Caring for Tack and Riding Equipment

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

The trappings of a safe and enjoyable ride.

By Margaret Evans

For anyone born with the horse-crazy gene, the tack room is ground zero. This isn’t just a place to park the saddle. This is the room where riders lay out their plans, craft their goals, and visualize their dreams all amid the trappings that help make it happen.

In the tack room, the aroma of leather kindles the excitement to ride. The anticipation is buoyed by the racks and hangers and hooks all filled with bridles, bits, halters, shanks, lead lines, long lines, lunge lines, saddles, pads, wraps, hackamores, fly masks, and blankets, rugs, and sheets of every kind. In the corners are buckets and grooming tool organizers stuffed with brushes, combs, hoof pick, sponges, chamois, sprays, shampoo, sweat scraper, and braiding supplies. Halters, shanks, bridles, and blankets hang ready to use. In another corner is a storage box for things that won’t hang, hook, or drape. And in the cupboards are cleaners, conditioners, polishes, rags, and sponges to maintain all that tack and equipment.

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

Tack should be wiped down after each ride, and thoroughly cleaned weekly or depending on how often you ride. Clean moldy tack outside to avoid filling the air in the tack room with mold spores. Photo: Shutterstock/AnnaElisabeth Photography

The cost of all that tack and gear amounts to a significant investment. Taking proper care of it will not only protect that investment but enhance the tack’s look and lifespan so that it gives not only long-term enjoyment, but comfort and safety for both horse and rider. As much as tack should be cleaned regularly and the bit and stirrups washed and wiped dry, ideally after each ride, the challenges of keeping tack in perfect condition are driven not just by cleaning but by the conditions in the tack room and the changing seasons.

“In our northern climate [Canada and the northern US], our biggest challenge is tack care in the winter,” says Sabine Schleese, director of corporate affairs, Schleese Saddlery Service in Holland Landing, Ontario. “First of all, it’s often too cold to be standing in the tack room and cleaning your tack. And if you don’t have a heated or air-conditioned tack room or locker, your tack can get damp and moldy in any climate as heat, cold, damp, and dry are not ideal conditions for any leather product. My best suggestion is a well-ventilated, temperate tack room or locker, and if you don’t have one then take your tack home – especially if you are storing it and not using it for an extended length of time. Cleaning should be done at least superficially after each use; more detailed washing and conditioning at least weekly, depending on how often you ride.”

Leather is treated skin that is tanned so that it retains about 25 percent of its moisture. Today’s tanning process, which takes about six weeks, permanently alters the protein structure in the skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to damage from bacteria. The very term “tanning” is derived from tannin, an acidic chemical compound that, back in the day, came from oak or fir trees. During the Industrial Revolution, tanners turned to the use of chromium(III) sulfate as it was more efficient and effective.

Tack care is a year-round commitment and starts after every ride. The saddle and bridle should be wiped over, then cleaned thoroughly once a week if you ride regularly. The cleaning starts with a good wash and the use of a saddle soap. The soap should be thoroughly rinsed off after cleaning (just as you would rinse off the soap when washing your hands). Follow up with a leather moisturizer, ideally one that does not contain cleaning ingredients. The saddle and bridle cannot replenish the moisture content themselves.

Saddle soaps are simply that. Soaps for cleaning only. According to Jochen Schleese, Certified Master Saddler, soap (usually somewhat basic in its pH level) and sweat (which is more acidic) are the two greatest enemies of skin, including leather. They will impact leather longevity and appearance if they are not washed off. While soap rids leather of sweat and grime, if left on the leather it will cause the saddle and bridle to become brittle and eventually start cracking. Soaps that contain glycerine or include moisturizers are more beneficial as they will remove less of the natural lubricants in the leather, but they too should be rinsed off. It is much better, he advises, to just use water rather than leave a layer of saddle soap on the surface.   

Leather oil should be used sparingly and should not be allowed to soak into the seat where it could cause damage to the laminated glued layers of the tree. Oils should not be used anywhere the leather comes into contact with your own clothing to avoid discolouration.

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

Saddle soap is good for cleaning sweat and grime, but if not thoroughly rinsed off it will cause leather to become brittle and crack. Photo: Shutterstock/AnnaElisabeth Photography

If you plan on storing your tack for a period of time, keep it at room temperature, never cooler than five degrees Celsius with 30 to 40 percent humidity to maintain suppleness. Ideally, if you are putting it away for the winter, consider keeping your leather tack in your home, especially if your tack room does not have any form of heating.

“Many tack rooms are damp and cool, perfect for little nasties to start growing on the dirt and sweat that accumulates on your tack,” says Gayle Ecker, director, Equine Guelph. “The sudden ‘sprouting’ of mold and mildew on a saddle can be annoying and the leather needs care. Clean up the tack room once a week and do a visual assessment of your tack to look for mold, excessive moisture, rodent droppings, dust, and cobwebs. Once mold builds up, it will spread quicker to other tack.”

Rodents, both mice and rats, are definitely worrisome both from a health point of view and a destructive one. Rat populations across Canada are on the increase and managing them is becoming more and more challenging. Snap traps and bait traps all work to some extent, but they don’t eliminate the problem as more rats will move in.

According to a recent University of British Columbia study that examined the feces of rats caught at an Abbotsford, BC, poultry farm, scientists discovered that all the rats carried avian pathogenic E.coli, a bacteria that can infect chickens and possibly humans. Lead author of the study, Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, writes that the findings support the theory that rats act as a pathogen sponge, soaking up bacteria from the environment then spreading the pathogen to infect others. More than one quarter of the rats caught were carrying multi-drug resistant strains of the bacteria yet the rats themselves were unaffected, ultimately making them carriers.

Rats gnaw and chew. They can chew through concrete and will make short work of leathers and fabrics if left unchecked. To protect a tack chest or box, a foam anti-pest blocker can help. They contain a pesticide that prevents attack by mice and other pests. A barn cat that is a good mouser and ratter may also help, but extreme caution must be taken to protect cats if you choose to use any poison-baited traps, which should be placed in a protected, controlled site.

A rodent problem is the reason Ecker urges that alongside tack cleaning should be a weekly tack room cleaning that will eliminate rat and mouse feces and help you decide on the need for a trap or other forms of rodent control based on the guidance of a professional pest controller. While cleaning the tack room, wash the grooming tools and scrub out the totes, brush boxes, and caddies where mice will venture.

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

Tack needs extra care after rainy and muddy rides. Before giving it a thorough cleaning and reconditioning, allow it to dry in a warm room to minimize the risk of mold. Photo: iStock/KellyJHall

One of the challenges of the tack room is storing damp saddlery after a ride in the rain. I have found that a space heater really helps to warm the room and hasten drying so long as the door is kept shut. Monitor it and don’t leave it for long periods. If saddlery is left to dry in a cool room, the risk for mold jumps sharply.

“Definitely living on the ‘wet coast,’ I find in fall and winter the most challenging thing is rain,” says April D. Ray, EC certified coach. “Leather and rain do not mix but sometimes it’s inevitable, and it takes a lot of work to restore the leather. I have found the best thing to do is let the tack fully dry and then a good cleaning and conditioning is in order. The last time my new saddle got rained on, it took several conditioning sessions to restore it back to its pre-rain condition.”

Ray uses soap and conditioner for her calfskin leather saddle. “I am a huge fan of scented saddle soap, possibly more for my enjoyment than anything else. I find it makes the task of cleaning tack much more enjoyable and I have found a few local ones that work very well. For conditioning, I use a neatsfoot oil if I need something more intense, but on a more regular basis I really like a simple beeswax conditioner.

“To aid with drying the saddle after cleaning, I will place a dry rag under the saddle flap and over the billets to absorb moisture until the saddle is completely dry. A rolled up rag lets a bit of air get under the flap to aid the drying process.”

Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that the ideal condition of a tack room is that it must be warm and dry.

“Tack should be stored in a dry area away from direct sunlight,” says Jeff Williams, national advertising manager with Tandy Leather in Fort Worth, Texas. “Direct sunlight will darken the leather and dry it out over time. Dampness in the storage area will certainly encourage mold to grow on tack. A clean area for storage is very important. A messy area will be an invite for rats and they will certainly enjoy chewing on some leather.”

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

Your tack room should be warm, dry, and clean, and inspected weekly for moisture, mold, rodent droppings, and cobwebs. Store your tack in your home if it will not be used for a period of time. Photo: Shutterstock/Vespa

According to Shay von Hauff with Strathcona Ventures, Sherwood Park, Alberta, modern leathers today are made with less potential for mold and mildew to grow, and cleaning synthetic saddles can be a very straightforward soap and water job.

“Without routine care, saddles and bridles can become too dry,” says von Hauff. “While these items may not grow mildew, they may be in danger of breaking and causing injury to horse or rider. Take moldy leather out of the tack room and clean it outdoors. That way you’ll avoid filling the air in the tack room with mold spores that will simply infect other items in the confined space.”

She recommends using old rags that you can throw out after wiping away the surface mold.

“Don’t rinse and reuse your rags,” she says. “That only spreads the mold spores.”

For saddle pads, wraps, and other fabrics, they can be hand washed or machine washed in a mild soap, then hang dry in a warm place. A mild soap is preferable given that some horses can have a skin reaction to harsh detergents.

“I also recommend using a half cup of vinegar in the final rinse of any washing done for your horse to remove any soap residue,” says Schleese. “Line-dry pads so they don’t shrink or curl up from dryer use.”

As for saddle pads, Schleese recommends not placing a damp pad over the saddle but hang them up or hang them out in the sun to dry thoroughly before being stored or reused on the horse. A real bonus is to use special heated or drying racks, especially in winter.

“I pre-clean [to remove debris, hair, and sweat] then wash my saddle pads, wraps, and blankets in the washer with a mild soap, then throw what I can into the dryer,” says von Hauff. “If the equipment is not covered with hair or saturated with sweat, I hang on my racks and turn on the POG on a three-hour setting and shut the tack room door. This kills any odours, mildew, and bacteria and is a very helpful and quick tool for sanitizing.”

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

Your tack and gear works as hard as you do and represents a considerable investment. For safety, peace of mind, and the satisfaction of using quality equipment, choose the best tack you can afford and maintain it well. Photo: iStock/FiledImage

A POG is a portable ozone generator used to eliminate bacteria and the related smells. It’s excellent for eliminating the unpleasant smell of wet blankets.

“Traditionally, knowing when to condition leather is as important as not over-conditioning,” says Heidi Allen, vice president marketing, Nikwax North America in Seattle. “The first sign it’s time to condition is when the leather no longer feels smooth or is noticeably dry to the touch. If leather is over-conditioned, then you risk the leather becoming too soft and stretching out.”

Allen has worked as a professional groom and, after a daily routine of exercising 15 polo ponies, the biggest task was making sure that all the tack was thoroughly cleaned, and all sweat, dirt, and residues were removed to prevent the leather from drying out and cracks appearing.

“For all full grain leather, bridles, reins, stirrup leathers, martingales, etc., using leather cleaners and waterproofers is an excellent way to care for all those smaller components that are prone to stretching and/or drying out,” she says.

Once cleaned, saddles do best stored on a saddle rack, ideally one that is the same length as the gullet.

caring for horse tack, how to clean a saddle, how to clean horse tack, leather shampoos, leather cleaning equine

Buying used tack can stretch your budget, but should be carefully inspected for worn or loose components, and before bringing it to the barn it should be thoroughly cleaned to prevent the spread of contagions. Photo: iStock/AMR Image

“The panels of the saddle should not be touching the saddle rack to maintain the form of the wool/air,” says Schleese. “When you are riding your horse the panels heat up from the horse’s back. The warmed leather and wool could actually change shape to the shape of the rack if not allowed to cool before storing. The best materials for a saddle rack are materials that do not retain moisture because you do not want the leather to be damp while being stored as this could cause mold. Saddle racks should not have anything that protrudes into the gullet causing scuffing of the leather. Overall, the saddle rack should not interfere with the panels or the gullet, it should support the saddle from pommel to cantle. It is also a good idea to use a saddle cover to keep out excess dirt and moisture while the saddle is not in use.”

Buying a new saddle can be an economic stretch for many riders and they will often turn to the used tack market. But there is a cautionary tale to be aware of when exploring second-hand markets or buying from an online site like eBay or Craigslist.

“As horse owners, we love to go to tack swap sales to see what bargains we can find, but we do have to be careful,” says Ecker. “Before getting excited about that bargain, take a good hard look at the condition of the tack. Spotting cracks in the leather of the saddle, bridle, halter, or any other tack is important. Identifying weak or loose hardware/worn snaps or shanks, etc. may just prevent a serious injury down the road to you or your horse due to breakage. And then it is important to ensure the tack is really well cleaned. Dirt, old sweat, and moisture can harbour all kinds of bad bugs and possibly bacteria that is capable of spreading skin disease to your horse. Any tack you bring home should be fully scrubbed and cleaned before bringing it to the barn or in contact with other tack just to be sure you are not bringing anything to your barn.”

Bacteria, viruses and fungi can be transmitted through used tack or the same tack that is used on several different horses. The risk when buying used equipment from an unknown source is the shelf life of agents that can cause skin diseases such as ringworm, which is highly contagious. The virus can survive for weeks under the right conditions. 

A thorough cleaning of any tack bought used is the first line of defense against a contagion risk. And that goes for saddle pads, blankets, coolers, girths, and anything that will touch the horse. For sheepskin products, follow the directions on the label. If a fabric item can’t be laundered, putting it in the dryer on the hot cycle can kill germs as well as mites and lice. Cleaning should extend to nylon and rope halters, lead ropes, lunge lines, and long lines. 

Caring for tack should only take a few minutes after each ride, and should be part of the habit of untacking and putting saddlery away. After all, safe, clean tack is our gateway to a safe and enjoyable ride.

Main photo: Canstock/Irina88w



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