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    Cynthia McFarland - Tuesday 20 March 2024

    Repair or Replace by Cynthia McFarland

    Leather halters require more care than nylon halters but are preferred for their beauty and safety

    Among the most basic of horse equipment, the halter is often taken for granted. The halter is usually the first sign of domestication that a newborn foal encounters. When a favorite racehorse or old broodmare goes on to greener pastures, saving the animal's halter as a sentimental reminder is common. But, on most days, unless a halter is lost or breaks at an inopportune time, we do not give this simple piece of tack a second thought.

    By and large, those in the Thoroughbred industry choose to leave halters on their horses for the majority of the time. Although people can reasonably argue that keeping halters on loose horses is not in the animals' best interest, certain precautions can greatly increase the safety of haltered horses.

    For starters, never turn a horse out in a nylon halter. Many nylon halters are double- and triple-stitched, making them virtually unbreakable. This means a nylon halter can last for decades. The downside of this durability is that a horse is in big trouble it it gets the halter caught on an object or snags a hoof in a loose halter. It is impossible to forget the image of a horse that killed itself or had to be euthanized after being severely injured due to catching a halter on an unyielding object. Such tragic accidents are completely avoidable.

    A nylon halter can be made much safer by replacing the crown piece with leather, which will break under pressure. But, for increased safety, use only leather halters if you do turn out a horse that is wearing a halter. "One of the beauties of leather halters is that if a horse gets hung up or caught, something will give way so the horse gets loose," said Ralph Quillin of Quillin Leather & Tack in Paris, Kentucky. "Then you still have a leather halter that can be repaired."

    Quality and care

    A leather halter can have a long life, provided it is well cared for and made from quality materials.

    "One of the first things you should look at to determine quality is the stitching," said Myron Stutzman, vice president of manufacturing at Weaver Leather in Mt. Hope, Ohio. "Stitches should all be even; they shouldn't be long in one place and short in another."

    Make sure the thread is nylon instead of cotton because nylon will not rot. As for the leather, "it should have firmness and body, not feel thin or 'flanky,' such as the leather that comes from the cow's flank area, which is soft, stretchy, and not high quality," Stutzman said. He added that solid brass or chrome-plated brass hardware always speaks well for the product.

    "Leather is not a man-made material," Stutzman said. "It's a product that is almost alive and it breathes. Therefore, it requires more care than a man-made product. It will absorb water, so if you want to protect it from the elements water, and sweat, you have to keep it cleaned and conditioned."

    Stutzman explained that it is important to first clean the halter with saddle soap, then to let the halter dry completely before conditioning the leather by applying oil, tallow, or a leather cream. "Leather will absorb these well, and it helps weatherize the halter," Stutzman added. "Oils can be a little bit messy, but these are the things that protect leather. Some people like using oil; others prefer a paste conditioner. Shop around for what you prefer."

    Stutzman uses only paste leather conditioners, which can be applied more evenly than oil.

    "The secret to longevity of the halter is to keep the oils and tallows in the leather, since this will keep it soft," Stutzman said. "Brittleness and cracking are the enemies of leather, and that is what you get when it dries out."

    Stutzman noted that neatsfoot oil, harness oil, mink oil, and beeswax all work well to condition leather.

    Hands-on business

    "This (halter-making) is a business that just doesn't lend itself to mechanization," said Quillin, who owns Quillin Leather & Tack with his wife, Sally. "It isn't factory work because if you did it that way, the quality would suffer. We make between 50 and 100 halters a day; last year, we made about 10,000 total.

    "I have three halter-makers and three apprentices now," Quillin added. "Each halter is handled by several people. We use all domestic cowhide; if there's a flaw, scar, or brand, that part of the hide gets cut out. One person cuts the straps, another cuts them into the right size, another person sews the halter, another edges, smoothes, and clips the threads. Once the sewing is finished, the halter is dipped in oil."

    Quillin explained that a halter "is only as strong as its weakest link. We use a little bit heavier leather than most, so honestly, the brass hardware can start to wear before the leather gives way." He uses only solid brass hardware since brass-plated steel hardware can start to rust after a relatively short period of time.

    When buying a halter, examine the edges of the leather. "The edges shouldn't feel furry or raw," Quillin said. "They should be rubbed so that all the fibers are laid down and smooth. A dark chocolate brown color means the leather has been oiled well."

    Quillin described the difference between his sale halters and turn-out halters. "From a durability and serviceability point of view, there is not much difference," he said. "The leather itself is russet skirting in both types, and the parts are cut by hand and hand-rubbed. The biggest difference is that sale halters have a lined crown; they have two plies of leather and cheeks are triple-stitched so they are more decorative. The throatlatch is rolled, which is just dressier looking.

    "Almost every sale halter we sell now has double buckle crown and an English or stationary chin," Quillin added. "Solid brass hardware is used in both halters. On sale halters, the nameplates are solid brass, and we have a computerized engraver with many fonts.

    "We also have the capability to do farm logos on the nameplates," he said.

    Market in Kentucky

    "Lexington probably makes the finest leather halter in the world at the best price because of the competition and demand for quality," said Dieter "Dee" Sierp of Pinkston's Turf Goods in Lexington. "For the consumer, this is probably the best place in the world to buy halters. They're about half the price of that in California and New York. Most of the Europeans, Saudis, and Japanese come here during the sales to buy halters to take home."

    In business for more than 50 years, Pinkston's is a family business owned by Paul Ladd Sr. and Paul Ladd Jr. "We make between 12,000 and 15,000 halters a year," Sierp said. "We have three to five halter-makers, depending on the time of year."

    Sierp explained the difference between the turn-out halters and the sale halters that Pinkston's makes. "The sale halter is made out of saddle skirting, which is a dry, absorbent leather which the oils and fats have been tanned out of," he said. "Skirting leather takes water to work the leather. After the parts are cut, they are dipped in warm water in order to bend and fold the leather pieces. After the halter is sewn together, it's dipped in oil to re-lubricate the fibers and get life back into the leather fiber."

    Pinkston's makes its turn-out halters with harness leather. "At the tannery, this leather is impregnated with oils and fats, which make the leather a little softer," Sierp noted. "It won't take water the same way saddle skirting does, and it isn't wet to be worked." Harness leather actually sheds water, he said, which is a plus since turn-out halters are worn in all types of weather. Solid brass hardware is standard on both types of halters.

    Ensuring a proper fit

    How a halter fits is partially personal preference, noted Quillin. "Our halters are numbered, so once a person has one of them, we're on the same wavelength," Quillin said. "For example, we have a newborn halter and three different foal sizes. We also offer three different sizes of weanling halters and also yearling halters." Numerous sizes for adult horses are also available.

    "The way I like to see a halter fit is the brass rings on the side should be two fingers back from the mouth," Quillin said. "Many of our clients like the crown piece to buckle in the second hole from the end on both sides so you don't have a long tongue hanging down."

    When fitting a halter, note the fit under the chin. "You like to see either two to three fingers able to fit under the chin, some clients like to see them fit differently."

    "On a two-buckle crown-piece halter, there are four holes on each side and the holes are (one) inch apart, so you have quite a bit of room to play with. Most people want a sale halter to buckle in the second hole so you can tuck the leather end into the ring."

    Foals usually wear the newborn size until approximately six weeks of age, when they move up to a large foal halter. "This will take them into their weanling halter. By the time a Thoroughbred hits a year old, he's usually into his fourth halter."

    Repair or replace?

    "You won't see an entire halter fail all at once," Quillin said. "With very little care, a well-made leather halter can last a long, long time."

    Barring a broken halter, how do you know when repair is necessary?

    "On just about all (halters), the leather is doubled over where it goes through the brass piece," Quillin said. "If at this point the leather is stressed or cracked, this is a telltale sign that the leather needs to be replaced, even if the rest of the strap isn't in bad shape. We use a little heavier letter than most other shops and actually have to thin the leather down a little to get it through the brass pieces. Combine this with the English Finished Bridle Leather that goes into our halters - and we're able to produce a reasonably priced halter with a VERY long life."

    Sometimes replacing the entire halter is less expensive than repairing the halter. "Usually, if a halter needs three parts replaced, it's considered beyond repair, although it kind of depends on what these parts are," Quillin said. "The crown piece on a sale halter is probably the most expensive since they are double-stitched. Usually, it's a cheekpiece or buckle piece that goes bad and those can be replaced economically.

    "Horses have a tendency to tear halters up," Quillin added. "To make them last, inspect them, keep them clean and oiled. Every six months or so will do it."

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