Whether you, personally, care for your equipment or you have a groom that does, it is a good idea to have a regular cleaning regimen in place. Ideally, your leather and suede items (bridles, saddles, girths, etc) are wiped down after each and every ride. This will prevent you having to spend a couple hours every once in a while performing CPR on painfully neglected tack. Sweat consists of salts, which will obviously dry out leather quickly if left on to dry. Dust, microscopically, has sharp edges and will eventually degrade the leather. On the other hand, mold infests deep into the leather, and while you can wipe it off, bleach it, etc, you will never completely get rid of it. Sun can dry out a piece of leather beyond repair and once a leather has cracked and dry that much, it will never have the same strength.
Leathers will be different depending on the environmental stress the cow went through throughout its life. Cows that lived in a colder climate will have small, densely packed pores than cows that come from a warm climate like India or Argentina. Large swaths of leather, in a saddle for example, will have to come from mature cows. Mature cows will naturally have some scarring, or inconsistencies in the skin. These should be taken as badges of authenticity, not as flaws. If you are reviving an abused saddle, try working an oil or conditioner into the hide with your hand. The warmth from your hand will help you work the product into the pores of the saddle.
The golden rule for taking care of leather is treating it as you would your own skin; because that’s what it is, skin. If you get caught in a downpour or an overenthusiastic sprinkler, conditioning your leather as soon as possible afterwards with a leather conditioner and let it dry naturally, out of the sunlight. Make sure your tack room is dry enough that they leather will actually dry and not grow mold.
Mold on tack should be avoided at all costs. If you live in a humid climate, you will need to clean your leather with a castile saddle soap, but avoid conditioning it, it won’t need it.
When cleaning the buckles, use a toothbrush to pay special attention to underneath the buckles. This is an often neglected area, and gets a lot of wear or tear because it is usually is a place of strain. Condition this area well. When it begins to crack, its strength has been compromised and should be checked regularly or repaired. Take your bridle completely apart once a month and condition the areas underneath the buckles.
Suede half chaps and saddles and subject to the same wear and tear and dirt and mud that normal leather products are. Unlike leather products, though, suede has a nap and is not a full-grain leather, so it holds on to dust and dirt more than traditional leather products and needs more care. They sell cleaning kits specifically for suede that I sincerely recommend.
At least monthly, or more depending on your usage, set aside time, plug in your ipod, and give your tack a thorough cleaning. Take apart your bridles, remove the stirrup leathers from the saddles, unbuckle everything there is to unbuckle. Soak your bits in a bucket of hot water with ivory soap, and wet a sponge and work into the leather your soap of choice. If your tack is in good shape, and you use castile soap, you can let it dry on the tack. It provides a bit of grip on the saddle seat and reins. If you’re in a humid climate, though, or your leather needs a bit more attention, wipe off the soap with a clean sponge and apply a conditioner or oil. I, personally, grew up using neatsfoot oil. Get a two inch painting brush to work the oil into the pores of the leather and the stitching. Some people are hesitant to use neatsfoot on their stitching but modern stitching is synthetic and won’t rot out.
If castile soap and neatsfoot oil don’t work for your usage or area of the country, talk to other players whose tack always looks good or specifically, ask a groom whose opinion you trust.
What leather cleaning tips do you have? Do you have a product that really works for you? Let us know your cleaning regimen!
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