I’ve been contemplating a new bridle for Speedy for a while now, for a variety of reasons. Primarily, he would probably benefit from a flash (to help stabilize the bit and to discourage him from evading by just gaping his mouth open while we work on the connection) and he would definitely appreciate some extra bit stability. He’s also quite sensitive, and I suspected something anatomical might make him a little happier.
After talking to Jen about her Fairfax bridle and
drinking all their kool aid looking at their data on pressure points, I decided a regular fixed flash simply would not do. I know Speedy went in a micklem in Germany so it probably wouldn’t be overtly offensive to him, and since that bridle has a lot of articulation points (key to reducing pressure edges) I just went ahead and bought one, despite the atrocious leather quality.
And then, because I figured I couldn’t possibly make it any worse/stiffer, I assaulted my brand new bridle with a variety of substances in an attempt to strip the leather finish off and transform it into something other than the peasant cardboard it arrived as.
In classic Nicole fashion, I thought ahead enough to test my attack on a piece of leather that would be easily replaceable if needed — one of the bit keepers — but did not think ahead enough to try a gentle option first. I went right at it with a dilute solution of ammonia in hot water. And boy, did that ever make a difference.
Right away the color started coming off on the cleaning rag, and the leather became more pale and matte. I could also feel a different in flexibility. I handed the two pieces to my husband and asked if he could tell a difference, and even in the dark he could feel a difference in the texture and flexibility of the two bit keepers. Emboldened, I started in on the next piece of leather with my rapidly-cooling ammonia solution, and was shocked to find that it stripped completely differently.
Instead of evenly stripping, the color started coming off very patchily. Of course, this just made me rub it with even more ammonia solution, which made the color even patchier. I experimented with a light pass but more physical rubbing on the two shorter bit keepers, and the finish hardly came off at all. The only difference I could identify was that the ammonia solution had been warm when I started this experiment. So as I started in on the browband, I decided to see what would happen if I just applied warm water to the pieces.
This turned out to be the trick, and in tap water as hot as I could bear, I scrubbed away at the bridle with a cleaning rag and then eventually a gentle scrubby pad. For particularly stubborn sections — the crown piece and any of the leather pieces with buckles on them, interestingly — I added a little dab of dish soap and that seemed to cut through the wax/epoxy finish pretty effectively. I could actually feel the finish separating slimily from the leather with my fingers.
At this point the pieces actually felt and smelled like regular leather. They were matte and soft to the touch, much more flexible than when they originally arrived, and quite a bit lighter in color. A better color, in my opinion.
I wanted to oil them, but since I didn’t have any neatsfoot oil or a bucket at the house, thought maybe I could just slather the leather in the Antares balm/baum and get them to soften further that way. So I slathered it on, put the bridle in the warmest part of my house (over the fireplace on a towel) and left them overnight. It did not work. They were gross and sticky in the morning, and as I buffed off the baum residue even more color came off with it.
Off to the feed store I went, and the next night I put all the bridle pieces in a bucket with Leather New Oil (a Farnam product) and set that over the fireplace to stay warm. I picked Leather New because I wanted something light, and I’ve found that neatsfoot doesn’t always absorb completely. If you’ve ever let neatsfoot get cold, you’ll have noticed that it separates and then solidifies. [I suspect this is because it’s a compound of many different organic oils (rendered and purified from shin bones, ick) with different properties and melting points.] I wanted something lighter, that would be more guaranteed to get into the leather. Also, I kinda wanted something synthetic so it wouldn’t rot. Leather New Oil basically feels like hydrophane, and it soaked right into the bridle quite happily. After soaking all the pieces in the bucket for a while, I left them out on a towel to finish absorbing the oil overnight.
The leather absorbed plenty of oil and darkened up significantly. All of this also revealed this odd brushed texture to the leather.
I finished up by rubbing in a thin layer of the Antares baum, and there was an itty bit of colour leeching on the sponge but not a ton. I’ve yet to clean the bridle with any glycerin soap, so that’s still a question mark. And I obviously have no idea how it is going to hold up long term. But I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, and it’s made the bridle much more pleasant to touch, adjust, and be around — a major win in that regard, at least.
On the one hand, this seems like way more effort than anyone should have to go to to get their bridle to not feel like peasant cardboard. It is ridiculous that this highly functional, well-designed, thoughtful piece of equipment arrives feeling like it’s been coated in a thin layer of plastic. I had to soak it in HOT OIL (okay, warm oil) for crying out loud. Maybe there’s something the Irish know or do with their brand new tack that we aren’t aware of over here. Maybe the exceptional damp of Ireland makes it so the bridle needs that plastic exterior shell to avoid mold. I have no idea, but would welcome answers.
On the other hand, it’s one evening’s pretty easy, tv-watchable-audiobook-listenable “work” in tack care that already seems to be paying off in spades since I can actually — gasp — undo and redo the buckles without needing a pair of pliers.
Obviously your mileage will vary, but I see no reason that you couldn’t strip the finish from a used micklem and oil it up to soften it. If you do experiment with this, let me know how it goes.