This short guide outlines the leather quality available for saddles and bridles and its suitability for riding. There is nothing wrong with choosing a cheaper leather quality as long as it is used for the correct purposes. A 'happy hacker' may have a use for a cheaper Asian leather bridle, but competing at Badminton with cheap tack is most unwise!
There are some great bargains to be had in the equestrian section of eBay, but as a buyer, exercise a little caution and ask some questions before commiting to that new saddle!
I hope these notes help you make the right choice for you and your horse.
English, German, Swiss, French, Italian and other European Leathers
English leather is soft but never limp and oily. With new leather, 'buttery' soft is NOT SO good - it can indicate too much oil, too thin or similar and can mean stretching is likely. Over oiling is an easy way to disguise poor quality, so do not be swayed by 'softness.' New English leather is substantial and has a 'hand' to it. The tanning method for European leather is generally vegetable.This is a natural method which preserves the hide without harsh chemicals affecting the leather strength. The centre of the leather industry in the UK is Walsall and most English leatherwork is still produced in small workshops there, rather than on a production line. Saddles and bridles made from these leathers and well maintained are suitable and safe for all purposes, including racing eventing. hunting and other 'speed' sports.
Is soft and pliable and makes very comfortable saddlery. It is very similar to the French or Italian leathers. They make very nice Polo items too! (but that's their heritage) Some people feel it is too soft, but this is a matter of personal taste. Often a soft Argentinian leather is used to make comfortable knee and thigh rolls. There are some budget, chemical tan hides from Argentina - but in the main, vegetable tanning in pits is the norm. Argentinian leather is safe for all purposes and is especially suitable for showjumping and polo - many of the Argentinian designs favour these sports.
Also known as Indian, Imported, Drum dyed - or euphemistically as 'quality' or 'English style'. There are many grades of Asian leather. The better quality, drum dyed leather is mostly fine for pleasure riding, but not suitable where tack is put under strain. (Jumping, hunting, fast hacking)
If you are going to lots of galloping and jumping and your budget desn't stretch to a quality leather, do look at the great range of synthetic tack on the market - my favorite is the Wintec range, and Libbys also make nice web bridles - as this will be a safer choice than a cheap Indian saddle and bridle. It's also more likely to fit your horse properly!
The lowest grade Asian leather is easy to spot. It is chemical tanned with strong tanning agent and often smells of these agents. The back of the work is often slightly rough, where the grain is damaged by the tan process. The stitching may be uneven or of poor quality. It is often heavily oiled with a greasy feel in order to disguise poor tanning. In the very cheapest examples, the dye colour is 'painted' on - and often 'bleeds' heavily onto clothes and hands if subjected to rain.
This low grade tack is suitable only for turnout headcollars. It is not suitable for fast work or any circumstances where tack may be subjected to sudden strain (jumping, galloping etc.) Leather turnout headcollars made of very cheap leather are a surprisingly good choice as they break quickly if your horse should get tangled - unlike a nylon or web halter.
But I only have a photo - how can I tell? As with all things on eBay, do your research! Read the description very carefully and check the seller's feedback. Ask for additional photos, ask for the brand name of the bridle or saddle you are thinking of bidding for. Ask the seller directly what type of leather the item is made from, and save their answer in case of a future dispute. Almost every English and Continental saddle will have a makers plate. Ask for a photo of the plate and serial numbers and look up reviews online, ask your riding instructor, saddle fitter or yard owner for their opinion before commiting. Good English brands include Albion, Lovett and Rickets, Ideal and Jaguar.
I've seen an English leather bridle and reins for £9.99 on eBay, is it the real thing? Again, let common sense be your guide. Some sellers start items at a low price to attract bids, but do your research! If they've sold 10 English leather bridles at £9.99 in the last month, they're either about to go bankrupt, or perhaps not all is what it seems...
A new English leather bridle and reins will cost from around £50 in a tackshop, and a top spec bridle from a fashionable European saddlery (Stubben, Schumacher, Passier) can be up to £400. Most saddlers will retain a profit of 30-50% on their leatherwork. Selling at £9.99 is well below the trade price of English leather bridlework. Why would a seller sell at a loss? On the other hand, very cheap Indian leather bridles with reins are available wholesale for as little as £3.
A seller in the USA is offering an English saddle package for £200! Should I go ahead? Besides acting on my recommendations above, buying from overseas sellers has a few extra snags. Firstly, in the USA, an 'English saddle' is a style of riding (ie not Western) so the seller is NOT saying that the leather is English in origin. Check first! Secondly, check out the shipping costs with insurance - also how much will it cost you if you need to send the item back? Thirdly, items imported from outside the EU are subject to VAT and DUTY, which is payable by the recipient (ie you!) And last, and most importantly, your rights are severely limited when buying from overseas. If you decide to go ahead, pay only with PayPal or your credit card direct. Is it still such a bargain?
I hope these notes on leather help you make a safe purchase on eBay. Happy eBaying!