Cleaning tack. It’s a dirty job, but we all have to do it.
Saddles, bridles, and all the other bits of leather that we use on our horses can cost a fortune. Luckily, with proper care and storage, tack can last, if not forever, a very, very long time.
Climate control: Leather is just like you: it hates humidity. Saddles in humid, sub-tropical climates like the Southeast are always at risk for mold and mildew. You know that wonderful scent of leather that comes wafting out of a clean tack room? The odor of mildew will drive that beautiful smell from your nostrils forever. Don’t let it happen. Leather should be kept in a climate-controlled space, especially in humid climates. A dehumidifier or an air-conditioner will remove the moisture from the storage area. (Pro tip: An air-conditioned tack room is also a great place for a glass of iced tea after a hot ride!)
Make routine easy: No one wants to make that extra walk back into the tack room. We know. You’re busy. That’s it. So make it simple and keep tack cleaning supplies handy to the area where you groom and tack. If your cross-ties are right outside of your tack room, make a habit of bringing out a little bucket with water, sponge, and a dry washcloth when you are bringing out your grooming box. When you come back from your ride, just dip the sponge, wring it out, and wipe the bridle clean of sweat, dust, and dirt. Rub the washcloth over the leather to dry it. Do the same for your girth and saddle and voila: you are already a cleaner person! Well done!
Do the dishes: You’ll want to wipe off your bit, or use the racetrack shortcut and just dip it in your horse’s water bucket after a ride, every single time. Because if you don’t, that’s just gross, right? But you’ll need more than a goo-free bit to go to a horse show. For that extra gleam, take your tack to your kitchen. Dishwashers combine hot water, suds, and steam to get your silverware shiny. That’s just the ticket for metalware like bits and stirrup irons, which manage to get all sorts of embedded grime and gunk into their nooks and crannies. For a show-ring shine that elbow grease can’t match, popping your horse’s bit in the dishwasher is a win.
Know your leather’s needs: Different leathers like different treatments. Light-colored leather tans in sunlight and artificial lighting, and should be kept covered when not in use. Go light on the oil with light-colored leathers, and be sure to look for one that specifically doesn’t darken leather. Suede likes to be brushed with a stiff brush to knock out dirt and raise the nap. Damp leather wants to be dry, and dry leather wants to be moisturized. This is precisely why there are so many different leather treatments: there is no one step for cleaning.
Treat your saddle like your face: Even if you wipe your tack down after every ride, from time to time you will want to give it a good soaping and conditioning. But just like your face, using soap alone will dry out your tack and age it prematurely. After you’ve soaped, return essential oils to the leather by using the most natural, petroleum-free tack conditioner you can find. Remember, if you live in a humid climate, go easy on the conditioner, which will trap moisture in the leather and lead to mildew.
Every horseman and horsewoman has their own tricks up their sleeves for getting tack clean and extending its lifespan. Like any household remedy, some work, some don’t, and some are downright harmful. Check your facts and do your research before using a shortcut or a household item in an off-label manner, and, when in doubt, remember a little glycerine bar and a clean rag can do wonders.