A Leather Saddle's Worst Enemy

Mold is one of saddle leather's worst enemies. Mold spawns hundreds of thousands of tiny offspring that can be carried from a small spot on a saddle to bridle and boots by cleaning rags or a puff of wind.

You’re probably already all too familiar with mold and mildew that accumulates in the grout in your bathroom, or in your basement. Those same organisms can easily infect your horse tack and can ruin it if you don’t take preventive measures.

In fact, mold is one of leather’s worst enemies. An insidious organism, mold spawns hundreds of thousands of tiny offspring that can be carried from a small spot on a saddle to bridle and boots by cleaning rags or a puff of wind.

Mold and mildew, words that are often used interchangeably, come from the same family, but are actually slightly different in organic composition. Both are fungi – cousins to both salad mushrooms from the supermarket and the ones sprouting in your damp, warm manure pile. They are neither plant nor animal, but their own sub-category of living microorganism.

The difference between them is that mold tends to be green and hairy, while mildew is white-ish gray and powdery. Whatever their differences, you must vigilantly attack both to prevent them from spreading.

Because it thrives on moisture, mold grows best in 65% humidity or above. A mold problem begins with a single spore, but spores multiply rapidly and need no sunlight to grow. Mold can also grow in cold, damp environments, such as basements. The presence of mildew usually signals that the environment is ripe for mildew’s bad cousin, mold.

Why is leather particularly susceptible to mold damage? Before it was made into a saddle, bridle or boots, leather was the skin of an animal. As such, it has three layers.

The top layer, or smooth side in most leather products, is the epidermis (or grain) of the leather. Just like human skin, the outer layer has pores, tiny holes into which dirt and mold spores can penetrate. The second layer is the corium (or “core”). The core is the protein fibers that form the leather’s strength. Most good-quality saddlery is vegetable tanned to retain the core’s organic structure. The third layer, called the “rough” and the side closest to the horse, is the outer fiber network layer (fibrils).

A single mold spot produces thousands of microscopic spores. If mold begins to grow on a piece of leather, it penetrates the pores in the grain and begins to eat away at the structural fibers (the corium), causing stains and weakening.

Mold living in a dark, damp basement or enclosed tack room, for example, will spread wildly because the recirculating air carries it to other items. Once you’ve got mold in a storage space, it is very hard to get rid of it. Besides causing nearly irreparable damage to your tack, mold can also cause allergies or even more severe health problems for humans.

Checking your tack for mold should be a part of every horse owner’s routine, whether you live in Arizona or Florida. Even in dry climates, mold can grow in dark corners or after an unusually wet and rainy spell. Your first clue that you may have a mold problem will be the presence of a musty odor.

Preventing Mold
But you can save your tack from mold damage if you follow a few simple precautions.

If you find mold or mildew stains on your tack, the first thing to do is to take the item outside. Don’t touch or rub the spot or attempt to clean it in the same space because you’ll just disrupt the mold spores and spread them even further.

Hold That Mold

  • Use a leather conditioner that contains a fungicide and is Ph neutral.
  • Mold thrives best in dark, moist places, so keep tack areas light and dry.
  • Catch mold early because a single spore can multiply rapidly.
  • Move any tack with mold outside before cleaning so that spores don’t spread to other tack.

If possible, air out the tack shed by allowing dry sunlight into the space because when you dry the air, you reduce the food the mold needs to thrive. If you can’t air out the shed, leave a light on, which will decrease the moisture level at least a little. Another option is to consider a fire-safe heater to dry the air, or an ultraviolet light available in gardening stores. The UV light has a similar impact to exposing the room to sunlight. Too much UV can dry out your tack, however, so use such a device sparingly.

Other methods to dry out the tack room include purchasing some desiccant crystals, which are those silica chips you find in tiny packets in electronic equipment boxes. Put those in several spots in your tack room. You may also consider installing a dehumidifier. Some models of dehumidifiers are made with desiccant crystals as well.

If mold is a persistent problem, think about putting in a window. And if you simply can’t stop the mold problem, consider moving your tack into the house. Most household heaters and air conditioners dry the interior air considerably.

Proper tack care is the first step in preventing mold. After each ride, wipe down your tack with a rag to remove dust and sweat.

If you live in a damp climate, stay away from leather cleaners that contain humectants, such as glycerine. Humectants form a bond over the leather fibers to contain moisture, which keeps the leather soft and pliable. But they also trap moisture between the humectant layer and the leather grain, providing a perfect environment for mold growth. Those leather cleaners also can leave a greasy or waxy residue behind.

Instead, choose a leather conditioner that contains a fungicide and is Ph neutral – meaning it is neither too acidic nor too alkaline. On either end of the spectrum, Ph can damage leather fibers. Leather cleaner labels should tell you if the product contains a fungicide and is pH neutral.

Clean and condition your tack just once a week or so. Apply oil to your tack sparingly – for the same reasons. Oil creates a sticky environment that traps mold spores.

While it may work on bathroom grout or other hard surfaces to apply vinegar or alcohol, which are proven anti-fungals, or other harsh chemical agents, those chemicals can eat away at the fibers in the corium and weaken the leather. If you do need to use any of these agents to combat a really bad mold problem, do so sparingly.

What if you’re caught in a downpour miles from the barn? Once you get home, dry your tack gradually, using a clean towel to dab off the water. Apply a fungicidal leather conditioner and massage the conditioner into the item slowly. This may be a multi-stage process.

Never dry your tack in front of a heater or even leave it out in the sun for too long because dry, cracking leather is nearly as hard to repair as mildewed leather.

A few days after applying the conditioner, go ahead and apply a very light coating of oil.

Always keep a sharp eye on your tack and go after any white mildew spots with a very light-gauge steel wool pad (gauge 0000).

Like any living organism, mold will disappear if you take away its food, so keep tack areas dry and light.

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