Real Sheepskin or Synthetic?

One of the most expensive jobs in the repair shop is replacing your saddles sheepskin lining underneath the skirts.  This is labor intensive because we have to completely disassemble the saddle and remove the skirts from the tree.  This job can easily run upwards of $400 depending on whether  you go with the synthetic wool or the genuine sheepskin.

Sheepskin has been used underneath saddles for hundreds of years and only within the last 60 years or so has synthetic wool become more common.  The purpose of the wool under a saddle is to offer some cushion between the horse and the bars of the saddle while also aiding in slight fitting adjustments.  When the fibers become packed down and flat, sometimes this can change the fit of a saddle and replacing the sheepskin can restore the original fit.

These wool skins are not the only thing used under saddles.  Some very old saddles we have worked on in the shop had actual felt, much like a felt pad, sewn in place of the wool skin.  I have also experienced saddles come in with neoprene foam sewn to the skirts… Since this seemed to be done originally when the saddle was built, I have no other choice but to assume the person who decided this was a good idea must be clinically diagnosed as crazy.

In my opinion, there are only two materials acceptable when it comes to lining the skirts on a saddle.  Whether you choose the synthetic or genuine sheepskin, I feel like you will have less problems and you will be using a material that has proved itself worthy.

Real or genuine sheepskin is my choice most of the time.  But I do think that the synthetic material has its place among the manufactured saddles being produced.  There are definitely different views and opinions on this topic and I will discuss some of my pros and cons between the two.

Pros of Real Sheepskin

When it comes to genuine sheepskin the pros are pretty clear.  The supportive nature of it is notably better than the synthetic.  Even the best synthetic material cannot compare to the thick plush stack of fibers that real natural sheep wool provides.  This attribute is defined as the “pile” of the hide.  Higher quality hides will have a thicker pile to them.  The amount of pile that I look for is at least one inch.  This is important to offer the maximum amount of cushion and to prevent the breakdown and flattening of the fibers happening too quickly.

Another advantage of real wool is that it simply just looks better.  When it comes to a custom saddle or high quality manufactured saddle, nothing takes away from the overall appearance than synthetic wool under the skirts.  Genuine sheepskin just has a look of quality and value that sets a saddle off.

Cons of Real Sheepskin

There are some draw backs to real sheepskin but to me they don’t out way the pros.  If you have ever had a saddle with real wool under the skirts that is older, you may have noticed the hair falling out in clumps.  This can be caused by moths and certain mites that consume the lanolin from the hide over time and cause the hair to fall out.  This is just something that can happen with the real wool because it’s a natural product.  We normally only see this on saddles that were not being used much and were not store properly for long periods of time.

Another drawback to real sheepskin is that it is expensive.  It takes one full sheepskin hide to reline a saddle and each hide is considerably more expensive than the synthetic material.  The labor cost between the two isn’t affected but since the labor cost is expensive on its own, cost of material can greatly affect the final repair cost depending on your choice of real or synthetic.

Pros of Synthetic Wool

Obviously, the main advantage here is that synthetic is cheaper.  In our repair business the cost difference for the entire job is around $140 compared to real wool.  When we are consulting a customer on a saddle repair and the saddle is a manufactured saddle of moderate quality, we usually suggest the synthetic to save money.  Most of the time, the saddle we are looking at originally had synthetic wool so we are not affecting the overall value.

The biggest advantage is that you don’t have to worry about the hair falling out no matter the amount of use or where you store it.  Synthetic fiber isn’t prone to the moth or mites that plague genuine natural fibers.  This is great for saddles that get used on a minimal basis and are stored in a barn where they are not as climate controlled and secure.

Cons of Synthetic Wool

The biggest disadvantage of synthetic wool is the fact that it packs down much faster than its real counterpart.  The pile is not at all comparable to the real sheepskin and the density of the fibers offers much less support and cushion.  This material will usually pack in within the first year of riding a saddle and at that point all the support of the material is lost.

Another reason I don’t like the synthetic is the off color it has.  Some of the newer materials being made are closer to real sheepskin but the color isn’t the same.  Some people can’t tell the difference between the two and if it doesn’t bother you then roll with it.  For me though, I can pick it out a mile away and it just looks cheap.

Conclusion

So with this information, what should you choose?  I tell all my customers not to fret too much about it when it comes to relining a saddle.  The first thing to keep in mind is that these days the skirt lining is pretty much cosmetic.  Some will argue with me on this, but the fact is that we have some great padding options on the market today to offer support and cushion on our horse’s back.

A hundred years ago, the only option riders had for pads was wool blankets.  They would use a couple wool blankets under their saddles and the wool lining on their saddle was the main thing that offered the support and cushion between the bars of the saddle and the horses back.  This is why it was so important at that time to make sure the quality of the sheepskin and the amount of pile was good enough.

Today we have high quality wool felt pads and blankets that do a much better job of protecting our horses than even the best sheepskin lining can provide.  I tell most of my customers that as long as you are using good pads then the choice between the two is completely cosmetic.  I do suggest keeping things original though.  If it’s a high end custom saddle then I wouldn’t suggest saving a few bucks by using synthetic when it had real sheepskin when it was built.  This would hurt the overall value of the saddle.  And likewise, I wouldn’t suggest wasting the extra money putting real sheepskin on a manufactured saddle, the total repair cost could be more than the saddle is worth.

Though there are many more repair issues that deserve much more attention, this seems to be one of the most common concerns among our customers.  I hope this article helps to clarify some of the concerns out there on this issue.  Take some time and go through your barn to see what type of lining your favorite saddle has.  If you are worried about its condition or if you should replace it then give us a call and we can take a look at it.  But in general, keep good pads and you should be fine.

 

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