Mold and mildew are living organisms. Fungi, actually. That powdery gray-blue or gray-green fuzzy stuff covering your saddle is quietly eating your leather and weakening the stitching. And once it invades the deeper layers of the leather, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate it without harming the tack itself.
It’s a health hazard, too. While most individuals will resist the few mold spores they breathe in, it’s obviously far from an optimal environment. And heaven knows it’s not good for your horse to be constantly breathing in the stuff (think heaves). The resulting debris can transfer to your horse’s skin, too, and may cause skin problems. Uncontained, mold will spread throughout the tack room and barn. The spores become airborne and when they land on something “tasty,” they’ll dig in there, too.
Tack that’s most vulnerable to attack from mold and mildew is stored in humid conditions, used infrequently, and covered with dust.
Everyone knows you’re supposed to clean your tack right after you use it to keep it in its best shape. It’s a snap now that leather-care wipes are on the market. You don’t have to dig out the water, sponge and cleaner each time you ride. Just pop the cap off the container, grab a wipe and go. We’re talking no excuses here. We like the Lexol Cleaner and Conditioner Towelettes best (www.lexol.com, 800-241-6996). See November 2003 for our complete review of tack wipes.
Then, weekly or monthly, depending upon your riding, give your tack a thorough cleaning. Undo all the buckles and clean under the stress points (it’s also a good time to check for wear).
Leather needs to be conditioned regularly to keep the natural fats and oils in the leather so it will stay soft, pliable and safe. How often you need to condition the leather depends upon a number of factors, including your choice of a cleaner. Alkaline-type products, like soap, clean well, but they’ll dry your tack (alkaline is a pH above 7). One-step cleaners and glycerine have conditioners added, which minimize the number of times you have to use a straight conditioning product.
Tack that’s very dry or very wet needs immediate conditioning. Dry leather is losing its life, and water will leach the natural fats out of the leather as it dries. In addition, sweat is tough on leather, so tack needs to be cleaned and conditioned right away.
Routine light conditioning is better than overdoing it. A second light coat of conditioner will do a lot more for your leather’s health than a heavy glop of product all at once. Ironically, it’s the healthiest, nicely conditioned pieces of leather that are the most likely to become moldy.
When Mold Hits
So the only good part about mold is that it indicates the tack has life. If you have a tack room full of moldy tack, except for one weird piece of tack, take a good look at the integrity of that leather. Chances are, it’s dried out far beyond a safe or even restorable level.
Mold can be killed by a number of household treatments. These same treatments, diluted in water, have also been tried over the years on leather:
• Baking soda
• Cleaning disinfectants
• White vinegar.
However, these products also can damage the leather. It used to be a Catch-22, if you had serious moldy-tack troubles. Now, we have specific leather-care products that are formulated to resist and inhibit mold without causing damage to the leather.
To get rid of the mold, take the tack outdoors to clean, so you don’t spread mold spores throughout the tack room and barn. If it’s sunny, better yet, since sun is a natural mold inhibitor.
Use a clean, damp, soft cloth or sponge to remove the surface mildew. When the rag is dirty, get a clean one. Reusing the rag or simply rinsing it out in the same bucket of water will continue to spread the mold spores. Clean the rags with bleach when you’re finished or throw them away.
If mold re-appears soon after you’ve finished a thorough cleaning and conditioning with tack products, you may need to resort to a more heavy-duty mold killer. We recommend you discuss the situation with your leather-repair shop and consider wiping the tack with a mix of white vinegar and water to remove the mold, then condition thoroughly with a mold-inhibiting leather-care product.
We had a lot of fun doing this trial, and a lot of enthusiastic testers who have battled mold for years. All the products are good choices for leather care, but they’re not all necessarily good for defeating mold invasions.
Our testers loved Ray Hole’s Saddle Butter. It took the most effort to apply, but it was worth the work. While it did a good job resisting mold, it excelled as a conditioner. And it’s inexpensive.
On the other side of the price scale was the URAD Leather Conditioner. This little tub contained an incredible conditioner. It was ridiculously messy to apply, but the results were extremely soft, shining, supple leather. Again, it’s well worth the effort. Fortunately, given the price, a little product goes a long way.
However, for mold and mildew control, your best bets are Leather Therapy and the Bee Natural products. Farnam’s Leather New Deep Conditioner earns best buy for mildew defense.