Next to your horse, your saddle is likely the most expensive part of your equine gear. For this reason alone, it pays to take care of it and do everything you can to preserve it.
With only a few exceptions, most saddles are made of leather, and leather is essentially skin or hide. You can care for and preserve your leather saddle just as you take care of and preserve your own skin.
Most saddles come from the factory or saddle maker’s shop with the leather properly conditioned and ready to ride. Saddle makers usually include information on how to care for their saddles and it’s best to follow their instructions. If you’ve lost the care and cleaning information, or you bought your saddle used, chances are the manufacturer has a website where you can find either instructions or a phone number to call for information.
Now read on for some great tips to help get you started!
When you clean your saddle, you don’t need to throw the entire arsenal of products at it each time. Many times a dusting will do. But when your saddle needs more than a quick wipe-down, reach for tried-and-true products. While bath soaps and shower gels might be good for your own hide, they’re not so good for the hide used to make saddles. In addition, grease, fats, and heavy oils also leave a coating that clogs leather pores. Plus, the now-sticky surface can attract and hold dirt that you will grind in the next time you ride. Stick with basic, pure, time-tested products.
When it’s time to give your saddle a really thorough cleaning, remove the stirrups and cinches to clean separately. Turn the saddle upside-down on a blanket or feed bag, then vacuum the sheepskin. Next, set it on a saddle stand in the aisle of the barn or in the shade outdoors. Remove all of the dust with a vacuum cleaner, brush, or rag. Use a small, unused paint brush to remove any dirt that got under the skirts, down in around the bottom of the horn and gullet, and around the conchos. Then go over all of the leather with a sponge wrung out in clean water. Change the water often to keep from rubbing dirt-via dirty water-right back into your saddle. Use a vacuum cleaner, stiff brush, or a suede sponge to remove any dirt from a rough-out seat.
After you remove the dirt, then it’s time to use saddle soap. A tin of saddle soap usually is in everyone’s tack box. Saddle soap is formulated to clean your saddle without causing any harm-as long as you don’t get too heavy handed with it. So, like soap or shampoo, it should be used judiciously and rinsed completely off. For that reason, I’m not a fan of combination saddle soap/conditioners. Check the ingredients list to be sure there’s no alcohol, mineral spirits, or similar chemicals that could be harsh on leather. If your saddle is light-colored leather, test your cleaning product on an inconspicuous spot first to see if it will darken the leather. Rinse all of the soap off with a sponge dipped in clean water, then let the saddle air-dry outside in the shade. Since heat harms leather, never use a hair dryer, heat lamp, or direct sun to hurry the drying time.
• Your saddle is likely your most expensive piece of gear. It pays to take care of it.
• You can irreparably damage saddle leather by over-cleaning, over-conditioning, or over-oiling it, so be careful.
• Storing on a saddle stand will help avoid stretching or misshaping the leather.
• Avoid dirt and any kind of extremes in temperature or humidity to preserve your saddle’s “skin.”
When your saddle is drying, that’s the best time to apply conditioner. Again, be sure all the soap residue has been rinsed off entirely first. There are many good conditioners on the market. When the saddle is not quite dry, apply a light coat of conditioner to both sides of the leather, then follow up with another light coat after it has dried completely. Conditioners help keep leather pliable and prevent it from drying out. Saddles should be conditioned more often in dry climates.
Saddles soften with use, but tend to stiffen up when sitting idle. So if your saddle is going to be stored for some time, rub a light coat of conditioner over it every now and then.
If your saddle is 100% synthetic, of course you can ignore all of the above and just drag out the hose! But if your synthetic saddle has any leather parts on it, don’t douse it. Keep the water off the leather areas and treat those parts as you would any leather saddle.
Oiling a saddle is best done infrequently. How often depends on what kind of riding you do and the condition of your saddle.
Don’t slather on the product when you do decide to oil. In addition to seeping out of the leather and staining your britches, excess oil can also soak into the leather too much, causing it to become “mushy.” Over-oiled leather can stretch and become weak. Don’t oil the underside of the stirrup fenders, as the rough leather will absorb too much oil quickly. And never oil rawhide horns, stirrups, or other rawhide parts. A very light coat of oil two or three times a year is usually enough, unless you swim a creek or get caught in a downpour. Water pulls the oils out of leather, so if your saddle gets soaked, that’s a good time for an auxiliary oiling.
Choosing the kind of oil to use is always a topic of discussion and disagreement among horsepeople. Go with what the saddle maker recommends. Otherwise, stick with non-animal and non-vegetable oils. Both of those products can turn rancid and possibly rot the stitching. And the rancid odor can attract mice.
Pure neatsfoot oil has been the standard used for years. It’s up to you to decide if you like this product. Many people don’t recommend using it. It’s pricey, so some manufacturers now make a neatsfoot oil “compound.” I’d suggest you don’t compound your problems by buying it. The added chemicals in some of these compounds could damage the stitching in your saddle. There are other oils on the market specially made for saddles and tack. Just check the ingredients before you buy. Leather is a natural product and you should try to avoid clogging the pores with waxes or damaging the natural fibers with alcohol, mineral spirits, or any petro-chemicals.
A Seat for Your Saddle
While sitting down all the time might not be good for us, it is good for your saddle. Don’t store your saddle standing up on its fork, lying on its side, or hanging by the horn on a rope. Over time, these positions can put the wrong kind of pressure on the tree or cause the skirts to become misshapen. It’s best to keep your saddle on a saddle stand or saddle rack whenever it isn’t on a horse.
Good saddle stands will keep the bars supported and the skirts flat. Most commercially made stands or wall racks are fine. If you want to build a saddle rack yourself, be sure it supports your saddle properly. Don’t use a single dowel or a two-by-four down the center. The bars of the saddle need to be supported in the “A” shape. The saddle should rest on the stand the way it sits on a horse.
Turn your saddle up on its fork on a piece of cardboard. Trace a line around the inside at the front of the saddle. Use the measurements, or cut out a template to check the “pitch” of the sides of the saddle rack that will support the bars.
Whether store-bought or home-made, be sure the saddle rack is tall enough so the stirrups don’t touch the ground, and long enough for the rear skirts to rest on it. While on the stand, the fenders, off billet, and saddle strings should all hang straight down and not touch the floor. If you’re not going to be using the saddle for a while, take the cinch off so it won’t be pulling up the off-side jockey.
While your saddle is on the stand, turn the stirrups out and back toward the rear of saddle and slip a broom handle or short piece of two-by-four through them. The stirrup fenders will settle into the turned position pretty quickly and you’ll no longer have to struggle to keep the heavy stirrup leathers and fender pulled around your leg. This helps enormously if you experience knee pain while riding.
Whenever your saddle is on a stand, cover it. Dust from barn cleaning and chores can settle on your saddle. Then, when you sit in it next time, you’ll grind that new dirt into the seat and fenders. You can buy commercially made saddle covers in various styles and materials. Basically there are two designs: those that you throw over the top of the saddle and those that fit snuggly around it. The close-fitting styles tuck under the edges and usually enclose the fenders and stirrups. These give better protection. The other style is not much more than a square of material with a pocket for the saddle horn and maybe an elastic band to go around the cantle. While these offer a little less protection, they’re easier to get on and off when you have a lot of horses to tack up. Even tossing an old saddle blanket or a bedsheet over the saddle is better than nothing. But whatever you do, don’t place or wrap your saddle in anything plastic. Leather is a natural fiber that needs to “breathe.” Imprison it in plastic and in no time you’ll likely be looking at your saddle through a haze of white mold.
Another problem when storing tack is rodents. Mice like to sharpen their teeth on leather, so I’d suggest getting some barn cats. They can help knock down the number of little gnawers and prevent damage to your expensive tack. Cats are also good company for stalled horses-and are nice to have around. They do have one drawback: many like to curl up on a comfy saddle seat or sharpen their claws on the seat. A good-fitting saddle cover should take care of this possibility.
Cool and Dry
Temperature and humidity have everything to do with how your saddle weathers time. Most of us don’t have the luxury of a heated barn, but you might have heat in the tack room-and maybe an air conditioner. Both can be good investments to protect your expensive tack from temperature extremes.
Humidity is particularly hard on leather. You can prolong the life of your investment with a dehumidifier or even by using those little, inexpensive tubs of dehumidifying agent. If you don’t ride in winter, store your saddle in the house during the cold, wet winter months. Take the stand inside with you, too. Your saddle will look nice displayed in the den, and you can stare at it and dream of the coming spring and of riding again.