It’s not just about looks. Safety is also paramount. Damaged or worn leather can break at the most inopportune moments, potentially putting you and your horse in a dangerous situation. Smart horsemen will pay as much attention to the condition of tack and equipment as to the health and well being of their equine partners.
“Tack prices are at an all-time high, so anything you buy made out of leather is expensive. Buy the best you can afford and from a known manufacturer so you know the materials and workmanship are of the highest quality. Pay attention to detail and craftsmanship, and always look underneath the item to see how well it’s made,” advises Ralph Quillin, who owns Quillin Leather & Tack, Inc. in Paris, Kentucky. The business has been making halters and other leather items and repairing tack since it opened in 1982.
When buying leather tack, find out what type of thread was used for stitching. Synthetic thread is impervious to rot, so it will last longer than natural fiber threads, such as cotton or linen.
Bargain-priced tack can be tempting, but Quillin notes that such equipment is often made from lesser quality leather or less desirable parts of the hide. In many cases, you will be better off buying a quality used saddle rather than a brand new bargain-priced model.
Keep it Clean
You don’t have to break out the saddle soap every time you ride, but at the very least you should always dry off your leather tack after each use.
“The worst thing you can do is take tack off a sweaty horse and just leave it to air dry,” says Quillin. “Always wipe it down after riding. Sweat is salty and will attract varmints that will want to chew on it, so you want to clean tack regularly.”
Sweat from the horse can stain leather and also draw out the natural oils, causing the leather to become overly dry. One of the biggest mistakes riders make is placing a damp saddle pad on top of the saddle after riding. Hang your pad or blanket separately so it can air out and dry away from the saddle.
Head off problems by scheduling regular tack cleaning.
Quillin finds that simple neglect is one of the most common errors people make with leather tack. They put in little or no maintenance and use equipment until there’s an actual problem, but this presents a safety risk because neglected tack can end up breaking.
Head off problems by scheduling regular tack cleaning. Depending on how often you ride, this may be once a month, or more frequently. If you’re in the habit of routine cleaning, it won’t take a long time. The important thing is that you’re not only cleaning the equipment; you’re also inspecting it closely, which is crucial for safety and comfort of both horse and rider.
“Do a cursory cleaning and knock off the obvious dirt and grime with a damp cloth or sponge. Then use a rag or small dishwashing sponge with the saddle soap,” advises Quillin, who recommends using water-based, glycerin saddle soap.
“Work up a real good lather and inspect as you clean. Look at all the wear points: any place the leather is bent over and back on itself, and any place leather and hardware touch. Look for cracks, tears and worn places, as well as ripped or torn stitches. Look at the thread rows to make sure stitches haven’t worn all the way through, and look at both the top and bottom of stitching.”
Should you find damage or any place where the leather is “suspect,” don’t use the equipment again until you’ve taken it to a tack repair shop to replace/repair the part in question.
What about the lucky rider who inherits an old saddle, or the yard sale bargain hunter who stumbles across a brand name saddle in poor shape?
Tack that has been neglected for many years may or may not be able to be restored, depending on its condition. In this case, take the equipment apart, then clean and inspect it carefully. If you have any questions as to the leather’s integrity, it’s best to take the item to a tack shop and get an expert’s opinion.
“If the leather is brittle and cracked on the surface and not at all pliable, there may be dry rot inside,” Quillin warns. Leather that has deteriorated to this stage cannot be safely restored. You may need to put great-granddad’s saddle on a stand and just enjoy its beauty and history without putting it on your horse.
If the leather’s not actually brittle—just dirty and neglected—there’s a great chance you can bring it back to life with some serious “elbow grease,” good saddle soap and leather conditioner. Quillin says this may take several sessions.
Store It Right
Even if you clean leather tack properly, how you store it will have an impact on its condition and how long it lasts.
A hot, dry environment like an attic or barn loft can wick the natural oil out of leather over a period of time, while a damp, humid storage area - may create further concerns. A climate-controlled room is the best environment for tack storage.
If you need to pack a saddle or other leather equipment away for the season or longer, first make sure it’s clean and totally dry. Wrap it in a piece of flannel or a blanket, and then store it in a climate-controlled area, but never in an airtight trunk or plastic bag, since leather needs to breathe.
With proper care, quality leather tack can last far longer than the horse you’re currently riding, so be sure to give it the attention it deserves.
“We tend to forget that tack inspection, along with cleaning, is as much about safety as it is appearance,” adds Quillin. “You've made a significant investment in your equipment. The small amount of time needed to regularly inspect and clean your tack will increase its useful life and add to your safe riding enjoyment.”