Beyond Saddle Soap—Cleaning Non-Leather Equipment

May 2, 2011 - 8:29 PM
Don't let the leather hog all your attention! Bits, saddle pads, suede and sheepskin all have their own special needs. Photo by Sara Lieser.

It’s not enough to simply toss these items in the washing machine. 

Spring has finally arrived—your arena has thawed, the grass is growing, and you’re sweeping up the last of your horse’s winter coat from the barn aisle. With the arrival of warmer weather, your thoughts are turning to the upcoming show season, and you’ll want your tack and equipment sparkling clean to make a good impression.

We tend to focus most of our cleaning energies on the leather portions of tack, but bits, buckles and saddle pads need attention too, and many non-leather materials require specialized cleaning methods. We asked several tack-cleaning experts for their favorite tips for keeping whites white, brass shiny and sheepskin fluffy.

Brightening Bits

Bits aren’t difficult to clean, but they are often overlooked when you’re in a rush after a ride. Your horse certainly doesn’t want a dirty, crusty bit in his mouth, so keep a can of bit wipes in your tack trunk or trailer for a quick wipe-down after a show or lesson. Many are flavored, so your horse gets a clean and tasty bit next time you use it.

Once or twice a month, you should put all of your bits into a bucket for a thorough cleaning. Use a product like Bit Therapy Effervescent Cleaner, which fizzes when added to water, and let the bits sit for eight minutes. They’ll come out shiny and mint-scented, even in the hard-to-reach crevices. Another option is to put your bits in the dishwasher to get them sparkling.

If you don’t have time or space in your dishwasher before a show, use a polish paste like Simichrome Polish on the rings of the bit to get them shiny, then use a bit wipe on the mouthpiece. While you’re at it, use the Simichrome paste on your stirrup irons, making sure to get the bottoms too.

For other metal hardware, a wadding polish like Nevr-Dull is easy to use and not as messy as a polish paste. The impregnated cotton can be used to easily polish brass, nickel, zinc, silver and aluminum fittings on breastplates, bridles and halters.

Getting Whites White

White saddle pads are a timeless, classic look for any discipline, but for dressage riders, sparkling whites are a way of life. Emma Purkhun, 23, has worked for Sue Jaccoma and other top dressage professionals in Wellington, Fla. She’s currently based in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., at Olympic dressage rider Sue Blinks’ Topline Dressage at Leatherdale Farm West.

“Our biggest problem is that a lot of the dressage horses have sensitive skin, so we’re always trying to find detergents that get stuff out, but are gentle on their skin,” said Purkhun. She uses Arm & Hammer complete cleaner freshener/whitener powder.

To remove the stubborn black residue at the bottom of the pad, Perkuhn uses Shout stain remover on a damp pad, and scrubs it with a toothbrush until the stain comes out. Then she runs it through the wash again.

Spotless Suede

Like leather, half chaps and other items with suede are susceptible to daily wear and tear. Half chaps can become muddy and wet as we slosh through mud on the way to the arena, or encrusted in sweat and dust from riding all day in the summer. Exposing leather and suede to barnyard conditions can cause it to break down and damage the integrity of the material. Because suede has a nap and is not a full-grain leather, it attracts and holds more dirt and grime than a full-grain leather.

“For cleaning and protecting suede, the most important thing to remember is to use products that are specifically labeled as safe for suede or nubuck,” said Aaron Swarthout, commercialization and quality control manager at Ariat International.

Swarthout recommends cleaning suede regularly to avoid stiffness and cracks. “Not all leather care products can be used on all leathers, and never smear any wax, cream, paste or other materials using a rag or cloth onto suede—all suede cleaners and protectors are sprayed on,” he said.

You should keep a suede kit in your tack room that includes a brush or a “suede block,” which looks like a brown or tan pencil eraser. Most simple dirt and light grime can be removed using circular motions with the suede block. As with any new product, Swarthout cautions to test it on a small, inconspicuous area first. By brushing the area, the nap should be restored.

For more serious stains, your kit should include a cleaner/conditioner spray. “Follow the specific manufacturer’s instructions, and the rule ‘less is more’ applies—do not over-wet or over-clean suede. Allow the chaps to air-dry overnight inside a covered building, not on your front porch or in the barn, and the next morning you should be good to go,” said Swarthout.

For non-suede parts, the same general rules apply, but use a cleaner made for full-grain leather. 

Sheepskin and Breastplates

The U.S. Pony Club is famous for a high standard for cleanliness. Sydney Wilson, an eventer and regional instructor coordinator for the Eastern Pennsylvania Region, has been a chief horse management judge for the USPC for 25 years. She can get any dirty, grimy piece of tack “Pony Club clean.” She’s also worked for Bit Of Britain for three years and has experienced every type of leather and non-leather material imaginable. 

Wilson recalls her upper-level eventing days, when leather galloping boots had to be vigorously cleaned and conditioned after each use. “In some ways, cleaning things has gotten a lot easier because the neoprenes and plastics and man-made materials can be washed off with soap and water,” she said.

But other non-leather materials require more delicate cleaning. “We’re using a lot more natural fibers like sheepskin in saddle pads, half pads, figure-eight nosebands and breastplates. Those have to be cared for pretty carefully,” she said. It’s wise to use a cleaner that’s safe for sheepskin like Leather Therapy Laundry Solution.

“I’ll take a quart Ziploc bag and make a little hole in it. Then I’ll put the leather through it and put a twist-tie around it so I’m protecting the leather. Then I’ll wash the sheepskin by hand with the cleaner, being careful not to get the leather wet,” she continued.

Some manufacturers make figure-eight nosebands with neoprene or sheepskin pads that are attached with Velcro and can be interchanged. This makes it easy to detach and wash the pads without getting the bridle wet.

After a cross-country round on a hot day or a long day in the hunt field, your breastplate is probably covered in foamy sweat. Letting the elastic portion sit in a bucket of water after you take it off your horse will help keep it from staining, but it will need a more thorough cleaning later with Woolite.

When cleaning brass or nickel on bridles and breastplates, Wilson cautions to check under the buckles, which are often the first areas of leather items to crack. “The main thing with buckles on tack is that you need to be careful because those are your stress points. I find that people don’t clean underneath them and they get gunk built up. If you put metal polish on, it can damage the leather under the buckles. It’s important when you clean your tack that you pull those buckles back and take the bridle apart periodically. You should condition the leather around those buckles so you can extend the life of your tack,” she said.

Besides making your equipment look better for the show season, a careful cleaning regimen gives you the opportunity to examine items for signs of wear and tear, so you can get them repaired or replaced before a mishap occurs.

Learn more about leather care in “Taking Care Of Your Tack Doesn’t Have To Be Tough.”

Category: Tack

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