These four rules will help you extend the life of your leather tack.
Leather tack has been around for as long as humans have ridden horses. Over the centuries, it has evolved in both form and function from basic braided or knotted rawhide to the ergonomically designed, cutting edge equipment we have today. Thanks to advancements in technology, tanning and dyeing processes have changed as well, and the care and feeding of tack has evolved along with them. As a result, many tried-and-true rules of leather care no longer apply; some methods and products are no longer necessary, and some are downright harmful to modern leather.
Given that quality leather tack is quite expensive, it’s a good idea to protect your investment by giving it proper care. A good leather care regime is really pretty simple – following a few rules and spending only a few minutes a day will go a long way toward making sure your investment gives you a long, useful life in return.
The Rules of Leather Care
Leather is skin, and should be treated accordingly. The tanning process has preserved it, but it’s still made of collagen fibers – as is living skin – and will respond much the same way to cleansers and conditioners. My take is that if I don’t want it on my hands, I won’t use it on leather. This means heavy oils, harsh detergents and products not specifically formulated for leather should be kept far away. No ammonia, bleach, Neatsfoot oil, motor oil, shoe polish or Murphy’s Oil Soap please. Even seemingly innocuous products like vinegar, petroleum jelly, baby products (wipes, oil or soap/shampoo) and vegetable oils should fall under the “Don’t Use” category.
Keep it clean. You don’t have to take everything apart after every ride (though you should do a total teardown every few weeks), but get into the habit of wiping your tack down with a damp cloth or sponge after every use to remove dirt and sweat. It’s healthier for your leather, and has the added bonus of making the take-it-all-apart cleanings much less of a chore. A ritual wipe-down also gives you a chance to check the safety of your tack on a regular basis, and find that loose stitch or worn spot before it can cause a major problem.
If you do need to really clean your leather, plain warm (not hot!) water and a little effort can work wonders. But if you’re facing truly dirty tack, you’ll probably need some help. Use a good pH balanced cleaner specifically formulated for tack, and follow the directions carefully. These cleaners will remove dirt without changing the leather’s pH, lifting dye or drying the leather. Plain old glycerin soap is still a favorite with a lot of people, and that’s fine too.
Whatever you use, be sure to clean gently without using anything more abrasive than a piece of terrycloth – don’t give in to the temptation to use the toothbrush or the plastic dish scrubber, even if you’re facing layers of accumulated filth and dirt jockeys. Apply the cleaner, give it a moment to soak in and soften the dirt, then rub gently and be patient – it will come off eventually.
When the leather is clean, be sure to rinse it thoroughly to remove any soap/cleanser residue. This is particularly true with glycerin soap; leaving glycerin residue on your tack will actually attract dirt – the black and green gunk that you often see around saddle nails and dee rings or around the buckles on bridles is a combination of glycerin soap residue and dirt (and a little verdigris if the hardware is copper or brass).
Condition properly. This means applying a light (and the key word here is “light”) coat of conditioner to all the parts of your tack you can reach. The frequency with which you condition will depend on the frequency and circumstances under which you use your tack, as well as the climate in which you live. Some people need to condition once a week, and some only once a month.
The conditioner should be absorbed into the leather immediately; if you find yourself wiping off the excess, you’re either using too much or conditioning too frequently, so adjust accordingly. Don’t forget the panels and undersides of the flaps and jockeys on your saddle, and the inside of the bit attachments on your bridles and reins. Your billets and stirrup leathers are the only things that shouldn’t be conditioned on a regular basis, to help prevent stretching. Some people say they should never be conditioned, but I prefer to do them two or three times a year – just enough to keep them supple and avoid cracking.
Rule #4 This is somewhat of an extension of rule number three: no oil, ever, period. Not on new tack to break it in, not on old tack to rejuvenate it, not “just a light coat” after your leather has got wet. Many of today’s leathers have been oiled in the tanning process and require only occasional applications of a good, balanced conditioner, which will contain the correct balance of fats and oils to keep leather hydrated without saturating it. Excess oil will stretch and weaken the collagen fibers in the leather and can render it unsafe for use. If you’ve ever seen (or have) tack that’s as limp and floppy as cloth, chances are very good that it’s been oiled to death.
A Word About Safety
As I mentioned earlier, taking good care of your tack will not only extend its useful life; it will also help prevent accidents by bringing small issues to your attention before they can become major problems. If you notice a worn spot, a crack, a stretched hole or an undue amount of wear anywhere on your tack, please take it to a knowledgeable saddler and have it checked – even if you think it’s too minor to bother with. “Better safe than sorry” is never truer than when it comes to the welfare of the rider – or the horse.
Kitt Hazelton is a life long horsewoman who has been fitting saddles at Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop for well over a decade. Her dressage background as a rider, instructor and trainer gives her a unique perspective on fitting both the horse and rider. She lives in Vermont with her family. trumbullmtn.com and saddefitter.blogspot.com