Looking At Leathers

Even though stirrup leathers appear to be a simple piece of equipment, just a strap with a buckle, there can be a mind-boggling complexity of choices.In addition to length and width, riders can consider:

• One layer or several layers
• Layers stitched or bonded together
• The number, shape and spacing of holes
• Type of leather
• Thickness
• Buckle attachment
• Color
• Smooth or unfinished sides of leather hides on the inside or out.

Since anti-stretch and break-resistance are vital qualities, we decided to look just at choices that the manufacturers considered to be reinforced or non-stretch. This immediately put us into higher price brackets, since it implies finer grades of leather and more elaborate workmanship, possibly including stitching together several layers of leather and nylon.

Although most riders picture helmets and vests when they think of safety equipment, we put stirrup leathers and girths in the same category. Stirrup leathers must be strong in order to be safe. Therefore, we’re not going to complain if we have to pay more to get strong, stretch-resistant stirrup leathers. Beautiful-quality leather in stirrup leathers almost has to be more expensive, since two very long pieces of leather must be cut from the same part of the hide in order to match. If stirrup leathers could be pieced together from shorter strips they would cost much less, but they wouldn’t be strong enough to do the required job.

We test-rode 12 pairs of leathers over several months. One big question we considered was whether two long strips of leather stitched together and reinforced with nylon in the middle would wear better than one strip of high-quality pre-stretched leather.

It’s certainly unlikely that a nylon-lined stirrup leather will break in the middle. However, our experience has been that stirrup leathers are usually more likely to break at the buckle stitching than in the middle.

Wear Points
The stitching needed to hold layers together along the length of the stirrup leathers creates wear points for both the threads and leather. You should check the underside for any raised seams or stitches that could rub against the stirrup ridge and thus eventually shred the leather. Stitching should be placed in a bevel or be flush with the leather.

In addition, layered stirrup leathers usually are thicker and more pliable that single-thickness leathers, so the pressure points against metal at the buckle and stirrup ridge cut into the leather more readily. Because of this, although the nylon lining will keep them from breaking in the middle, layered stirrup leathers will probably need to be replaced sooner than plain leather.

Layered stirrup leathers are also usually made from split hides rather than two pieces of full-grain leather or else they become quite bulky. It thus becomes a trade-off when selecting layered stirrup leathers: thicker and stronger or thinner and more likely to wear. Hold them up to each other in the tack shop to compare thickness and try to borrow some thicker leathers to see if the bulk will bother you before you decide to buy.

Thick stirrup leathers cut 3/4” wide can be more uncomfortable than thick 1” stirrup leathers since they can twist, and then that bulk will rub against the rider and the saddle.

A rub point with wider stirrup leathers may occur with the large squared buckle needed for that width of leather. A subtle feature can make a big difference: Curving the buckle slightly with the contour of the saddle, but you have to really look to see it. The only curved buckle in our survey was from Miller’s. The others were conventional rectangles, except that Nunn Finer has added a roller on its buckle since our trial.

With stirrup leathers, prettier is not necessarily better. Tack-shop clerks often hear the comment that an expensive set of stirrup leathers has the buckles sewn on backward, with the unfinished side of the hide outside. This is the correct arrangement, however, since the smooth side of the leather will create less friction against the stirrup ridge and therefore will be less likely to wear or break. The smooth side should be on the inside and the unfinished side on the outside. Of course, layered stirrup leathers can have a smooth side both inside and out because the unfinished side can face the nylon core.

It’s important for riders to also check the ridge of the stirrup where the leather passes through to make sure that edge is nicely rounded and not sharp or rough, as often happens, thus wearing out the stirrup leathers more quickly.

You should also consider leather where the veins of the leather still show through. Leather that is very smooth has been shaved and thus may not be as strong and safe as a product with a little more “character.” We’ve also seen leathers where the unfinished side of the hide has been laminated to a thin slice of leather for the sake of appearance, but that lamination usually wears away quickly (especially if oiled) and then the stirrup leathers look awful even if they’re still strong.

Avoid Oil
The proper care of stirrup leathers goes against the tendency of most Americans to over-oil their tack, much more so than in Europe. Most of the manufacturers we spoke to were adamant that only glycerine soap or a good-quality conditioner be used on stirrup leathers. Oil will make the leather pliable but in doing so will break down the fibers and cause them to stretch more.

Of course, conditioners contain some oil, but choose those with a plant- or animal-based oil or with beeswax. True neatsfoot oil once was made by boiling cattle hooves, but it is no longer available. What is now labeled “neatsfoot oil” contains petroleum-based oils, and some tack shops don’t even carry it any more (see Conditioning Leather, May 1997).

If you get caught in the rain out hacking or hunting or at a show, or you create a big splash in the water jump, let the stirrup leathers dry away from a heat source. (You can get the conditioner into damp leather more easily, but the leather may stretch more.)

Then work conditioner into your stirrup leathers with some warmth, such as from your bare hand, or use oil sparingly. Better yet, if you anticipate the possibility that your tack may get wet, you should rub conditioner with a beeswax base into the straps before you leave cover (see January 1998). A non-oily leather conditioner should also be used during the break-in process.

The colors of leather today reflect less need for oil. Decades ago, new tack came in one light color generally called Newmarket. The leather needed oil for darkening to match tack that had been used and to make it pliable.

Now, the improved tanning process of better-quality leather adds color and makes it more able to repel moisture. The leathers wear better and don’t need oil.

Switch Leathers
It should be obvious that riders need to switch their stirrup leathers about monthly. Even if you use a mounting block of some type and don’t overstrain your left leather that way, most of us still put more weight on one side.

Any leather is going to stretch somewhat, even if it’s been pre-stretched or stitched to nylon, especially if it gets damp and then is placed under pressure. Leather that won’t stretch at all is probably too dry and more likely to break. Unless stirrup leathers are switched regularly, they will stretch unevenly and put the rider even more out of kilter on the horse.

A major annoyance is with stirrup leathers that are too mealy or too thick at the end to be inserted under the stirrup bars. Layered stirrup leathers are thicker and don’t always have firm points, so this can be a problem. Also, thick stirrup leathers with holes too small for the buckle tongue can be hard to adjust.

Ideally, holes should be oval rather than round and punched from the underside to make buckling easier. However, holes punched from the underside are not as attractive as those punched from the top. If they’re big enough, the direction doesn’t matter for buckling.

Half holes, spaced at ??” to 7/8” instead of the usual 1” or 1 ??”, are becoming a popular convenience on stirrup leathers. Half holes work better on layered stirrup leathers reinforced with nylon in the center so they won’t cut into each other, creating one long hole.

Bottom Line
After test-riding for several months in a selection of layered stirrup leathers, plus a couple of single-layer stirrup leathers made from good pre-stretched leather, we find that we prefer the single-layer option, since there are fewer components to wear out. Also, we find layered stirrup leathers tend to be softer and thus wear more at the pressure points of stirrup ridge and buckle.

Our favorites are Courbette leathers, which are made from beautiful leather and wear like iron. At $60, they are below average price in this group of products and should outlast cheaper leathers. They are also our Best Buy.

If you prefer layered stirrup leathers, check out the Barnsby leathers at about $71, which are bonded from two pieces of pre-stretched, beautifully tanned leather. Plus, the bonding proved it will hold.

If you want the nylon core, the Nunn Finer is fairly thin and has many nice features under $70.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Stirrup Leathers Comparison Chart.”

Contact your local tack store or: Dover Saddlery 800/989-1500; Courbette 740/522-1555; Eisers, Rodrigo Pessoa 800/526-6987; State Line Tack, Nottingham 800/228-9208; Thornhill, Pro-Trainer 610/444-3998; Nunn Finer 800/342-1723; Saddlery Trade Associates, Cliff Barnsby 800/446-7966; KL Select Kensington 860/437-7232; Miller’s Harness Company Crosby 800/553-7655.

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