The weather forecast for the rest of summer: sultry. Ready to stop sweating it in the barn? Get the chores done early and haul your old tack inside: it’s time for a saddle and bridle deep-clean!
There are a lot of witch’s brews and home remedies out there for stripping and conditioning tack. Walk into a feed store and ask for recommendations, and you’ll hear hearty endorsements for everything from ammonia to olive oil. The general idea is to strip the oils and dirt out of the leather, leaving it clean, but dry, and then returning beneficial oils to the leather to condition it for future use.
Ammonia and olive oil are certainly good examples of solutions that can dry out leather and soak it again, but do we really want to deal with that mess? (To say nothing of what ammonia can do to a person’s hands?)
We checked around with some leatherworkers and saddle restorers and found that the professionals resoundingly endorse on simple product: soap.
Not saddle soap, not conditioning soap, just plain old soap. That horseman’s friend, Ivory, crops up again and again. Beloved by breeders and veterinarians for its pure, no-residue formula, Ivory soap is also good for getting the gunk out of your overworked (and overconditioned?) tack. Another pure and simple choice is Kirk’s Castile Soap, which is usually sold at tack shops or health food stores for less than your average bar of Irish Spring.
Before you get your saddle soaped up, though, it’s time to dust. There’s no point in making loose dirt wet and sticky. Using an air compressor, or a vacuum set to blow, on your tack will clean off the loose dirt, hay, and dust that might be resting under flaps or in the intricacies of tooled leather. Think of it as sweeping before you mop — an essential part of cleaning.
Now you’ll need that plain soap, a sponge, and warm water, along with something to get into the crevices — a toothbrush will usually do the trick. Scrub that leather until the foam is white. Get into all the nooks and crannies, like the leather wrapping around your bridle’s buckles, and then give everything a good rinse with clean water.
Your leather will be wet, so let it dry out while you go check the weather. Still hot? Good. You have conditioning to do. All that water and soap took the oil right out of your leather, leaving it brittle and missing its signature gloss.
Once the leather dries, you can condition it again with your favorite oil. The oil will soak into the dried-out leather, bringing it back to its original softness and sheen. Neatsfoot oil, a commercial conditioner like Leather Therapy, or a leather restorer are common choices. You can also go with conditioners enriched with beeswax. Some are meant to be wiped off after a few hours, while others are meant to be buffed deeply into the leather, so read your instructions carefully. Your leather will let you know if it needs more conditioner, so watch the way it soaks up the oil or wax.
Be sure your leather stays out of the sun after it’s been conditioned — extreme heat could essentially “cook” your leather while it’s dripping with oil, and you don’t want to give your saddle the bacon treatment.
By now, you’re probably more tired and dirty than you really anticipated, but that’s O.K. — it’s time to do evening chores, and maybe it’s finally starting to cool off. Spring cleaning? Why waste that pretty weather on scrubbing? This year, make it summer cleaning, and get your saddles and bridles deep-cleaned, conditioned, and ready for another year.