Why it's important
It's important to keep tack in tiptop shape for your safety and comfort and for your horse's health and well-being. Dry and brittle tack can break without warning, and stiff or dirty tack can cause sores on your horse. Regular cleaning extends the life of tack and increases its resale value.
It's best to clean your tack after every use, removing the dirt and sweat that cause it to break down. Use this time to inspect your tack for defects, such as worn stitching, leather and metal parts, and seek repair before further damage occurs.
I advocate three steps for the care and cleaning of tack:
The leather used for much new tack today, especially saddles, is already nicely supple direct from the factory and may not need immediate oiling. If your new tack seems dry and stiff, though, condition it with 100% pure (not compound) neatsfoot oil* twice in the first two weeks of use. If you clean your tack regularly and seal it with glycerin thereafter, you probably will need to condition it no more than once a year. The goal is to keep leather supple; leather that is too dry from not enough or too soft from too much conditioning oil will weaken and tear more easily.
To clean your saddle, begin by removing the girth and leathers. Wash off any mud and wipe away any excess moisture.
Dip a sponge in mildly soapy water (I prefer liquid glycerine, not detergent) and squeeze it until it is just damp. Wash all of the exposed leather. Do not use too much water or it will hasten the rot of linen stitches, and might run inside the saddle padding and eventually rot the wooden tree or rust the steel of the tree.
“Saddle soap is a mixture of oil and soap. The soap's cleaning effectiveness is diminished by the need to dissolve its own oils, leaving little useful cleaning capacity to remove the dirty oils in the leather itself.
Soaps are inherently alkaline, but alkalinity is damaging to leather. The ability of soap to emulsify oils and release oil-entrapped dirt is inseparable from its alkalinity. Neutralize a soap solution and it becomes ineffective as a cleaning agent.
Most saddle soaps call for the user to work the lather into the leather but, since the dirt which has been loosened is suspended in the lather, it is pushed back into the leather and into the pores.”
After cleaning, wipe excess moisture from each part of the tack with a barely damp chamois cloth. Never let water stand in any part of the saddle.
Wipe any moving metal parts, such as buckles and the safety catch on stirrup bars, then oil them with a light machine oil.
Always check for signs of wear as you clean. Look closely at the stitching that joins two pieces together, especially around the girth billets attached to the webbing of the tree. Elongation and cracking around buckle holes is a sign that the leather is weakened in that area, and the piece may need to be replaced. Ask your saddler or tack repair shop to inspect and repair worn tack.
Do not wet reversed hide panels (usually found under the knees). Brush these with a brass wire suede brush. Never put oil on or under reversed hide panels, as the oil could damage the foam inside the panel.
After the tack has been cleaned and dried, rub bar glycerin into the leather with a lightly damp cloth. Rub it into the leather well. Glycerin takes more elbow grease to rub in than saddle soap, but it gives the leather a superior finish.
Hang your tack to dry in a warm but not hot place. Never place tack near a direct heat source or it will stiffen and become brittle.
After cleaning a bridle, hang it so the headpiece is in an arched position. Never hang it on a nail or other narrow support, as the leather may bend and crack.
Plastic browbands can be washed and dried, but dirty ribbons will have to be replaced. Wash and dry rubber reins and stops for martingale rings.
Tack stored in a damp room may mildew. Do not immediately wash off mildew, because it can stain the leather. Instead, rub mildew off thoroughly with a dry cloth, then wipe every surface with a cloth moistened with diluted alcohol (one cup denatured or rubbing alcohol to one cup water). Dry the tack in a current of air. If the mildew remains, wash the tack with thick suds made from saddle soap such as liquid glycerine, or soap containing a germicide or fungicide. Then wipe it with a damp cloth and dry it in an airy place. Try removing any stains by applying egg white and leaving it to dry.
*Note: I recommend using 100% neatsfoot oil to condition leather rather than compounded neatsfoot oil. Some saddlers say that the compounded oil (neatsfoot oil with petroleum distillates or sulfur added) will rot linen stitches, while others say this is not the case. Sulfurized oil, while improving penetration, may weaken leather. Regardless, compounded neatsfoot oil will darken leather more than 100% neatsfoot oil.