Mold and mildew are living organisms - they're fungi. And they literally eat leather and stitching. Worse, once mold gets deep into the leather, it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate. In addition, mold spores can be released into the air and contaminate everything in the barn.
Ironically, it’s the healthiest leather that is most likely to mold. Mold won’t grow on dry tack because there’s nothing for it to eat. So, if you have a tack room full of moldy tack, except for one odd piece, take a good look at the integrity of that leather. Chances are, it’s dried out far beyond a safe or even restorable level.
Humidity, dust and dirt are friends of mold. Tack that’s used infrequently is often an early target, especially if it wasn’t put away properly and isn't covered to protect it from dust. And that’s what we’re going to discuss here: storage, use, and care of your leather.
Mold loves summer temperatures in the high 70s to high 80s with a humidity level at above 65%. If your barn can safely support a tack-room dehumidifier, you should be able to keep the humidity below 55%.
You can also try desiccants, materials that absorb water from the air, sort of a natural dehumidifier. That’s what those little packets of silica gel are that you find in shoe boxes. Desiccants come in disposable tubs and are found at most discount stores. Look for products like Keep It Dry Closet Dehumidifier, Attwood No Damp Dehumidifier, or Starbright No Damp dehumidifier. The cost is less than $10/tub, and you must replace them when they’re “full.”
Never place a wet saddle pad under or over your saddle or even hang it close to your saddle. It will attract mold to the leather. And avoid long storage periods in a dark, closed container, like a trunk or locker, unless it is truly air-tight. These storage devices are fine for tack that's used and cleaned frequently. If not, you're probably going to pull out a piece of "green, furry" leather. For long-term storage, an old cooler works well. Hit the garage sales to look for one that might be beat up beyond use for human food, but still air tight, or watch for a sale after the 4th of July.
Maximize air circulation in your tack room, using a fan if it’s safe, and keep the floor and surfaces clean. Unfortunately, cement floors can transfer moisture into the air. There’s not much you can do about that beyond being aware of it. Some barns have tried placing kitty litter (clay is a desiccant) on the floors with limited success.
When you clean your tack, be sure to remove residue. Check the folds and crevices. These areas are often the first to attract mold, as they tend to be dark and moist. Take a dry cloth and polish your leather, wiping away all excess.
Mold can be killed by a number of household treatments, diluted with water:
- Baking soda
- Cleaning disinfectants, like Lysol
- White vinegar.
Be aware, though, that these products have the potential to damage the leather. Dilute (50-50) your choice with water and then clean and condition the leather with good commercial leather-care products immediately after using them.
Clean moldy tack outside, away from the tack room. You don’t want to spread the mold spores, which will go into the air as you clean. Choose several cloths to use for the cleaning, and don't dip one into the rinse water to use again in the same session. These cloths should either be ones you can toss when you're finished or that can be thoroughly washed with bleach.
If you’re really battling heavy mold, finish the cleaning with a mold-inhibiting commercial leather-care product.
Once mold infiltrates the deep fibers of your leather, it is never truly gone. So, the only tried-and-true way to keep your tack mold-free is to remove it as soon as you see even a slight tinge of it. For heavy-duty molds, we start with a cleaning with vinegar and water, followed by cleaning and conditioning with commercial products.
Of the multitude of products we’ve used over the years, the ones we found to show above-average mold resistance in our tack rooms include:
Saddler’s One Step
Of these, the products we reach for first are Leather Therapy Restorer and Conditioner and Bee Natural Leathercare #1 Saddle Oil with Fungicide. If there truly is a leather mold inhibitor, these two would be our choices.