Leather tack should be cleaned regularly (ideally, after each use) to remove sweat and dirt and to keep it supple. There is a plethora of cleaning products on the market today, ranging from the old standbys of glycerine soap, castile soap, and oil soap, to newer products that condition, clean, and waterproof at the same time. To give your leather tack a thorough cleaning, remove any removable parts from the saddle, such as the girth and stirrup leathers. Take the bridle, breastplate, martingale, and halter apart. Remove dust with a dry towel or caked-on dirt with a brush. Water and soap on top of dust or dirt is a sure recipe for muck! Use a damp sponge and your favourite soap to clean both sides of the leather, using back-and-forth strokes. The sponge should not lather; if it does, you’re probably using too much water. Wipe off excess soap with a clean damp cloth before applying oil or conditioner.
When you’re done, the leather should appear clean, but not wet. Keep your leather tack in a cool, dry place, rather than a hot, humid room. (A small dehumidifier can help in the tack room during the summer months, or place dessicant in a smaller storage area such as a locker.) If you must store it away for an extended period of time, place it in a cloth bag to help prevent mould or mildew.
Condition new leather tack with a product especially made for this purpose and recommended by the maker. Your local tack shop carries a wide variety of oils, waxes, and conditioners. Condition both sides of the leather with the product of your choice; work it into the leather with your warm hands to help the pores absorb it. Repeat this treatment when necessary (usually every couple of months, or any time your tack gets wet from water. rain, or your horse’s sweat). Always make sure your leather is clean and dry before you oil or condition it.
Leather Care Tips
- Store all equipment out of reach of dogs and barn cats to prevent scratches (or worse).
- Inspect your tack regularly for wear and tear. On saddles, check all rivets, ‘D’ rings, and stitching, especially where it connects the billet straps to the saddle. Look for enlarged or stretched holes and worn leather. On bridles, reins, stirrup leathers, girths, and other accessories, inspect all stitching, screws, studs, and pressure points where the leather is folded or buckles rub on it. Look for signs of fraying or loss of elasticity on the elastic ends of girths, and frayed or broken strands on string girths and cinches.
- Repair or replace any worn-out pieces of equipment before they break. Not only will this save you money and extend the life of your tack, it will greatly reduce the risk of a potentially nasty accident resulting from a broken rein, stirrup leather, or girth.
- Never use regular oil or conditioner on your saddle’s suede seat or knee rolls. Suede must be treated with a spray-on product made specifically for it, available at tack shops and shoe stores.
- Hang bridles on round hangers rather than hooks or nails to preserve the bend and help prevent cracking.
- Use a toothbrush to get into hard-to-reach places; you can wrap a cloth around the other end to apply oil/conditioner to tricky spots as well.
- Dirty suede can be brushed clean with a brush. If necessary, it can be more deeply cleaned with a suede cleaning product. Never use regular saddle soap on suede, as it will ruin the napped surface.
- If you are new at this, be sure to take some photos of your bridle before you take it apart so that you can put it back together properly again!
With proper ‘tune-ups’ and a little elbow grease, a good-quality saddle can have a lifespan of 15-20 years.
by Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE
Leather is treated (tanned) skin and still retains about 25 per cent moisture, but as it is no longer alive, it cannot replenish its moisture content itself. Sweat and soap are the two enemies of leather if not removed because both are drying. Saddle soap removes accumulated sweat and grime which, if left on, will result in the leather becoming brittle and cracking. However, saddle soaps are exactly what their names imply: soaps, and should be used for cleansing only.
Think of washing your hands: the soap is rinsed off and a lotion or moisturizer is applied to return some of the moisture removed by the soap. Every time you clean your saddle, the soap (even glycerine) should be rinsed off with a clean damp cloth and moisturizer applied. Soaps containing built-in moisturizers are beneficial only because they remove less of the natural lubricants from the leather during washing.
Leather oil can be used once to darken the original colour, and thereafter only on the saddle panels, but sparingly, as the wool stuffing will soak up any excess. On the seat it will soak through into the laminated glued layers of the tree, possibly eventually causing tree breakage. (True for most English saddles that still use beechwood trees; not so much for saddles made with synthetic bases).
Oil should not be used anywhere the leather comes into contact with you (breeches, gloves) as it discolours these. Oiled flaps can soften the leather, making them too flexible. Always use products that are meant for leather – olive oil for salads, baby oil for babies!
Saddles should be cleaned after every use, or at least wiped over with a slightly damp cloth. Clean thoroughly once a week. If you store your saddle over a longer period of time, keep it at room temperature, never cooler than 5°C, with 30-40% humidity to retain leather suppleness. Mildew indicates that the leather is still alive with enough moisture content! Give it a good wash and apply leather moisturizer to restore the original looks.
Saddle Rack Tips
- The best saddle rack is one that is the same length as the gullet, supporting from pommel to cantle, either free-standing or wall mounted.
- To maintain their form, the panels of the saddle should not be touching the saddle rack; hence the rack should not be too wide. When riding, the panels heat up from the horse’s back and this warmed leather and wool could actually change to the shape of the rack if not allowed to cool before storing.
- The best materials for a saddle rack are materials that do not retain moisture (such as plastic or metal), because if the leather is damp when put away, this could cause mould.
- Saddle racks should not have anything that protrudes into the gullet, causing scuffing of the leather.
- A saddle cover is good to keep out excess dirt and moisture while the saddle is not in use. It is best to have nothing touching the panels at all to let them air out completely