Leather Care: Cleaning Products

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Dirt, sweat and exposure to weather all threaten the serviceable life of our leather gear. it's a chore some people love to do, while others dread it. Many opt for a quick daily or weekly cleanup, while others let their tack get downright grimy before they break out the sponge and cleaner.

Sit down with a friend and get your tack-cleaning caught up.

Sit down with a friend and get your tack-cleaning caught up.

We found a huge variety of products on the market, from liquids to bars to pastes. Liquids are often sprayed or wiped on with a sponge or cloth. Sometimes it's easier to pour some into a small bowl to dip your cleaning tool into. Creams, pastes and bars are usually used right from the container.

For any tack attack you will want a soft cloth (like a shammy, flannel cloth or old towel), a soft toothbrush, a nubby cloth, sponges, and a small bucket of warm water. Warm water will open the leather pores better than cold, letting the dirt out and softeners in.

Yes, we said use water. there's a myth that refuses to die that states you should never get leather wet, but you often need some water to help remove the dirt lifted by your leather cleaner.

We're not advocating dowsing your tack with water, though, because if leather takes in too much water, the water soaks into the fibers, weakening them. As the leather dries, the natural lubricants (oils and conditioners) in the leather evaporate with the moisture, causing the tack to stiffen and weakening it. That's why it's so important to get soaked tack conditioned immediately and to let it dry out in the air, away from heat and out of the sun. Let it dry naturally and slowly.

For a thorough cleaning and conditioning, disassemble your tack. it's important to get in the areas under the straps and inside the leather folds that are around the bit area, as the moisture from the horse's mouth can begin to dry out these areas, weakening them.

For daily or weekly wipes, it's acceptable to simply go after the dirty areas. Note: Avoid cleaning your tack in hot, direct summer sun, as it can cause blotchy patches on your wet tack, and never store your tack in a hot car.

The Why Behind The How-To

Mineral-tanned leather, such as might be found in chrome leather on billets or turnout rugs, has a fairly neutral pH. However, most tack is vegetable tanned and has a pH of 3.5 to 5, which is acidic.

The problem is alkaline products are what you need to clean. They lift grease well, but they?re at the opposite end of the pH scale and can harm leather. (Ammonia is alkaline with a high pH of 14.)

Soap, including saddle soap, is alkaline. Over time, an alkaline product can weaken your acidic leather?s protein bonds if it works its way into the leather fibers.

That's why you're instructed to work up lather when you clean tack and then rub the lather onto the leather to lift the dirt. To rinse, wring out your sponge and wipe away the soap.

Avoid doing a heavy rinse, as the water may drive the alkaline cleaner into the leather and weaken the fibers. Rinse your sponge frequently as you clean your tack. Condition your tack as needed, i.e. if the leather has any type of a stiff or dry feel to it you need to condition it, too. We?ll discuss conditioner choices next month.

Cleaning tack outside helps not spread mold spores in the tack room.

Cleaning tack outside helps not spread mold spores in the tack room.

A note on discoloration: The newer your tack, the more prone it is to discoloration from a cleaning product (or darkening from a conditioner). Lower-quality tack tends to be more prone, and more alkaline cleaners more likely to cause this. If you're using a new product, it's wise to test it on a hidden area of the saddle first.

One-Steps

A number of products state that they are ?one steps,? meaning that the product both cleans and conditions. One-step products are a great everyday cleaning aid, but they?re multi-tasking, and we all know that some sacrifices are made when you multi-task.Sometimes we felt we still needed a conditioning product after we finished with the one-steps.

And, for really heavy dirt and grimy sweat, we found some of one-step products? conditioning properties actually impeded the cleaning process. For non-intense jobs, like keeping show tack spiffy or a daily wipe down, they?re fine.

Fortunately, most one-steps, like saddle soap (the original ?one step?), contain glycerine with a little cleaner. Glycerine will lift the dirt from your tack, but it's also a natural humectant, meaning it attracts moisture from the air. This helps condition the leather and keep it pliable.

Product Trial

If you're into giving your tack a quick wipe down, You'll like Farnam?s Leather New and Fiebing?s Glycerine spray, both are pure glycerine sprays and both left our tack looking good and feeling soft.

For those who prefer hand rubbing their tack, Fiebing?s Saddle Soap is a firm, pleasant-smelling paste that produces soft clean results. it's also a true one-step product, cleaning and conditioning well.

We were also delighted with the ReitSport Saddle Soap, which contains goat?s milk in its formula. It smelled wonderful and produced beautiful results. Our gear was not only clean but much more pliable after the application and continued to be so after drying. Although this product is a bit more expensive, we cleaned a lot of tack with it and still had most of the can left, so it really does last a long time.

Bick Five and Saddler?s One Step were also good choices for one-step products. Bick Five did pretty well on heavier dirt, as well.

However, for big dirt and sweat, our top choices were: Lexol Leather Cleaner, Leather Therapy Wash, Bick One Leather Cleaner, Belvoir Tack Cleaner, and Hydrophane Saddler?s Leather Cleaner.

Simply apply the product, wait a minute or so, depending on the extent of the grunge, and rub with a nubby cloth. Even chest plates and leather girths came clean almost effortlessly. However, remember, these cleaners all require that you follow the cleaning with a conditioning product.

If you're looking for specialized soap for black leather, Fiebing?s Saddle Soap Paste is available in yellow, white and black. Actually, black leather doesn't require you to use a specialized soap, but some testers preferred to use a specialized product.

Bottom Line

For daily use, we love Farnam?s Leather New spray. Its no-rinse formula, good conditioning effect and ability to lift dirt make it our No. 1 pick for simple, quick leather care.

If you prefer original saddle-soap type products, Fiebing?s Saddle Soap earns Best Buy, just topping the ReitSport Saddle Soap from HorseTech. it's only drawback was the cost.

Heavy dirt and grime is best tackled with Leather Therapy Wash, although You'll need to follow it with Leather Therapy Conditioner. Leather Therapy has been a top Horse Journal choice for more than a decade.

If you're looking for some dirt and/or water resistance with a slight waxy feel to your tack, Fiebing?s 4-Way Care and Bick 5 were our favorites.