Thousands of years ago, someone figured out that strapping a piece of animal hide to their horse’s back made riding more comfortable. Saddles have certainly come a long way since those first primitive incarnations. They also cost a lot more.
Today’s horse owners often have significant investments in tack and equipment. A quality, well-made saddle should last far longer than the horse you’re currently riding. With proper care, it can easily last your lifetime.
Just what is considered proper care when it comes to leather tack? For practical advice we turned to the experts at Circle Y Saddles, Inc. in Yoakum, Texas, a company that’s been handcrafting saddles since 1960.
“We can’t speak about all new saddles, but every new Circle Y saddle has been oiled and then lacquered with a protective finish, which means you don’t need to immediately oil it,” notes Dara Loudon, marketing manager at Circle Y. “If you’re occasionally riding, you may not need to oil it for about six months. If you are riding a lot in variable weather conditions like a dry climate or high humidity, you will need to oil it sooner.”
Down and Dirty
After every ride, you should wipe down all leather equipment and then periodically give it a thorough cleaning. That means unbuckling every buckle on your bridle and cleaning all parts of the saddle. How often thorough cleaning is necessary depends on how much you ride and how dirty your tack gets.
Before you start cleaning, you’ll want to remove as much dust and dirt as possible from deep in crevices so you aren’t grinding them into the saddle as you clean it. Simplify the process by using a shop vacuum, air compressor or even a hair dryer with a cold air setting.
Keep in mind that leather is a natural material with pores, so it needs to breathe. This alone should help you rule out some cleaning products, such as caustic household chemicals. Avoid preparations that contain alcohol, turpentine or mineral spirits. Don’t use baby wipes; they may sound harmless, but they can damage the finish. You want to use only products specifically meant for cleaning leather tack.
After every ride, you should wipe down all leather equipment and then periodically give it a thorough cleaning.
“We like a liquid glycerin-based saddle soap to remove mud and grime. The paste-based soaps tend to settle into the crevices, which means using a toothbrush to clean out the residue,” says Circle Y saddlemaker Kenneth Wenske.
Water is not leather’s friend, so even when cleaning tack, your sponge should just be damp, never sopping wet. Always follow label directions on the saddle-cleaning product you’re using, as some require no rubbing—just spraying and wiping with a clean cloth.
Once your tack has been cleaned and wiped off a final time, let it air-dry, but not in the sun. Using direct sunlight or artificial heat to dry leather will backfire, causing the leather to become brittle and lose its strength. For safety reasons, Wenske says that leather that has been burned through this process should no longer be used.
When the leather is completely dry, you can apply a light coat of neatsfoot oil, which is popular for keeping leather pliable. (Use caution with light-colored tack, as neatsfoot oil tends to darken leather.) When the tack has dried after the neatsfoot oil application, you can follow up with a good leather conditioner. This is especially important if you live in an arid environment, which can eventually dry out leather and cause it to crack.
“The regular use of specifically designed leather cleaners and protection agents is recommended to keep the leather soft and supple. We do not recommend mink or animal fat oils to condition leather because they will darken the leather. They can also get into the stitching and turn rancid, which will cause rot,” cautions Wenske. “Do not use waxes, silicone, solvents or other preparations that impair the ability of leather to breathe. Greases should not be used because they seal the pores, picking up additional dust and dirt, and slowing drying time.”
Leave the vegetable and olive oils in the kitchen. They shouldn’t be used on leather tack, as they can cause it to degrade over time.
“If you get a spot on the saddle seat, blot it immediately and do not let the spot soak into the leather,” Wenske advises. “Many stains tend to disappear a few days after they’ve occurred. Some darkening can be expected.”
If your saddle gets wet from a deeper-than-expected creek crossing or a rainstorm, it’s going to take some time to dry out. Don’t try to speed up the process by putting it under a heat lamp or next to a heat source. Set it on a stand and let it air-dry naturally in an area with good ventilation. Once it’s nearly dry, you can apply just a little leather conditioner to help restore flexibility, but don’t go overboard. Wait until the saddle is completely dry to condition it thoroughly.
“An important key to keeping leather in top-notch condition is to treat wet leather before it has a chance to dry,” says Wenske. “Remove any dirt, mud or other stains with a mild leather cleanser, then condition while the pores are still fully responsive. It is critical to remember that leather should be dried away from heat.”
Even if you do a bang-up job of cleaning your leather tack, the way you store it is crucial. A climate-controlled area is the best place to keep equipment when not in use. If that’s not available, choose a cool, dry location away from heat and sunlight. Never place leather tack in a plastic bag or airtight plastic trunk, as this keeps the leather from breathing. If you need to store your saddle for an extended length of time, make sure to thoroughly clean, oil and condition it first.
“Once it’s completely dry, store it indoors in a temperature- controlled environment,” says Loudon. “Cover the saddle with a breathable material like a natural fiber saddlebag.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Many a rider tosses the saddle on their horse’s back without giving that saddle a second glance. Always take a minute before you tack up to quickly assess your saddle’s condition by completing an overall tack check.
“Check all parts of the saddle to ensure the leather is soft and supple, paying special attention to the rigging, fenders, stirrup leathers, and latigo tie straps,” says Loudon. “Never ride a saddle with leather that is excessively dry or cracked — check your saddle every time you ride.”
If leather is cracked or split, it cannot be restored and must be replaced. Don’t underestimate the danger.
“Anytime the leather is cracked, it’s past the point of no return,” says Loudon. “Don’t think, ‘I can get one more ride out of this,’ because that could be catastrophic.”