Although leather care products have changed, a daily regimen is still your best preservative.
Tack care—we all know we’re supposed to do it and do it regularly, but beyond that questions abound. How often do I need to clean my tack? What products work best? What do I do with that ancient saddle molding away in the back of my tack room?
Like many aspects of the horse world, tack care is full of folklore, superstition and practices centuries old. You clean tack the way you learned to as a child, whether that was in Pony Club or at the feet of a respected groom or trainer. The fact that your education might have occurred 50 years ago is no reason to change your methods, right?
In fact, modern day leather care actually has changed over the years. The tanning process continues to evolve, as do the products designed to keep tack looking and feeling as good as new.
Some things never change, and the first step to keeping tack in the best shape possible is to wipe it off after every use.
“Dust is a big enemy of leather. It’s microscopically sharp. It will grind into the matrix of the leather and degrade it. It’s very important to take the dust off the saddle,” said Colleen Meyer, a self-described “lifelong horsewoman and incurable tackaholic” who owns the saddle fitting company Advanced Saddle Fit in Marlborough, N.H., and is a qualified saddle fitter in the society of Master Saddlers from Great Britain.
“If you wipe it down very lightly with a cloth-covered sponge and put a cover on it before you store it, that’s a very simple thing that can prolong the life of the leather and protect it from excessive wear,” said Meyer. “I like to see tack wiped down with a damp cloth every time it’s used,” agreed Kitt Hazelton, who works as a saddle fitter and saddle repair specialist for Trumbull Mountain Saddlery in Shaftsbury, Vt.
“Once a week, or more often if you’re out riding in the muck, wash it with a good castile soap or something like Effax. Depending on use, once to twice a week do the whole saddle with a nice light coat of conditioner,” continued Hazelton.
While it’s not always easy to find time for regular tack care, an extra five minutes a day can save you hours later and add years to the life of your tack.
“If you wipe your saddle off every time you use it with something, even if it’s just water, you shouldn’t need to undertake massive cleaning,” said Meyer. “My saddles don’t get jockeys because I don’t let it go that long. A little bit of wiping off every day, like you floss your teeth before you go to bed, is going to be a much better regimen than getting all your cleaning stuff together, turning on your iPod and devoting the next two hours to cleaning tack.”
Products That Work And Products That Don’t
Tried-and-true tack cleaning products certainly still work well, but in today’s competitive equestrian market, some newer cleaners and conditioners are also worth a look.
• “People used to worry about having their stitching rot from neatsfoot oil, but modern stitching is synthetic,” said Colleen Meyer. “It doesn’t rot. It won’t harm your stitching. Personally I think neatsfoot oil is really gunky, sticky, and it stains. I wouldn’t use it for that reason, but it won’t rot your stitching.”
• “If you get your saddle wet, treat it like you would treat your own skin. It is skin, it is a hide,” said Meyer. “If you condition it lightly while it’s wet and let it dry naturally, and it’s a good leather, well cared for, not stressed to begin with, it will come out just fine, no matter how wet it got.”
• Your wool-flocked saddle is capable of taking on the shape of whatever it is sitting on, so be careful how you store it. “There will be a ridge in the flocking underneath where they spend 23 hours a day sitting on the metal rail,” said Meyer. She recommends putting a wool blanket or gel pad between your saddle and the rack.
• Mold on tack should be avoided at all costs, so tack will last longer if it’s stored in dry, cold places rather than hot, humid ones. “I know a lot of people keep their bridles and saddles in bags,” said Kitt Hazelton. “Toss a desiccant into the bag if the weather is going to be really damp.”
• While many horsemen swear by olive oil and other household products for tack cleaning, Meyer disagrees. “If you’ve spent that much money on your saddle, there are so many good products that are formulated for leather care,” she said. “Olive oil is more expensive than leather conditioner. You can get a tub of the German Bienenwachs Lederpflege-Crème, and that’s going to last you a long time.”
“It’s always a good idea to check with the manufacturer, especially for a high-grade saddle,” said Meyer. “There are different processes for tanning leather. Most European saddles are vegetable-tanned leather. Most western saddles are chrome-tanned leather.”
Meyer recommends using European tack cleaning products on European leather.
“There is no true black in vegetable tanning. It’s many layers of very dark dye, green, red or blue. So if you’re using a cleaner that is chemically harsh, you can strip layers of that color out,” she explained. “Occasionally we’ll hear reports about a saddle turning green. If you have a European saddle with European leather, stick to European products because you can be fairly certain they were formulated for vegetable-tanned leather.”
Meyer has two personal favorite brands that she uses, Effax and Oakwood.
“As a cleaner, Effax is my favorite,” she said. “It’s German, it’s clean, it’s clear. It’s like toner. It’s so far from the gunky days of bar saddle soap. I take a cloth-covered car waxing sponge— they cost $.50. I wet it. I sprinkle Effax on it, which has a lovely smell, and I wipe it over the saddle. That’s it.
“I like Oakwood because it gives a little bit of waterproofing,” she continued. “The Oakwood conditioner works really well. It’s inexpensive and very effective. It’s popular in the motorcycle world. Those guys are really sticklers about their leather. It’s an Australian product. Oakwood specifically says it won’t stain your stitching, stain your breeches or strip the dye out.”
Hazelton likes to use Passier Lederbalsam for conditioning. “The Effax Lederbalsam is OK too, but I don’t like the smell as well,” she said.
Of course, tack-cleaning standbys like glycerin soap, neatsfoot oil or Murphy Oil Soap won’t ever go away, but Hazelton and Meyer prefer more modern products.
“I do like plain old castile soap for everyday stuff,” said Hazelton. “I used glycerin for years on my saddles, and it worked beautifully, but given some of the technology we have today, and some of the products that are a little more
high tech, maybe we’ve got some stuff that’s better.”
Hazelton also pointed out that the products you choose will depend on where you live.
“I was in Southern California for three years, and we used Horseman’s One Step on the tack because it was so arid and dry. It worked wonderfully,” she said. “If you use Horseman’s One Step up here in New Hampshire, it leaves a nasty residue, so that’s not a product I particularly like for this area, but it did work well in a drier climate.”
Bringing It Back From The Dead
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, tack care falls by the wayside, and you’re left with leather that needs a bit more than wiping off. Maybe that bridle fell behind the tack trunk and has completely dried out, or you got caught in a downpour and your saddle grew a fuzzy coat of mold before you had a chance to take care of it.
|Where Does My Saddle Come From?
Colleen Meyer is interested in every detail about saddles, and that means she’s explored the origin of saddle leather from cow (or buffalo or deer) hide to finished product.
“There will be variations in the leather depending on where the cow lived its life, not just leather that comes from some particular country. It’s due in part to the environmental stress that the cow went through before it became your saddle,” said Meyer.
Hides that come from cows living in cold climates will have densely packed pores, and that leather is thick, dense premium leather, versus the leather made from cows who were raised in warmer climates like India or Argentina.
Another point to take into consideration is that large pieces of leather, such as those used in saddles, come from mature cows.
“You have to be dealing with a pretty big hide, mature cows,” said Meyer. “It’s unlikely that they’ve gone through their entire life without getting scarring. They have to grow to a certain length before you can cut an entire panel out of that side. When people find little flaws or inconsistencies in their fullgrain leather, they should look at it as a badge of authenticity.”
Developments in leather technology have given riders more options for their tack.
“These days it’s pretty common to use oil-impregnated leathers that don’t require the lengthy break in that leather did generations past,” said Meyer.
Different grades of leather are used for different parts of the saddle. Stress areas—the edges of the seat, the place where your boots and leathers rub against the bottom of the flap, in some instances the knee flaps on a jumping saddle—are going to wear more.
“Some leathers wear like iron. Buffalo will wear for an incredibly long time,” said Meyer. “Many saddles are covered with a veneer of soft, grippy leather that’s bonded to the hide underneath. Those thin leathers will wear through at friction points more easily than a thicker piece of hide. But they feel and look gorgeous.”
Obviously, this isn’t the best-case scenario, but with loving care, tack can recover from all kinds of tragedies.
“I get a lot of stuff up here, particularly with the Stubbens and the Passiers, which don’t have soft leather to begin with, that come in like beef jerky,” said Hazelton. “I’ve had saddles come in with the leather so brittle that I had to oil it before I dared to work on it because the leather would tear.”
When tack arrives in terrible condition, the first thing Hazelton does is clean it. Her next step is to oil the dried-out leather.
“I use a two-inch paint brush, and I dip the ends of the bristle in a light oil like Effax or tanners oil. I find that I can get the oil down into seams and into the welting, so I can access the stitching more easily,” she said. “I’ve had to do three or four coats before I could get the leather pliable enough to peel the welting back and access the stitching.”
If leather has dried out that badly, it won’t ever have the same integrity as if the abuse had never happened.
“Sometimes you can get that saddle back so it’s OK as a colt-starting saddle, but I wouldn’t say go out and foxhunt in it,” Hazelton said.
Meyer also cautioned that once you’ve allowed your tack to get to a certain point, it may take more than one session to revive it.
“You don’t know exactly what that leather is lacking or is going to respond to,” she said. “Very good leathers are somewhat easier to revive than leathers that were not a very high quality in the first place. I think working things into the leather with the warmth of your hands is a big part of it—you somehow have to get the pores supple again. Hydrophane, which comes from England, has a range of products, some of which are for leather revival, but aren’t necessarily suitable for daily use.”
If the saddle isn’t extremely dry, then Hazelton will use a lederbalsam product instead for conditioning. She also occasionally runs into the opposite problem: overenthusiastic conditioning.
“I’ve seen people bring saddles in that they oiled to the point where the flocking or the foam in the panels absorbed the oil. That’s a really nasty mess that necessitates taking all the wool out and replacing it,” she said. “If you find that your tack is slimy and limp, or you apply a coat of conditioner and it just sits on the surface of the saddle, chances are you’re doing a little bit too much of a good thing.”
Top 8 Hazards To Your Tack
“The worst thing you can do is not take care of your saddle. I’ve seen saddles that are two years old that have never been cleaned or conditioned and already have cracks in the seat,” said Kitt Hazelton.
“Once mold has colonized the leather, you will never completely get rid of it,” said Colleen Meyer. “You can suppress it, but you will never rid the saddle completely.”
“UV rays will degrade leather,” said Meyer. “People will set their saddle on the truck bed, and it sits there baking in the sun at horse shows. Put it in the shade or put a cover on it.”
Full chaps and jeans
“The seams on the inside of jeans will wear that stress point where the seat stitching is,” said Meyer.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of saddles that end up with German Shepherd puppies having ripped the foam out of the seat,” said Meyer. “There is something irresistible about the seat of a saddle to a young dog.”
“They will use the flaps of the saddle as a scratching post,” said Meyer.
“The old oakbark rough-cut leathers have an edge that causes a lot more friction against the flap of the saddle then the new wrapped leathers,” said Meyer.
“I have seen some saddles chewed up by boot zippers. I think most bootmakers are being a little bit more careful now about the placement of their zippers, but I have seen flaps shredded by a badly placed zipper,” said Meyer. “I assume it would be more likely to happen when a boot is being retrofitted with a zipper.”