Don't you just love going into a tack shop and smelling that wonderful new leather smell? All that clean and healthy leather that just gleams is a fabulous sight. Then you walk into your tack room at the barn and notice the dust, dirt, grime, mildew and sometimes even disrepair. It's hard to have time to clean the stalls, barn, mow, haul hay, spread muck, and, hey, even ride the beast that is bringing about all that work. Cleaning tack can fall to the bottom of the daily list even though you know you need to keep that leather clean and healthy. In this article we'll walk you through a great, thorough cleaning process that will help your saddle look like new, and make you a happy owner!
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, Idaho, 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.
Cleaning the Leather
“It’s always a good idea to clean a saddle or bridle before you oil it or use a conditioner,” said 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.”
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," said Schwarz. "Basically all you need for cleaning a saddle is saddle soap, a sponge, nylon bristle brush and some warm water. 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."
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,” explained 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.”
“I often use a five-gallon bucket of warm water when cleaning a saddle, and depending on how dirty the saddle is, I might go through two or three bucketfuls of warm water," he said. "If you use a big, heavy sponge, this will get the water down into the seams and cracks, and wash some of the areas you can’t even see.
“You shouldn’t dunk a saddle, but you should not be afraid of using water," he advised. "Work up a good lather with the nylon bristle brush, then flush it clean with warm water and a sponge.
“If the leather is quite old, be very cautious about using too-warm water to clean it," said Schwarz. "Warm water works well on newer leather, but you don’t ever want to use hot water, especially on old leather that has been neglected. Hot water and old leather are like hot water and wool; it will shrink the leather. If there’s not enough oil in the leather, hot water will ruin it. Other than that, the same recommendations apply for old or new leather; just clean it up really well, top and bottom, with warm water, and then use oil and conditioner if it hasn’t had oil for awhile.”
If it’s been awhile since a saddle or bridle was thoroughly cleaned, take it apart to clean it in order to get all the dirt out from under the buckles or from the inner parts of a saddle. Then you can tell if any of the leather is getting worn (such as under a buckle) or parts of a saddle need to be replaced.
Leather treads on the stirrups of a western saddle need to be thoroughly cleaned, especially if you’ve been getting on and off in the mud or in a pen where there might be manure. Mud or manure on leather treads can be hard on them. Acid in manure will eat at the leather; if it’s not cleaned off the leather will deteriorate and eventually need to be replaced. After the cleaning, just let the saddle dry at room temperature.
Now For The Oil
After washing the tack and it's been allowed to dry, you can go over the clean leather with a conditioner, oil or whatever you wish to use. If the leather seems really dry and hard, use a very high-grade oil to replace what time and washing have removed. Oils should be used sparingly, however, unless the leather is quite dry. Over-oiling will add unnecessary weight to the leather and may also bleed out of the leather in hot weather, Schwarz said. Using too much oil also can break down the leather fibers.
In a wet or humid climate you might want to treat leather to prevent mildew. Rather than using just oil, it’s better to use a product that contains wax
“The wax will seal the leather much better and repel moisture," explained Schwarz. "I recommend using something like R.M. Williams Saddle Dressing (an Australian product) or Ray Holes Saddle Butter. You can use these products quite liberally all over the saddle. Anything that has a wax base will help create a moisture barrier.
“If a saddle or bridle hasn’t been used for awhile, or has been in storage a long time, whatever oil it might have had may have dried out," Schwarz explained. "If the leather is really dry, I use 100% neatsfoot oil. You need to use some kind of thin, high-grade oil that will penetrate leather. You’ll be able to tell how much oil to use, because dry leather will just drink it in. At room temperature indoors, or in warm sun (where the leather is warm), it will take in oil quite readily. It’s also best if the oil is warm. On the label it may recommend that you heat it to about 100 to 110 degrees, and that means it should feel warm to the touch. Even with new leather, I like to have the oil warm; it will dissipate into the leather fibers more readily."
Schwarz said after you oil the leather you should let it sit for awhile. "In a few hours, or the next day, feel the leather again. If it still feels brittle and dry, it needs more oil," he said. "If it feels pliable and ‘alive’ again, then that’s enough oil. Then, after the leather is pliable again, you can go ahead and apply the saddle dressing or saddle butter to seal it and protect it better.”
As with oil, it’s best if both the wax and the leather are warm for optimal absorption. These products contain beeswax and other hard waxes, and if the leather is col,d the product will merely cake onto the outer surface rather than penetrate. It will take a lot more elbow grease to work it into the pores of cold leather than into warm leather that has more open pores.
“To help break down the wax, I may use a blow dryer," said Schwarz. "On a carved western saddle, especially, the wax product will tend to cake into the creases rather than be absorbed. But the dryer will warm it enough so it soaks right in. If you can get some penetration with the wax-based product, then when the leather cools the wax hardens. That’s how you get the sealing effect that works so well as a moisture barrier.
"After that, I use a piece of soft cloth and buff any excess wax off, so the leather won’t have a sticky finish," he said. "Then it won’t collect dust. You want a nice, slick, smooth finish. This gives leather the best of both worlds—it repels moisture and dust much better, and it will also protect the leather from mildew.”