Horsehide has been used for decades to make saddles, shoes, bags and jackets. It makes a durable and long-lasting leather. Though it has been illegal for some time to slaughter horses and ponies for human food consumption, it is still legal to buy and sell the hides. Most of the horse hides on the U.S. market are imported from Europe, India and Mexico, where human consumption of horse meat is still legal and hides are therefore more plentiful.
A Longtime Favorite
The density and non-porous nature of the hide made it the most popular form of leather in the United States from the 18th century until the late 1930s, when horses, like cattle, were slaughtered for their meat. Once it became illegal for humans in the United States to consume horse meat, horsehide jackets became less easy to come by.
Tanning the Leather
Horsehide is dyed, or tanned, with one or more of three processes: vegetable tanning, chrome tanning and vegetable retanning. Horsehide does not tan uniformly unless it is dyed black, so a good test of true horsehide is to see if the color gradation is uniform across the whole jacket: If the color is not uniform, the piece is probably a true horsehide jacket.
Cowhide vs. Horsehide
Horsehide jackets tend to be more durable than cowhide but are much harder to break in. Through the tanning process, horsehide takes on a greater thickness than cowhide and can take longer to mold to your body. The leather's thickness protects the body better than cowhide does, which is why so many motorcycle riders choose horsehide instead of cowhide leather.
Horsehide jackets are fairly high-maintenance; they must be oiled or waxed about once a month, which is another reason the majority of leather jackets seen in stores across America are cowhide.
Other Uses for Horsehide Leather
More common today than horsehide jackets are horsehide saddles, holsters and boots. Horsehide tends to be used on items which will benefit most from the rugged nature of the leather.
Horsehide Jackets Today
The value of horsehide jackets has gone up in the past fifty years, according to Legendary Products, which sells vintage horsehide jackets. The company offers leather-care tips on its website, to help wearers protect their investment. Oil- or wax-based leather conditioners, which are available at most leather shops, will keep the horsehide jacket in good condition and will help to waterproof it.