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Do the Two-Step When It Comes to Leather Care

In the show world, it's not unusual to spend many thousands of dollars on a saddle. But even riders who never venture into competition can have as much invested in their tack as they do in their horse.

Taking care of that leather tack is vital — and not just to keep it looking good.

"You make a big investment in your leather tack and if you take care of that leather, it will literally last you a lifetime," says Julie Hoefling, brand manager for Farnam. "But caring for tack is also a safety concern because if you don't, dry, brittle leather can pose a hazard."

Neglecting to maintain equipment with regular care is one of the most common mistakes people make with leather tack. So what should you be doing to help increase the life of your tack and keep it strong and safe?

The solution isn't complicated; it just requires a little time and commitment. Proper leather care is a two-step process of cleaning and conditioning to both preserve and protect.

"We created an easy-to-use system with Leather New to simplify leather care for the horse owner," says Hoefling. "You don't need to do the two-step process every time you ride. Use the cleaner — either liquid or foam — for routine cleaning as often as daily. Then use the deep conditioner every month or two to preserve and protect the leather."

leather new cleaner and conditioner

Step #1: Clean

After every ride, take a few minutes to remove dirt and debris by wiping down your saddle with a microfiber cloth or piece of dry sheepskin. That simple wipe-down is the basic minimal care you should do any time you ride.

"Arena dirt and sand will wear leather like sandpaper, so you want to get it off before it gets down into the pores of your saddle leather," notes Elizabeth Gall, owner of Peachy Clean Tack, who has literally made a business out of cleaning tack properly. Her company, based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers professional tack-cleaning services for a number of top saddlemakers and at major breed shows across the country.

Wiping down your tack after each use is also important because it removes sweat, which is extremely hard on leather. Sweat stains leather and also dries it out by removing the natural oils.

In a perfect world, you'd do a quick cleaning of tack every time you ride, but let's face it, most of us don't take the time to do that. Be vigilant about the wipe-down and then make it a point to break out the saddle soap regularly. How often is that?

Gall recommends cleaning tack once a week, but timing is influenced by how often you ride and under what conditions. For example, leather tack used by working horses for several hours a day requires more frequent cleaning than a saddle used once a week for a short trail ride.

Before using saddle soap, wipe down the tack or use a shop vacuum to remove loose dirt, hair and dust. Then apply saddle soap with a cloth or sponge according to the label directions and rub the cleaner well into the leather, especially in crevices, carvings and around stitching.

When it comes to cleaning leather tack, glycerin soap has long been a favorite, but Gall explains why a cleaner like Farnam Leather New is different from the old standard bar of glycerin saddle soap.

"You have to add water to the glycerin bar with a sponge, but this can cause discoloration of leather because the concentration level of soap is too strong," notes Gall.

"The good thing about Leather New is that it makes a nice base of glycerin soap on the leather," she adds. "Because it's in liquid or foam form and nicely balanced, you don't have to add water, which is what can add discoloration. It's an easy product to use."

Leather New Saddle Soap comes in two cleaning options: liquid or foam. Both products contain the same effective formula; the foam is a bit more convenient for quick on-the-go use at events or to keep handy in your trailer.

Cleaning your tack also offers a good opportunity to do a basic safety check and look for damage or wear. Gall says it's comparable to the up-close-and-personal way grooming allows you to discover any physical issues on your horse.

Cleaning your tack also offers a good opportunity to do a basic safety check and look for damage or wear. Gall says it's comparable to the up-close-and-personal way grooming allows you to discover any physical issues on your horse.

She encourages owners to inspect leather tack for thin or worn places, cracks and torn stitching when cleaning. Pay close attention to straps and check for loose or worn screws.

"With latigo and billet straps, if one is starting to thin or develop a crack, it's better to replace it rather than risk using it," she adds. “No one ever got hurt by replacing a $5 billet strap!"

Step #2: Condition

Even if tack is used heavily and cleaned regularly, it generally won't need conditioning more often than once a month.

"I tell people to think of your saddle like your face. If you clean it all the time and never condition, it becomes too dry," says Gall. "But if all you do is condition and never clean, it can become greasy."

One way to know if you need to condition leather is to notice how it reacts when you clean it. Gall finds that if leather absorbs the cleaner instantly, this is a sign the leather is dry, and should be conditioned after cleaning. She recommends using a deep conditioning product once or maybe twice a month at most.

Climate and how you store your tack will also play a role in how often the leather needs conditioner. And you may not need to apply conditioner to the entire saddle, adds Gall.

Before you apply conditioner, the saddle should be thoroughly clean and dry. Following label directions, use a soft cloth to apply conditioner to the clean leather. Allow the tack to dry completely so the leather absorbs what it needs for restoration. Then buff the leather with a separate clean, dry cloth to remove any excess conditioner.

It's also recommended to deep-condition new leather before using it for the first time, as this will shorten the break-in process.

For many years, oil was used to soften leather and some horsemen still use it, but Gall is not a fan — and for good reason.

"Oil doesn't provide any conditioning effects; it just makes leather more supple," she explains. "As far as the long-term health of leather, oil clogs the pores and too much oil can actually trap dirt and make leather almost impossible to clean. Soaps aren't designed to cut through that kind of oil; a soap strong enough to do that would be too strong for the leather.

"No more oil! If you have a good cleaning and conditioning program, you shouldn't need oil," says Gall.

Storing Tack

If you need to pack up tack at the end of show season or for some other reason, be picky about where and how you store it. The barn attic or your horse trailer are not ideal environments for long-term storage. The dry heat of an attic can dry out leather over time, while warm, humid storage areas will cause leather to mildew and mold.

"When storing leather, you want to protect the equipment from dust, dirt, light and humidity, all of which can damage leather," says Gall.

For starters, make sure tack is thoroughly cleaned, conditioned and completely dry.

"The two-step cleaning and conditioning system is the perfect process to use if you put your tack away for the winter," notes Hoefling. "This makes sure the leather will be clean, soft and pliable so it will be ready to use when you pull it out after storage."

Leather needs to breathe, so don't store tack in a plastic bag or airtight container. Use a fabric saddle bag or case for protection and then store the tack in a dry, but not hot, environment — preferably climate controlled.

Starting Out   

Anytime you invest in a new saddle, Gall says it's important to closely follow the saddlemaker's care recommendations. Some products can darken leather, so ask the saddlemaker for advice about cleaning and care.

"Leather New is what 80 percent of my saddlemakers recommend,” says Gall. “It's one of the most popular products we use. It's a very balanced premade solution that will clean, condition and extend the life of the leather. You can use it on almost everything without any significant darkening of the leather. When people ask me what to use in between professional cleanings, I recommend Leather New because it's a gentle solution and a very user-friendly product.

"It doesn't make any difference whether you just trail ride and hack out, or if you're a lifelong dressage rider, or show Western pleasure horses," adds Gall. "The better you keep up with your leather, the better that leather becomes, and the longer it will last."

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