“When cleaning a saddle or some other piece of tack, use some type of saddle soap and water,” said Jeff Minor, a saddle maker/leather braider with a shop at Baker, Idaho.“The water opens the pores and the soap lifts the dirt out of the pores. Then make sure you get the cleansing agent out of there with a good rinse.
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“While those pores are still open, you can then work in some type of lubricant that will go into the leather and stay there," he said. "You always need to replace the oils or lubricants that are coming out of it. Leather continually loses these lubricants—whenever it’s out in the sun or gets wet with rain or sweat—there’s always depletion of the natural oils and tallow in leather. If you never replace those, it just becomes more stiff, hard and brittle.”
Any piece of leather that comes into contact with the horse gets sweaty. Sweat contains salt, which is hard on leather.
“You need to remove as much of that salt as you can, and float out the dirt particles, using saddle soap and warm water,” said Cary Schwarz, a saddle maker in Salmon, Idaho. “All you need is a tin of saddle soap, a sponge, a nylon bristle brush and some warm water. Use the brush to work up a lather on the leather with soap and warm water, and the sponge to flush it clean. Washing it with warm water opens the pores of the leather to float out the dirt particles that have penetrated into it.”
Schwarz added, “Proper care and maintenance of leather is often misunderstood. If you read the directions on the label of a paste can of saddle soap, and follow those, you have not cleaned a saddle. It usually says something like ‘Produce a lather and rub well into the leather.’ But this hasn’t removed any dirt, and does exactly what you don’t want to do—just grinding the dirt into the leather. It might work all right on a piece of tack that doesn’t get very dirty, but with a saddle, it is very critical to float those dirt particles out.”
Minor said that with a large piece of tack, like harness, you can even take it to a car wash and use the pressurized wand to clean it or use a home pressure washer.
“The only thing you need to be careful about when taking any kind of leather tack to the car wash is that high pressure can affect the grain of the leather," said Minor. "If you get it wet, it becomes soft and pliable—and high pressure can separate those fibers. You need to be a little careful with harness because that leather has waxes and oils in it, and water won’t penetrate through that as quickly. But you don’t want the high pressure wand very close to the leather or it will drive the water too much.”
You only need to wash away the superficial dirt and sweat.
“The pressure wand—held a little ways from the leather so it won’t get the main thrust of the water—will get all the dust and sweat off. Then if it needs deeper cleaning, you’ll need to do that by hand,” said Minor.
People generally think water and leather is a bad combination. However, it’s only bad under extended circumstances, such as riding in the rain all day or having your horse’s bridle reins dunked in a water trough for a long time. In those situations, the leather needs to be properly dried and reconditioned.
“What we’re talking about in cleaning leather is just a topical cleansing, opening the pores and fibers so the particles of dirt can float out, not a drenching,” said Cary. “Then it’s allowed to dry out at room temperature. As long as it’s allowed to dry out, it’s not going to hurt the leather at all, especially if you follow up with leather conditioners to restore the oils. But people often get a can of glycerin liquid saddle soap and spray it on, work up a lather, but don’t use any water—and therefore don’t remove any dirt.
“I use a five-gallon bucket, and depending on how dirty the saddle is, I might go through two or three buckets of warm water," Cary said. "You can use a big, heavy sponge, and this will get the water down into the seams and cracks and wash some areas that you can’t even see. You don’t dunk the saddle, but you shouldn’t be afraid of using water. Work up a really good lather with the nylon bristle brush and flush it clean with clean water and the sponge. That’s how saddles should be cleaned.
“Rather than referring to it as saddle-soaping our saddles, we should refer to it as washing them," Cary said. "We need to get away from the idea of just adding something to the leather and not washing it clean.”
Minor said that adding saddle soap as a finish (after washing) is very hard on leather. “It actually deteriorates the leather. You don’t want to leave any soap on it, because the soap is alkaline. With a lot of English saddles, people just rub the saddle soap back in after they get it all clean, to give the leather a sheen. But that’s the worst thing you can do to the leather.”