Leather Care for Tack

By Kathy Satterfield

The longevity of any saddle, headstall, or any leather tack in general, is directly related to the care and maintenance you give it. If you use your saddle daily for working cattle or for sporting events and competitions, then you will need to clean your saddle more often.  If on the other hand you only ride occasionally, you will not need to clean your leather products as often. Any activity that exposes your leather gear to dirt, mud, sweat or rain, will require cleaning more than the average person. It also makes sense to clean and moisturize your saddle, headstall and breast collar before storing for winter, before a competition and of course before selling one. There are six easy steps to keep your saddle in good shape. Each person can modify these steps to best fit their usage and lifestyle.

1. First, your tack needs to be taken apart.  For Western saddles remove the stirrups, cinch, and rear flank to clean separately. Get your shop vac or vacuum cleaner out; take your saddle and flip it over onto a blanket then vacuum the sheepskin. This lets you see its condition, helps to fluff it and remove any unknown stickers or other foreign particulars that do not belong.  Next set the saddle on a saddle stand, remove dust from the saddle with your vacuum cleaner, or use a soft brush or rag.  Remove any dirt under the saddle skirt, around the horn, gullet, under riggings dees and conchos. An old toothbrush works well for small or tight areas. Use the vacuum cleaner to clean the seat of your saddle. 
On English saddles, the stirrup leathers and girth need to be removed.  Remove dust under the saddle flap and billets.
 Next grab your headstall and remove the bit and reins. Now it is time to gather your cleaning supplies.
There is a long list of leather cleaning products on the market. Your local tack store should offer a great selection or you can go online and see the plethora of products available.
Here is a suggested list of what you need to properly clean and shine your leather.
Small container of warm water
Leather Cleaner or Saddle Soap (see our recommendations)
Leather Conditioner or Oil
Silver polish for the silver Conchos and plates
Towels (micro fiber or old tee shirts work well)
Bristle Brush—not to stiff (an old toothbrush works great)

2. Now that you have removed all the loose dust, dirt, mud, and hair from the saddle, take your damp sponge and go over the leather, wring out and rinse the sponge frequently. Change the water often to avoid rubbing dirt back into your saddle. Go through the same process with your headstall and reins.  Using saddle soap like Fiebings’ Saddle Soap, a clean sponge and warm water work up a good lather. Pay extra attention to the fenders, leathers and stirrups, or any place that is in direct contact with the horse. *Note: Do not soap a suede seat or suede on your saddle skirt, use a suede brush gently.  

3. Rinse the soap off the leather. Do not be afraid to rinse well. As long as the leather is allowed to dry immediately it should be fine. If you leave saddle soap on the leather, it can cause dirt build up.  Sticky spots attract dirt and grime so rinse well.  If you still see some dirt in the tooling or crevasses you may need to use an old toothbrush or small bristle brush to work the dirt out.  Make sure your rinse and dry well.

4. After the saddle has dried overnight the leather needs to be conditioned. Apply a leather conditioner. Conditioners help keep leather pliable and prevent it from drying out. Saddles should be conditioned more often in dry climates.  Fiebing’s neatsfoot oil, Leather Therapy are two that are on the market, whatever you choose be sure to test the product on a small inconspicuous spot before applying it to your entire saddle.  Apply a thin coat, let it absorb then apply additional light coats if your leather needs it.  Some oil based products may darken your leather, read the direction carefully. Pay close attention to the areas that touch your horse, as these area need the most protection. Be sure to oil or condition the underside side of the fenders too.  Pull the stirrup leathers down and oil where they fit over the bars.  On very dry leather several light applications are better than one heavy application.  For English saddles I would suggest a leather dressing.
Your leather bridles, reins, and breast collar also may need a light application of leather conditioner.

5. After the oil or conditioner has dried use a soft cloth to polish the leather

6. Once your saddle and gear has been properly cleaned, it must be stored correctly. Bridles and halters should be hung on a bridle rack . If you hang your bridle on a nail or narrow hook it can cause the leather to fold or crease sharply which in turn can weaken the leather. Saddles should be likewise stored on racks with good air circulation.  Western saddles should have a wooden dowel inserted in the stirrups to keep the twist in the stirrup leathers.
Your saddle is likely your most expensive piece of gear, therefore is pays to take a few minutes to wipe down your saddle, headstall, breast collar and bit after every use.  Then every few months or as needed, schedule the time to give your gear a good cleaning.

Photo courtesy of www.saddleonline.com

Scott Kravetz, Vice President of Sales at Fiebing Company says, “The biggest piece of advice I always give folks who are cleaning and oiling their saddles and tack is to make sure they do not over oil.  After cleaning with saddle soap, oiling of a saddle should be done in steps. The first coat should be nice, even thin coat which should penetrate a dry saddle fairly rapidly.  Additional light coats should be added until the leather no longer appears to be absorbing the oil.  Saturating the leather with too much oil will leave the surface wet and oily—very undesirable.  Once the saddle has been over oiled only time and sunlight will get it back to its natural state.  It is not ruined permanently but it probably will be out of commission for a while until natural absorption and evaporation of the oil is complete.”

as seen in Cassidy: Winter 2013

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