Barns and stables, especially those with lesson and training programs, have a lot of leather lying around. And, as we all know, when cared for properly, leather is durable, strong and resilient. If allowed to become dirty, dry and brittle, though, its life can be drastically shortened.
Since leather is a natural fiber, subject to damage from moisture, bacteria, and high heat, it can easily break down if not protected from these elements. While there never seems to be enough hours in the day for added barn chores, keeping tack well oiled and clean can save money in the long run. Here are a few tips for you and your clients to prolong the life of your equipment. According to Cary Schwarz, a saddlemaker in Salmon, Ida., leather does better in a dry climate than a wet one, because moisture and mildew are less of a problem. But regardless of climate, it is important to keep proper oil content in the leather.
CLEAN THE LEATHER
“It’s always a good idea to clean a saddle or bridle before you oil it or use a conditioner,” says Schwarz. “Dirt, in my view, is even more destructive than moisture or heat. Many riders get in the habit of just putting some oil or a leather-conditioning product over the leather without cleaning it first, and that tends to fix the dirt onto the leather; it cakes on and is there to stay. A thorough cleaning should be the first order of business in leather care,” he says.
Cleaning the leather will also get rid of sweat. Any piece that comes into contact with the horse should be thoroughly washed, especially on the underside. Warmth and sweat from the horse carries with it all the salts from the sweat, and dirt from the horse’s body. Salt is very hard on leather. “You need to remove as much of that salt as you can, and float out the dirt particles, with saddle soap and warm water. Basically all you need for cleaning a saddle is saddle soap, a sponge, nylon bristle brush and some warm water,” he says. “It only takes about 30 minutes to do a thorough washing on a saddle, using the brush to work up a lather on the leather with the soap and warm water, and the sponge to flush it clean. Washing with warm water opens the pores of the leather to float out dirt particles that have penetrated into it,” says Schwarz.
Proper care and maintenance of leather is often misunderstood. When cleaning leather, many people think that leather and water are a bad combination. “But water is hard on leather only if the leather is wet for an extended time,” explains Schwarz. “Many people just use a can of glycerine liquid saddle soap and spray it on, work up a lather and wipe it off—and never use any water—and this doesn’t remove all the dirt. And if you merely follow the directions on the label of a can of paste saddle soap, you have not cleaned the leather. It usually says something like ‘produce a lather and rub well into the leather.’ But all this does it just grind the dirt into the leather. It might work all right on a piece of tack that never gets very dirty, but with a saddle it is very critical to float those dirt particles out,” says Schwarz.