It might make some people squeamish, but the fact is that some people enjoy eating horsemeat.
What does this have to do with boots, you may ask? Without this delicacy (or “delicacy,” depending on your feelings), we wouldn’t have as much horsehide for making footwear. Similar to most steer hides used for leather products, horsehides are a by-product of the food processing industry. The difference being that horsehide is used in some of the most expensive boots on the market.
Is it really that good of a material? Get ready for a deep dive into the pros and cons of horsehide.
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Limited Supply = High Prices
Boots made from horsehide can be expensive. Think Shell Cordovan or the famous horsebutt Viberg Service Boots. Horsehide is often more expensive than similarly treated cowhide. Why? It’s scarce. Fewer people are eating horses and not much of the hide is suitable for mass-producing boots.
The Different Kinds of Horse Leather
Horsehide typically becomes three separate products: the horsefront, the strip and shells. Two sections, the shells and the strips, are the most common parts of the hide for making boots.
The shells, which originate from the fibrous connective tissue under the hide on the horse’s rump — hence “horsebutt” — are mainly used to make Shell Cordovan, a famously expensive leather that famously does not crease over time. The strips are positioned just a little further to the front of the hide, around the ribs.
You’d be lucky to produce two pairs of boots from the shells of a single horse. An average adult horse only has about 6 square feet of “shell worthy” hide. You’ll often find boot material labelled as horsebutt. This could mean strips like the Chromexcel Horsebutt, the shells, or the strips and shells. But typically, if the shells are used, the manufacturer will mention it because they are a prized material.
You’ll find a lot written about Shell Cordovan, you won’t find much written about the shell’s tougher and thicker neighbor the strip. Positioned between to the horse’s front and the shells, or “north of cordovan,” the strips are odd-shaped pieces of leather. The thickness or weight of the strip can fluctuate on the same hide. The thickness and weight also can lead to a stiff leather if not tanned and dyed properly.
A lot of horsehide is vegetable tanned, chrome tanned, or Cordovan. Veg tanning, hot stuffing or both are the best ways to penetrate deep into the thick hide producing a durable and even color. These complicated and time-consuming processes increase the price.
[Very relevant: Why Is Cordovan Leather So Damn Expensive?]
The front of the hide is relatively thin, so durability becomes an issue. “Horsefronts” are lightweight and have a great tensile strength but are a bit too thin for footwear. They are traditionally used in jackets, wallets, card holders and other leather products that benefit from strong and thin material.
Now, there are exceptions. Viberg’s Service Boot Crust Horsehide was the first whole horsehide boot made in the company’s over 100-year history. Using the front of the horsehide is not their only noteworthy trait; they are also tanned exactly like Chromexcel leather, and then put in Horween’s Cordovan pits for 30 days. You could call them Whole Horsehide Chromexcel Semi-Cordovan. Rider Boot Co makes the Fritz with Horween’s horsefronts that have undergone a glazing process similarly to Shell Cordovan. Lastly, Florezian bootmaker Mario Bemer crafted the stunning Brando with whiskey colored horsefront.
Horsehide Is Durable
Let’s talk about the benefits of horsehide. All skin has collagen fibers. The fibers in the horse’s rear are more compressed than in steer hide, which is one reason Shell Cordovan doesn’t crack or crease. More fibers mean more durability, strength, and flexibility. The grain structure also means that horsehide tends to be more abrasion resistant than cowhide.
Horsebutt, especially the strips, is a heavyweight material so it’s naturally thick and durable, so much so that the guys at John Doe Shoes declare that their Russet Horsehide boots will outlive the original owner by three generations. I guess we’ll have to check back in 90 or so years for verification.
Horsehide Looks Great
Compared with cattle, horses live pampered lives. You won’t see the scaring from barbed wire or mistreatment. Horsehide leather almost always has a consistent appearance across its surface. This uniformity gives a refined look. Shells have little to no visible grain, allowing the Cordovan tanning process to reveal a beautiful shine. Strips have a pronounced grain that becomes accentuated with a lovely veg tan and oil finish. The hide has a more natural appearance because horses live longer than cows.
On the surface, horsehide doesn’t seem all that suitable for boots. A lot of the hide is too thin or too thick resulting in a leather that’s too fragile. It’s in limited supply, it’s expensive, and requires extra time and effort to produce quality boots. Yet, the best bootmakers of our generation keep using it to craft amazing products.
Horsehide requires appropriate tanning and great craftsmanship to highlight its best qualities, and its unique look sets it apart from more common leathers and its durability means it may shine on for longer than you’ll be around to enjoy it.
Featured image via @vibergboot on Instagram.