If you want your tack to have a long, safe, and useful life, regular maintenance for your leather and metal hardware is absolutely essential.
Well-maintained leather should feel supple—you should be able to bend and flex it without difficulty. Very dry leather will not bend easily and might have visible cracks in the surface. It may also become very slippery and hard, causing discomfort to both horse and rider. On the other hand, over-oiled leather will be limp and soggy, and may leave oil stains on clothing. Either condition will compromise your leather’s longevity, strength, and safety.
How Often Should You Clean and Condition Leather?
Frequent, gentle care rather than sporadic heavy cleaning will extend the life of your leather. If you ride between 4 and 6 times per week, you should lightly clean and condition your equipment every 2 to 4 weeks. You may clean more or less frequently depending on how much you ride, the quality of your equipment, the climate and storage conditions for your tack.
After every ride, wipe any dirt, dust, mud, sweat or saliva from your bridle, saddle, and girth with a soft cloth. Any dust or dirt left on the leather can act as an abrasive and begin to wear the top surface of the leather away. Remove saddle pads from the underside of the saddle to allow air to circulate around the panel. Always cover your saddle with a dust cover or store in a saddle bag to keep dust from accumulating between rides.
Tip: Washing your saddle pads frequently as well will help keep your saddle’s panel leather from getting hard and moldy. Bonus: It’s also more hygienic for your horse’s back!
Caring for New Leather
For the first several weeks of use, new saddles, bridles, and other leather goods should only be conditioned, not cleaned. You should still wipe the dust from your tack after each ride during this period. Applying oil or conditioner to dusty leather will cause a sticky, tacky layer to form on the surface of the leather. When your saddle is brand new, it’s best to use a pair of well used leathers to help break in the flaps. Brand-new leathers can be abrasive! More on care for new leather here.
Environmental Factors that Affect the Care of Your Leather
The climate and humidity of your environment will impact how often you need to clean your leather equipment. If you live in an area with high humidity, you’ll need to take special care to prevent damage from mold and mildew.
Leather goods should be stored in a dry, well-ventilated, and relatively dust-free tack room. If you live in a more humid climate, you can use a dehumidifier to reduce moisture in the tack room.
Warm, moist air, plus sweat, dust, and dirt from riding provide the perfect environment for mold and mildew to grow. Generally, mold and mildew will appear as a white or green powder on the surface of the leather, along with a distinct odor. At this stage, mold damage is reversible.
If left too long, mold and mildew will cause permanent damage to your leather in the form of dry rot. Once dry rot has set in, no amount of cleaning, conditioning, or oil saturation will reverse it.
Leather Care Essential Toolkit
• Bucket of WARM water
• Tack sponge for soap and a separate sponge for oil
• pH neutral soap or glycerin soap—check manufacturer guidelines
• 100% PURE Neatsfoot oil or approved saddle conditioner—check manufacturer guidelines
• Soft cloth or towel
• Soft, stiff brush for sueded areas
• Metal polish (optional)
• Sturdy saddle stand and bridle hook
• Saddle bag or dust cover, bridle bag
• Time and patience!
Leather Cleaning and Conditioning: Step by Step
Leather care is a two-step process: you must first clean, then condition. Dirt must be physically removed from the leather by cleaning with soap and water. One-step products do not fully lift dirt and may actually seal dust and dirt onto the leather’s surface by plugging its pores.
Tip: Some saddle manufacturers have introduced leather care products specifically designed to work with the leather used in their saddles. Check with your saddle’s manufacturer for recommended care of their saddles. Not all products work well on every type of leather. If you have a brand-new saddle, be sure to read and activate, if necessary, your manufacturer’s warranty.
- Before You Begin
- Clean Suede Areas
- Clean Leather with Soap and Water
- Condition the Leather
- Storing Your Clean Leather
Remove leathers and girth from your saddle and take your bridle completely apart. If you plan to polish your saddle and bridle’s hardware, do this now! Be careful not to get any polish cleaner on the leather. Buff the hardware to a shine with a soft, clean cloth.
If you have a suede or nubuck seat or knee pads, it’s best to clean these areas first. Gently but firmly brush the dirt and dust out and bring up the nap using a soft, stiff brush. Periodic, gentle brushing of the nap–the soft, fuzzy texture on the surface of suede or nubuck leathers—will help prevent these areas from “slicking over”. Never use water for regular maintenance on suede leather! This will cause the suede to harden and crack over time. Caring for suede and nubuck leather can be especially tricky—click here for a more in-depth article to help you care for these areas specifically.
Wet your sponge in the warm water, then wring it out well. Swipe the damp sponge once or twice over the glycerin soap bar. Gently work up a slight lather over the surface of the leather. Take care not to scrub too hard—the abrasive motion can begin to wear away the protective grain surface of the leather and even lift the dye from your leather.
Rinse the sponge thoroughly, then wipe off any remaining lather. Lather left of the leather can leave a white, sticky residue that can actually attract dirt and grime, causing the buildup of “dirt jockeys” on the leather’s surface. If “dirt jockeys” do appear or have already formed, this cleaning process as just described will cause them to soften for easier removal.
Clean every area of the saddle—the seat, the top and bottom sides of the skirts, flaps and sweat flaps, knee pads, panel, and billets.
Tip: Never use soap, oil, or conditioner on rubber or suede reins—this will cause the rubber grip to deteriorate, and completely ruin the suede.
While the leather is still slightly damp, wipe a thin coat of the oil or conditioner on every surface area of the saddle that you just cleaned. If your saddle has sueded areas, leave a border of about ¼” near these areas with no conditioner.
Don’t forget to condition your billets! Wrap the sponge around the billet and rub the strap up and down, not across. Use this technique for all strap goods, such as bridle parts, leathers, reins, etc.
After applying your conditioner, allow the leather to sit and absorb the oil for approximately 15 minutes. Wipe any remaining oil or conditioner off with a soft cloth. Your leather should now have a warm glow and supple, flexible feel! You may even notice that a saddle that was once dry and slippery now has a nice “grip” to it.
Tip: For leather areas that are particularly dry, it may be helpful to oil your saddle and let it sit to warm in the sunlight while the oil is absorbed. Be careful, however; too much direct sunlight can cause damp leather to literally bake and crack. NEVER leave a wet saddle or other piece of leather equipment in a hot, unventilated vehicle or trailer—this creates an oven-like effect and will bake the leather to brittle hardness.
Place your saddle in a saddle bag or dust cover to keep dust from accumulating and ruining your diligent leather care! Your saddle will be fresh and ready for your next ride. It’s also a good idea to keep your bridle this way.
Think of caring for your leather goods the way you would care for your skin—gently, routinely, and thoroughly. Keep your leather care routine consistent and frequent, and your leather will stay strong for years to come!