How to Care for Your Tack and Leather Equipment
We all love having nice tack, and the proper care of your equipment is pretty easy. I'm going to lay out the steps I have found to be useful for caring for bridles, martingales, saddles, girths, stirrup leathers, halters, horse boots, and most other leather products (but not your equestrian footwear).
When purchasing tack or leather equipment, purchase the best quality you can afford. The better the quality, the better it will patina and age, and the stronger yet more supple it will be. You should get many years of use out of your pieces.
The items I keep on hand for cleaning tack:
- Tack cleaning bucket or access to some form of water to rinse your sponges.
- Comfortably sized sponges, at least two (one half round)
- 1" wide paintbrush
- Bar of high-quality glycerine soap (Belvoir, Stubbed, Hermès)
- Leather conditioner (Effax Lederbalsam, Leather Therapy Conditioner, Hermès Leather Balm)
- Leather Oil (Hydrophane Leather Dressing, Walsh Oil)
- Leather Cleaner (Leather Therapy Wash, Effax Leder Combi)
With new leather products, most will need to be oiled. The oiling seals the leather, makes it water- and sweat-resistant, and gives the leather the ability to keep dirt and salt from sweat from working into the leather fiber. This causes the leather to break down.
When I oil bridles, martingales, saddles, and any other strap good, I apply a high-quality oil with a paintbrush. I apply light coats, and I wait for it to be absorbed before applying a second or third if needed. Vegetable-tanned leather will darken with the application of high-quality oil, and I often add second and third coats to try to get the color as consistent as possible. I NEVER recommend dunking your leather products in a vat of oil and never use hot oil. The paintbrush will do a good job of helping you get the oil into laced reins, leather keepers, around buckles, under the flaps and panels on a saddle, etc. I typically use Hydrophane Leather Dressing; it's a great product, without dyes or colors. There are other fabulous products available. too. Just try to avoid oils with color or dyes unless that is what you are specifically trying to do.
Cleaning leather is vital for its longevity. Removing the dirt, sweat, and debris will protect and improve the life of your tack. I use a high-quality glycerine-based soap after quickly wiping off the tack with a dry rag to get larger and loose dirt off the equipment. I use a slightly damp sponge (wring it out as much as possible), and I load it with glycerine by rubbing it across a block of saddle soap. I then start rubbing the soaped side of the sponge along the tack, in a back and forth motion on thin pieces of leather (bridles, martingales, stirrup leathers, and halters), and in a circular motion on larger pieces (saddles, belly guard girth, and horse boots). I rinse my sponge often, wring it out, and reapply soap. If you are getting suds, keep working the sponge over the leather until the suds dissipate. This is a tell-tale sign of too much water in your sponge. Always be careful around rubber (rubber reins and martingale stops) with glycerine products. Over time, the glycerine will cause the rubber to melt or get sticky and weak.
Because leather is skin, it should be treated like skin. After you wash your hands, sometimes you apply a hand cream to moisturize. Your tack will need the same, which is why we apply conditioners. This is something I do by feel. I like my leather softer and pliable, whereas others will like theirs a little drier. Once you find that sweet spot, apply conditioner as needed to keep it there. I apply conditioners with a separate sponge (not the cleaning sponge). I also don't rinse my conditioner sponge, since your equipment should be clean before applying. I rub in conditioners with some purpose since I want it to penetrate beyond the surface.
Every so often you may need a deeper clean on your tack. If you start to get build-up, usually on the underside of bridles, reins, and even under saddle flaps, you will want to use something that will help remove that. A lot of old-time horse people will dilute ammonia in water, but I caution against doing so. I have had great success with Leather Therapy Wash and Effax's Leder Combi. Both are powerful cleaners, but won't chemically harm the leather. Leather Therapy Wash also has mold inhibitors which is useful, especially in damper climates, or to use on leather that has been sitting around. Also, follow-up with a good conditioning after a deep clean.
Every so often you may want to deep condition your tack again. Maybe your tack has dried out from lack of use, it's been rained on and dried out, or just needs more attention. This is a good time to reapply a light coat of oil or two. And remember to allow the leather to absorb the oil before deciding to add that second coat.
I hope this has been helpful. These are great, general guidelines, but what works in one system or environment may not necessarily work in another. I’d love to hear your suggestions, as I’m always learning and evolving my own regimen. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for new and better products as they come to the market, for at The In Gate, you can count on exceptional products and exceptional service.