Tack Maintenance: Making the Most of Your Investments

I’ve always considered myself fairly proficient when it comes to cleaning my leather tack and boots. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn more – and that was the case this past weekend! Big Dee’s very own, Lisa Gorretta, bestowed her knowledge of all things tack cleaning upon an eager crowd.

She started her presentation by reminding everyone that any time we purchase a piece of tack, whether it’s brand new or dug out of a “diamond in the rough” bin at a tack swap, that it is an investment. The better we take care of that investment, the longer it will last us – and the safer it will keep us.

While some leather items might have a standard cleaning process, like halters or horse boots, items like saddles and bridles require a little more consideration. Lisa emphasized that if you are buying a brand new saddle, check that saddle’s warranty information BEFORE you start cleaning! Several brands will come with a small cleaning kit, but everyone has a personal preference when it comes to tack cleaning products – that’s good and well, as long as it follows the warranty! A quick check will save a lot of hassle down the road.

Basic Tips

Before even getting your spot ready to clean, make sure you have the basics down! Did you know that warm water helps the process go a little easier? That doesn’t mean cold water is bad per say, it’s just a helpful bonus to use warm water. Strongly emphasized throughout Lisa’s presentation was – moderation is key! Prepare yourself for the time needed to clean your tack the correct way. If you need three coats, do three light coats, versus one massive gooped on swipe of cleaner or conditioner. Remember, leather should be supple, flexible, and sturdy. You don’t want saturated tack or brittle, dry track. Lastly, leather does not like extremes – when selecting cleaning products, search for one that is pH neutral so it is not harsh on your tack.

Both bridles are the same style, age and have had the same kind of use. The top bridle was cleaned and conditioned and immediately more supple than the bottom bridle that was dry and less flexible when bending.

New Saddles and Cleaning

Most new saddles come with a wax layer that needs to be properly removed. This is done to open the pores of the leather and prepare the surface. You should start with a pH neutral cleaning product  like a Castile Soap. With a little water and a little soap, gently work into the saddle with a sponge to clean off the wax or buildup from a used saddle. Another product that works well is the Leather Therapy Wash. This cleaner is safe to use on just about any leather item and won’t darken the leather over time. Also be mindful of the water used when cleaning – hard water is not kind to black and dark leather. For tough to reach areas or heavily tooled tack, try using a toothbrush (you will be pleasantly surprised how much easier it is).

Tooling can be time consuming to keep clean, but looks absolutely stunning!

Balsam or Oil?

After cleaning the tack, the next step is conditioning. However, you need to make sure the product you are using is the correct match for that particular part of the saddle. There are two surfaces on leather – the raw side (or open side) is rough like the underside of fenders and flaps, and the sealed side (or closed side) is the smooth leather surface, like what you sit on. Oils are used on the raw side of leather only, they WILL darken the leather and they WILL soak through if applied too heavily. Conditioners like Effax Leather Balsam and Colorado Leather Conditioner are made from beeswax and lanolin to bring out the suppleness of leather without making the surface slick. Other great conditioning options are Leather Therapy Conditioner, Amerigo Balm, Walsh Oil (if you want to darken the leather) and Bates Leather Balsam (if you want a slightly tackier surface).

(Left) Sealed side of leather on an English saddle. (Middle) Raw side under the English saddle flap. (Right) Comparison of tooled sealed side of Western saddle and raw side under the fender.

One thing to consider when conditioning, is to be mindful of the seams of your saddle. English saddle panels are flocked, foam filled or a combination of the two. These materials do not like getting oil or moisture in them. So when conditioning, be careful not to heavily cover the area.

To preserve the integrity of your flocked or foam panels, take extra care around the saddle’s seams.

Remember, use light coats regardless if you are using an oil or balsam. Let the tack air dry naturally. If there is any excess conditioner, wipe it off with a rag. If your leather is still dry, apply another light coat. Repeat this process until the suppleness is back in your bridle or saddle.

Chrome and Bits

For Western riders, whether their entire saddle is silver or they have a few pieces – keeping the silver shiny is actually very easy if you make it a part of your routine cleaning process. Never Dull is a fabulous wadding polish for all metals. My personal favorite is Simichrome Silver Polish, but it is a very aggressive cleaner and should not be used on bits. However, it does the job of cleaning up even the most corroded and tarnished silver on saddles and bridles!

(Left) Slightly tarnished concho. (Middle) Simichrome only requires a small amount, it comes out pink but once applied turns into a milky white paste. Remove with a rag, buffing the surface in the process. (Right) Polished silver concho.

If you want to clean up bits, the Herm Sprenger Diamond Bit Polish Paste is the product to use. It is non-toxic, non-acidic and brings back shine to not only bits, but spurs and stirrups as well. With any silver cleaner, use a small amount on Q-tips or throw-away sponges to apply, then buff out for a lustrous shine.

Daily Maintenance

Most of us don’t have the time to deep clean and condition our tack after every ride. But you should at least wipe the tack down, especially the inside of bridles and reins. Why? Well, have you ever tried to clean your horse’s bridle after you’ve ridden him in it all summer, and there’s that layer of gunk that just will not come off? That’s the horse’s natural oils and sweat, built up from many rides. You can easily avoid this by using a cleaning wipe like Oakwood Wipes. Simply wipe down your tack and put away – easy breezy! You could also do a quick wipe-down with an all-in-one product like Lexol Quick Care.

You should strive to deep clean your tack at least twice a year (more is always better), this includes pulling every piece apart, making sure it is structurally still safe to use, clean, condition and then put everything back together.

When deep cleaning, take apart your tack and check the structural integrity as well as condition.

Storage

How we store tack, whether used daily or put away for the winter months, is important to consider. If you keep tack in a moist environment, you might start to see mildew. Removing mildew requires either more layers with a mild cleaner, or a more aggressive leather cleaning product. Just remember that after really putting elbow grease into cleaning, your tack will need a conditioner to keep it from getting dry. If you are storing tack for extended periods of time, go through the regular cleaning process, then cover the tack in a dry place. You can put a very light layer of vasoline on bits, then store them in a small unsealed plastic bag.

Protective Coat

If you want a light protective coat on your tack, you could as a layer of glycerine. Using a Glycerine Bar Soap, dip it into water, then take the sponge over the bar. Apply the sponge onto tack in a light layer. Using too much glycerine can clog the leather’s pores and dry out the tack, so be careful. After applying, let the tack dry naturally, then wipe away excess with a cloth.

Other Kinds of Oils

There are other kinds of oils available for leather goods. One mentioned often is Mink oil – but it’s not as strong of a conditioner as it is a waterproofer. Mink oil can be used on winter boots or as a barrier, but it will not supple up the leather like other oils or balsams. Olive oil can technically be used, but it was not designed for leather and it not recommended. Murphy’s Oil is also not the top pick for cleaning, but if it must be used, use it in very small amounts. Leather should not be saturated when cleaning. Also be wary of products with petroleum, as they are not kind to the stitching used in tack.

Final Word

At the end of the day, the main point of having tack is to it keep us safe and secure when riding, driving, working or leading horses. We should make it a priority to not only check our tack regularly, but keep it clean and conditioned so it can perform the best for us. Once you get familiar with the products and routine, it becomes less of a chore and more of a point of pride. Clean, supple leather not only keeps you safe, but also looks incredible!

Written by Marketing Associate, Cassie

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