November 2020 - Tack TLC
Written by by Nikki Alvin-Smith
Friday, 30 October 2020 01:51
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Leather tack deserves good care and will repay the time investment in longevity and performance.

by Nikki Alvin-Smith

Let’s face it. Horse tack is expensive! Fortunately, if you take good care of it it’ll take good care of you. You work hard to earn the dollars to pay for your leather tack and take pride on how well your horse performs wearing his beautiful bridle, saddle, martingale, girth, breastplate or halter. Naturally riding IS the most fun thing of all to be doing and the routine care of all this equipment may not be high on your priority list.


When you consider the benefits of giving your leather tack some tender loving care you may want to move tack cleaning up on your to do list. Here are a few good reasons why:


  • Clean tack lasts longer. Horse sweat and hair, dust and dirt, are enemies of longevity and usefulness where leather is concerned.
  • When you clean your tack it is less likely to cause your horse skin soreness such as girth and saddle sores.
  • Inspecting tack as you clean it will prevent a major catastrophe as you’ll have a ‘heads up’ if stitching is coming undone or leather is worn and cracked and ready to give you the old heave-ho. Girth billets, stirrup leathers and bit straps and reins where they attach to the bit are particularly vulnerable to wear. After all, do you plan to demonstrate airs to the ground and bridle free riding techniques?
  • You and your horse look more professional.

Don’t Have the Time?

Everything in your life may be a mad dash but a quick routine wipe down at the end of each riding session takes but a moment. A quick rinse of the bit will be appreciated by your horse next time around and a swift wipe down of the leather components with a handy wipe designed for the purpose, will keep your tack free of dirt, dust and sweat until you have time for a proper tack clean. Many manufacturers offer wipes that you can tote along to shows and use when travelling too, or whenever you need rapid conditioning. Even a wipe down with a clean soaped cloth will help bridge that gap between when you’ve finished riding and when you have time to clean tack.

Tip: Do not use baby wipes to wipe down leather. These wipes are highly alkaline and may contain drying alcohol. Similarly leave food products where they belong, in the fridge/kitchen or on your sandwich. Use of mayonnaise, olive oil and other food products for leather care are literally a recipe for disaster for tack. They attract bacteria, damage the natural oils in leather, may stain and can look unsightly and smell awful.

Leather care sprays are another option if you are looking for a professional result in one easy step. Application by spray and a quick rub in with a cloth will protect the leather from drying and the bleaching effects of the sun and effectively lifts dirt from the leather. The aim is to soften, condition and rejuvenate stiff leather.

Both the above methods will help prolong the life of your tack by keeping it clean, but from time to time a deep clean is still needed. Look for cleaning products that have the correct pH for leather, and ones that will not darken the tanning process or remove tan staining. What does that involve? Let’s take a deeper dive.

Delve Deeper into the Deep Clean ~ What Products Work Best and Why

You no doubt have great chemistry with your horse and know that the right combination of horse and rider can outshine competitors in the ring, make every day brighter when time is spent together. Chemistry is important in leather care too.

Old-fashioned tack cleaning products such as saddle soap and similar products are highly alkaline whereas leather itself is not.

Without boring you with a 101 Chemistry class it is good to know that pH 7 is neutral, anything higher is alkaline and anything less is on the acid scale. That is where leather hides, on the acidic side of the scale. Saddle soaps are highly alkaline, registering pH9 or above. What does this mean? It means the saddle soaps are dastardly, because their repeated use over time will turn your leather alkaline too. This actually causes your beautiful leather tack to darken, weaken and harden. So applying the wrong product is truly not only a waste of time, but is a negative thing to do.

To make matters even worse, saddle soap will accumulate in hard to reach places as it is hard to rinse out of crevices and folds. The accumulation causes the leather to deteriorate and encourages the dreaded ‘mold growth.’ Aaagh. What can you do?

Myth: Soaps won’t come off and stain or mark breeches. Whenever you use any product on your saddle that leaves behind a residue or sits on the surface of the leather you can bet it is also transferring to the leather seat of your breeches or seat of your jeans when you ride. This transfer will only be increased with friction and heat. Additionally, if the tack you use is not tanned properly and is simply sprayed on, the color will migrate onto the seat of your riding pants/jeans too. Now that’s a look you don’t want.

There are a myriad of leather care products out there and certainly a leather care product is better than reaching under the kitchen sink for whatever is handy for cleaning such as Murphy’s Oil Soap which a heavy oil and not leather friendly or bleach, vinegar, window cleaner, shoe polish etc., which are all harsh products that harm leather. Multi-purpose sprays are not a good idea for leather care either.  It is imperative that you select the right leather care product.

Myth: Oils such as mink oil make great leather conditioners. This is not true, oil taken from the fat layer under the skin of a mink may work as a conditioner once or twice, but eventually these heavy oils will oxidize and dry the leather. Leather is a porous material and those pores need to be kept clean and open so that leather can breathe and the natural oils need to be replenished after cleaning with a light, non-residue pH balanced product that matches the acidic pH of leather.

The pH balance products along with those that don’t leave a surface-scum or sticky residue on the leather make the perfect solution for tack care.

How Do You Complete a Professional Deep Clean?

Tip: If possible hang a bridle hook and utilize a collapsible saddle rack. These items will make tack cleaning very easy. The bridle hook gives you the height to keep reins off the floor and provides a spot to hold the bridle/halter/martingales so you can make a clean sweep with your tack cleaning sponge or soft cloth and utilize both hands. The collapsible saddle rack adjusts so you can place your saddle upside down and work on the underside.

There are two basic steps to the cleaning process: Clean the tack and then condition it to add the important oils back to the leather.

Here’s how simple it is to complete:

Find a clear a space to work and have a bucket of warm water, a clean sponge and a few dry cloths handy. Wipe off any surface dust from the tack with the dry cloth and then disassemble the bridle and remove the girth, cinch and stirrup leathers from the saddle. If you want to be certain to put things back together on the same holes, just note down their placement/hole number. Remember it is important to completely disassemble the tack so that you can check for damage and wear, such as broken stitching, cracks and weaknesses plus you need to reach into all the crevices to do a proper deep clean.

Soak the sponge in the warm water and then wring out so it is not sopping wet. Apply a small amount of leather cleaner to the sponge and apply to the leather in a small circular motion. Pay particular attention to points were leather pieces are joined together as these are high grime and dirt areas.

Tip: Don’t use too much product. You don’t want to create so much lather that you leave a dirt-attracting residue behind.           

Myth: Water is bad for leather. Actually leather is tanned using water as part of the process. It isn’t water that hurts leather; it is drying that leather out too fast and not replenishing the natural oils.

Rinse and repeat until you have covered all the leather territory. If your water becomes dirty throw it out, rinse the bucket and start with a fresh supply.

Then rub the leather dry with a soft, clean cloth.

Tip: Pay special attention to areas of tack that come into direct contact with the horse as these will accumulate a greasy layer of sweat which contains harmful salt and body oil. If it is difficult to remove try a very soft brush but check the brush on a hidden spot of the tack first to ensure it does not scratch.

An old toothbrush is an excellent brush for those little hard to reach areas.

The delightfully clean and grime free tack is now ready to enjoy some conditioning treatment. Think of it like washing your hair. You’ve cleaned your hair with shampoo but now you need to replace those oils you washed out with a good conditioner. And like a good hair product, you don’t want a lot of lather.

Take a leather conditioner and apply a thin layer with a soft clean cloth to all areas of the tack. Pay particular attention to areas such as the top of the cantle, where the leather has been stretched and ensure a thorough conditioning to all areas of high stress.

Tip: If you feel the leather needs more conditioning don’t go mad and splurge with heavy amounts of conditioner all at once. Instead, add thin layers one at a time. It is better to wait 24 hours and see how the leather feels than to overdo it at one time. You can always add more thin layers later.

Tip: In geographic areas of high humidity good leather care is paramount to prevent atmospheric moisture seeping into the pores of the leather. Similarly, regions that experience hot sun and dry conditions will also take a toll on leather products. Routine prevention of damage with proper tack cleaning will significantly extend the life of your leather and save you money down the trail.

Well done you! Your tack is now clean and ready to reassemble. But before you take that step let’s take a quick tack safety inspection.

Leather that is cracked, torn, stretched or has stitching coming undone may undo you too. No-one wants to land on their head due to a billet that gives way under pressure or find themselves galloping about with no reins or bit dangling out of their horse’s mouth. Let’s leave trick riding to the stunt professionals.

Inspection Tips:

  • Holes in tack are a weak spot and should be inspected to ensure they are not stretching, cracking or are deformed due to overuse. If you ride your horse on the same settings every time your tack will double up on wear and may need to be replaced. Try and vary the settings you use: e.g. tighten the girth higher on one side of your horse one day and lower on the other side and alternate the sides on your next ride.
  • Wherever there is a fold in leather there is a vulnerable ‘perma-fold’, such as the stirrup leathers that you ride in daily on the same hole. Unfold the leather and check for cracking and damage and replace if necessary. Similarly folds of leather where the rein or bit strap attaches to the bit or an area where leather meets a buckle are all high-risk areas for wear and tear. Better to learn now that something is about to break and repair or replace it than when you are mounted and it gives out.
  • Buckle up for safety but buckle down and check out every buckle on your tack. The prongs can be weak or missing, they can be bent or have collected dirt and no longer move freely.
  • Inspect all stitching and ensure it has integrity and is not starting to come undone or has become lose or shows signs of rot. A quick run to your local tack shop or cobbler can resolve many such issues cheaply.
  • Check your girth or cinch. This area is one of the high-pressure points of tack and billets do pull off when stitching is weak or break when they have been stretched. Replacement by your saddle manufacturer or local tack shop is relatively inexpensive and can be life saving.
  • Stirrup bars: Ensure that whether you have the bars open or closed they are clean and operate freely. There is no necessity to be dragged by a horse if you come off and this is an extremely important safety issue.
  • When you inspect your saddle check the underside for lumps and bumps and sides and pockets of uneven wear as these may indicate a worn out saddle that needs reflocking or a problem with saddle fit. See our tip sheet on English and Western saddle fitting here.

What Can I Do About Mold and Mildew on Leather?

This happens! It is hard to completely recover tack that has been neglected but it is always worth a try. Obviously the best thing is to prevent it happening in the first place by thorough cleaning and correct storage in a clean, dry area with airflow to keep the pores in the leather open, but that is not how life works. We pack things up, move, forget about older tack and equipment. Here’s a recovery program:

Quarantine the affected tack outside with soft brushes and old cloths that you will not reuse after they have been in contact with the dreaded green fuzz.

Scrub the leather with a damp sponge, using plenty of water and apply Lexol Cleaner in small circular motions. Discard each cloth as it becomes dirty. If you need to use a soft bristled brush check it doesn’t scratch the leather by testing it on a small hidden area.

Apply a light layer of conditioner and place the tack in the sun to dry. The ultraviolet light of the sun may not be good for your skin but it has disinfecting properties for your tack. Be certain there is no moisture/water left in the tack before you store it again.

Tip: Saddle soaps that contain glycerin will attract and hold atmospheric moisture. Another good reason not to utilize these alkaline based leather care products.

The 101 of Leather Storage for Longevity

It is a lot easier to prevent mold and mildew than to treat and clean it. Mold loves damp, dark places with poor ventilation. So your first choice of location for leather storage should be somewhere that is light, with a good airflow. The area should be clean, dry and if for the saddle a cover to protect it from dust is a great idea.

Let your leather breathe. If you don’t like the air in the space then the chances are your expensive leather tack won’t either. Like us, leather likes to breathe.

A de-humidifier placed in the tack room for climates with high humidity an be beneficial in improving the air quality for good tack storage.

Rodents also love dark cozy places and if you don’t have a barn cat to keep them at bay then trapping them may be the only option. While the barn cat may sit on your saddle and sharpen its claws up on the leather,(another reason to add a saddle cover), the rodent population will enjoy snacking on stitches, chowing down on saddle stuffing and generally chewing on everything. Protect your tack and equipment from rodents.

How many times have you seen a saddle stored with its back against a wall? Saddles need to lie down. Over time a saddle that is propped up against the wall will not only get dirty it will lose shape. If you hang your saddle by its horn the stress on the integrity of the saddle will be sincerely damaging to its balance and shape. Saddles should be stored on a saddle rack that is hopefully designed for the purpose with proper support of the underside of the saddle for its entire length of the skirt.

Caring for your tack can be a relaxing and therapeutic time. Think of all the moments you stand chatting with barn friends, are on hold while you wait for your trainer/vet/farrier/chiropractor to arrive? This is time you can spend protecting your investment in your tack and giving it the ‘tender loving care’ it deserves.

Author Nikki Alvin-Smith is a professional freelance content writer, as well as an international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY.