Cleaning Tack: Best Practices for Looking Good and Staying Safe
Quality leather tack can be a significant investment, but given the right care, it can be used for many years. A well-made and well-cared-for saddle can last a lifetime.
Just what does it take to keep tack looking good and in safe condition? For expert advice on the subject, we turned to Marti Haught, owner of Tack Shack of Ocala.
Having been in business since 1986, Tack Shack of Ocala is the biggest tack store in Ocala, Florida, and one of the largest in the entire state. The shop sells hundreds of saddles every year — both English and Western — and also has a large manufacturing and repair business. In addition to repairing tack of all kinds, they make leather halters, neck straps, custom saddle pads, nylon racing tack, stall drapes and more.
The most common mistake people make when it comes to leather tack is not cleaning and conditioning it. This may seem hard to understand given the cost of saddles today, but Haught routinely sees tack brought in for repair that obviously has not been cleaned recently — if ever.
Another mistake is cutting corners and buying inexpensive tack to save money up front. Often these items are made with imported leather of lower quality.
"When you buy items with cotton or linen stitching, it won't hold up as well as nylon stitching," Haught explains. "Nickel-plated hardware will degrade and rust, especially in humid areas. You want to buy tack with stainless steel or solid brass hardware."
How often should I clean tack?
"Ideally, you should clean leather tack every time you ride," says Haught. "It's really simple to wipe it down after you ride, and if you get in this habit your tack will look nice and last a lot longer."
This routine cleaning is especially important when your horse's sweat comes in contact with the saddle, as is the case with English saddles.
"Western saddles have fleece on the bottom, but English saddles have leather," says Haught.
What should I use?
Once upon a time, saddle soap only came in bar or paste form. Today, you can buy quality glycerin saddle soap in both liquid and foam form. This makes cleaning easier, and the products don't settle into crevices like paste soap can.
Another benefit of today's leather cleaning products is that you don't have to use much water. Basically, you only need enough water to rinse out your sponge, which should just be damp, never overly wet.
For best results, always follow label directions on the leather cleaning product you’re using.
Tack cleaning do's and don'ts:
- Do blow off dust and dirt before you start cleaning
- Do use products made specifically for cleaning leather tack
- Do use only minimal water
- Don't use baby wipes
- Don't use products containing alcohol, turpentine or mineral spirits
- Don't oil tack with cooking oils (olive, corn, etc.) as these can attract roaches and rodents
- Don't leave saddles out to dry in direct sunlight after cleaning
Best cleaning practices
After every ride, wipe down your saddle and bridle with glycerin saddle soap in whatever form you prefer, using a clean sponge or washcloth.
Periodically, you'll need to do a deeper cleaning, which includes unbuckling and taking apart your bridle and cleaning all parts of your saddle
How often this needs to happen depends on how much you ride and how dirty your tack gets.
"If you're riding in dusty, dirty conditions, you'll have to clean it more often," says Haught.
To avoid grinding dust and dirt into the leather, before you start cleaning use a shop vacuum or hair dryer (cold setting only!) to blow off the saddle, paying close attention to crevices.
Don't dampen suede or use saddle soap or oil on these areas of the saddle. If necessary, use a cleaner made specifically for suede.
"Eventually, suede will wear and get smooth, but you can use a suede brush to get the nap up," adds Haught.
What's that green stuff?
If a powdery greenish-white coating forms on your leather tack, this is mold and/or mildew and is likely due to high humidity. Don't ignore it or the leather can be permanently damaged.
Using glycerin-based saddle soap, wipe down the saddle thoroughly, scrubbing gently as needed, until all traces of mold/mildew are removed. This task is best done outdoors so you aren't breathing in those mold spores.
Once the saddle is thoroughly cleaned, let it dry out of direct sunlight. When dry, apply leather conditioner according to product directions. To avoid the return of mold and mildew, you'll want to keep the saddle in a climate-controlled room.
"Especially in areas with heat and high humidity, you'll have mold and mildew if you don't store leather in a climate-controlled area," says Haught.
In addition to regular cleaning, leather tack needs to be conditioned periodically, but there's no black-and-white rule about how often this needs to be done.
New Western show saddles are typically lacquered with a protective finish that helps maintain condition and color. Because of this coating, the saddle may not need oiling or conditioning for several months, providing you keep it clean with a good glycerin saddle soap.
Haught always advises using leather conditioner expressly made for tack. When you want to keep light-colored leather looking that way, choose a cleaner and conditioner that specifically says it will not change leather color or darken it.
"Many dressage saddles are black, and with English tack, people usually want it darker. Western tack is often made with lighter leather, and people don't want it to darken," says Haught, who points out that any type of oil will darken leather.
When you do opt for oil, neatsfoot oil is typically recommended for leather tack. Skip the food oils! You may have a bottle of corn oil in the feed room, but using this on tack is a no-no.
"Roaches and rodents will be attracted to food oils on the leather and they'll eat on it," says Haught. "I've seen tack where they have completely eaten off the top layer of leather."
Caught in the rain?
It happens to all of us at some point — you get rained on during a ride. No need to panic, but your tack does need prompt attention.
As soon as you untack, wipe down the saddle thoroughly with a dry towel to remove excess moisture. Then use leather cleaner to remove any dirt, mud or other stains. Put the saddle on a stand and let it air dry in a place with good ventilation.
While it may be tempting to use a heat lamp or other heat source to dry out wet tack, Haught warns against it.
"You can put a fan on to help it dry, but avoid using heat," she advises.>
Once the saddle is almost dry, go ahead and lightly apply some leather conditioner to help maintain flexibility. After the saddle has totally dried, you can condition it thoroughly.
Keeping leather tack in good shape is about more than appearances. Safety is also a concern because worn or damaged leather can break when under pressure — putting horse and rider at risk.
Make it a habit to check the condition of your tack every time you ride, and be vigilant about safety checks when cleaning. This will help you find items that need repair before they become a danger or have to be replaced.
Haught emphasizes the need to carefully examine all parts of the saddle and bridle that are regularly under friction. Some areas have more wear than others, so pay close attention to the following areas:
- billets (English saddle)
- flaps (English saddle)
- rigging (Western saddle)
- fenders (Western saddle)
- stirrup leathers (English and Western saddles
- latigo tie straps (Western saddle)
- where reins attach to bit (bridle)
- where cheek pieces attach (bridle)
- stitching (on any leather tack)
If you find actual breaks in stitching or cracks in the leather, these are red flags. For safety's sake, do not use this equipment until you have taken it in for repair or replacement.
If leather is allowed to become brittle or dry-rotted, it's too far gone for repair and can only be replaced.
Haught notes that if the leather cracks when you bend it, no amount of oil or leather conditioner can restore it. For safety's sake, that piece of leather must be replaced.
"Sometimes you'll only spend a little more to buy a new piece of tack than trying to repair the old one," she says.
As with so many other items we shop for, it's common to buy tack online, but Haught urges caution when buying a saddle this way sight unseen.
"Sometimes the tree is broken, which can hurt your horse's back. Replacing a tree is very expensive, but that's a chance you take buying online with no guarantee," she warns.
If you have any questions about the condition of a saddle, contact a reliable tack shop in your area. Most of these businesses offer services that include checking out tack to be sure it’s safe and sound.
Store it right
How you store leather tack will definitely impact its condition.
Ideally, you should store it in a temperature-controlled environment, and always out of direct sunlight. Cover saddles with a breathable material, such as a natural fiber saddle bag.
Leather needs to breathe, so never cover leather tack with plastic or store it in an airtight plastic bin.