Working that closely with it, though, I couldn't help but notice some serious construction and condition issues. The leather was cracked in places, which isn't unusual in old leather to a certain degree, but some cracks were pretty deep. Any place where the leather had been in contact with hardware-- nails, screws, or rivets -- the metal had corroded and damaged the surrounding hide. When I pulled aside the cinch rigging and a chunk the size of a quarter came off in my hand, that was concerning. When I pressed it between my fingers and it crumbled to black dust, I was disturbed. Sure, replacing the cinch rigging would not be terribly difficult, but now I'd need to be ultra-vigilant about everything on this saddle, or it'd be an accident waiting to happen.
Once I reached the point where it was clean and any further improvements would cost money, I took it to Tack Room Too and asked their saddle technician to take a look at it. I already knew it was a cheap Mexican-made saddle, but what he said was as worrying as the crumbling leather I'd found. He told me they won't even take in saddles like this for repair -- there's simply no way to make them safe. Mexico makes many cheap saddles for export and their standards are not the same as American-made. The leather is the not the highest grade and isn't as strong, and their tanning methods are questionable. The hardware used is often tin, which tarnishes and breaks down the leather around it, like on my cinch rigging. There have even been instances of the inner framework -- the tree; the foundation of the saddle which is usually made from wood or fiberglass --being made from styrofoam wrapped in cheesecloth. Inner layers of leather are sometimes not even leather, but are made of cardboard. Can you imagine?
That's not to say that all saddles from Mexico are like this. There are artisans everywhere who are masters of their craft and produce beautiful (and safe!) saddles. But if there's no maker's mark or shop label on a saddle, be very wary indeed.
The mark on the saddle horn, by the way, was probably branded on by someone who owned the saddle. I'm thinking it may have been part of a dude string where tourists ride in a line of slow, steady horses over a well-worn trail and the barn manager wants to keep track of his gear so it's all marked with the company brand. You'd think that they'd want to have good safe saddles for these inexperienced riders, but when you're outfitting a string of twenty, thirty, or more horses and want to keep your costs down, the attraction of inexpensive saddles is undeniable.
The fellow at Tack Room Too said I'd done a terrific job cleaning it up, though. I could tell he was impressed. But when it came right down to it, he said, you can't polish a turd.
I had figured all along that this saddle might be too far gone for any more riding, so I had a back-up plan. I left the tack shop and drove three blocks to an antique place I know. I told the buyer there that the saddle was absolutely unsafe for riding horses, but it would be great for decoration. She said she had a few people that liked western decor and she bought The Polished Turd off me for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars. Not much for my hard work, but I learned a lot and it's not like I paid anything for it.
I know y'all are just champing at the bit now to see how it turned out. Here's a "before" to remind you of what I started with:
And here's the "after":
I think it turned out rather well. I just found some instructions on how to turn a saddle into a child's swing. Maybe I'll print that out and take it to the antique shop so the next owner's kids can have some fun!