absorbed in order to prevent damage from over-conditioning).
Dilapidated tack that is obviously dried out and stiff will require more frequent conditioning than a saddle in a better state. For restoration purposes, multiple heavy coats of conditioner may need to be applied over the course of several days in order to get sufficient moisture back into the leather’s fibers.
2. Flex Time
Leather fibers will gradually conform to the shape they are held in – the fibers have a “memory”. For example, look at how your bridle noseband curves to conform to your horse’s nose and how it stays curved even when not on your horse’s head. Through use and time, the leather fibers in your noseband have contoured to conform to the shape of your horse’s head.
In order to change the contour of your leather and to change the leather fiber’s “memory”, gently flex your leather tack with your hands.
Flex the leather slowly and in all directions:
- With the bend
- Against the bend
- Side to side
- Gentle twisting, etc.
Flexing is often most productive when done immediately after conditioning the leather. The act of having hands on the leather can warm the conditioner and leather slightly, resulting in faster penetration by the conditioner.
For particularly hard leather, be sure not to overflex the leather, as this can result in even cracking or completely breaking the leather. Like conditioning, many periodic episodes of gradually deeper flexing may be needed in order to rejuvenate very stiff tack.
Leather isn’t a big fan of cold or hot weather. Flexing will be most effective when performed on leather at room temperature or a warm day.
3. Wrap Up
Suppose the flaps on your saddle are bent the wrong way – they’re sticking out like wings rather than contouring smoothly around your horse’s barrel. What to do? Conditioning and hand flexing will help to encourage the bend to relax, but that alone may not be enough to correct the bend.
Physically holding your leather tack in a different shape for an extended period of time can also help change the “memory” of the leather fibers and to increase suppleness.
Get yourself a ball of twine or length of string or rope.
Position your leather tack with the bend you want. For example, if your saddle flap is sticking out but you want it to curl in, then gently curl your flap so that it has the inward bend you want.
Wrap and tie the twine or rope snugly around your tack so that the twine holds your tack in the new bend. Be sure that the twine is applying sufficient pressure to keep that tack in the new shape you want otherwise this exercise will not produce results.
In the case of the saddle flap, wraps of twine over multiple sections of the flap may be needed so that pressure is applied to the entire flap surface area in order to ensure all parts of the flap will bend in the desired direction.
Leaving your tack wrapped and tied for a few days may be sufficient to relax the stiff leather fibers and to encourage suppleness and conformation to a new shape. However, the length of time needed will depend on the stiffness of your tack.
If you are worried about the rope or twine marking or indenting your leather, slip a layer or two of soft towel between the rope and your leather.
These exercises will be a breeze to help get you started on addressing any suppleness issues you might have. As you proceed, observe how your leather responds to your actions to judge what steps are needed for your specific case. Perhaps the biggest tip of all though is to ensure that your leather tack doesn’t lose suppleness in the first place by adopting a regime of good regular leather care.
To also see these tips in practice, check out our video, How to Rejuvenate Leather Tack