Your leather tack can last almost forever if you take care of it properly. As leather ages and is exposed to the elements, it loses the fats and oils used to saturate the hide during the tanning process. The dryer and harder leather gets, the greater the likelihood it will crack, split, or warp.
The secret is to replenish the essential oils that help keep leather soft and supple, while still allowing the hide to breathe. Also, keep the leather clean, so the dirt doesn’t erode the fibers and block the pores. Store your tack wisely, away from heat, humidity, sun.
Here’s an eight-step tack-care method, plus a quick touchup technique for suede.
Supplies You’ll Need
> Saddle tree/sawhorse for your saddle.
> 3-4 soft cotton cloths.
> 3-4 hand towels.
> Lint-free rags (T-shirt; sheet).
> Soft-bristle brush (natural is best).
> Small bucket of water.
> Glycerin or pH-balanced saddle soap.
> Castile soap for heavily soiled leather.
> Leather conditioner.
> Vacuum with brush attachment (optional).
Step 1. Brush away surface dust. Brush away any surface dust or dirt with a soft cotton cloth or a fine-bristled brush, such as a natural fiber shoeshine brush. A vacuum with a brush attachment also works well, as long as the bristles aren’t so stiff that they’ll scratch the finish.
Step 2. Prep the tack.Open any buckles for easier access to those hard-to-reach spots.Remove cinches and stirrups. When cleaning bridles, reins, tack or harness, remove bits, buckles, hardware, and any silver accessories before applying leather cleaners. If you can’t remove the hardware, carefully clean around it, so you don’t contaminate the leather with the silver polish or tarnish the hardware with leather cleaner.
Step 3. Apply saddle soap. Follow the manufacturer’s directions precisely for the type of saddle soap or leather cleaner to use. Some recommend working the cleaner into a lather, while others do not. Some products need to be rinsed off with water or a damp cloth, while others do not. Note that many of the new pH-balanced and glycerin formulas clean and condition without darkening the leather or leaving a greasy residue, while producing a lustrous shine when buffed.
Step 4. Work carefully. With a big project, such as a saddle, work on small sections at a time. Wipe or rinse away excess soap as you go. (Don’t get the leather too wet.) Residue left in crevices and folds attracts dirt, which will eat away the leather. In tooled areas, use a soft-bristled brush to make sure no soap is left in crevices. Rinse often, and use a towel to wipe up any excess moisture.
Step 5. Be thorough. Be sure to clean under all flaps and the bottom side of the stirrup leathers. These areas will more likely have the heaviest soil and sweat buildup.
Step 6. Use Castile soap. For areas of a saddle with a heavy accumulation of waxy dirt and dander, use Castile soap. A little bit of sudsing is okay here.
Step 7. Condition. Check the label; some manufacturers recommend conditioning leather while it’s still damp, while others suggest a drying period. If you’re concerned about whether a product will darken the finish, test a spot where it won’t be seen. Authentic neat’s-foot and other “oils” will almost always darken leather, while some top beeswax-fortified “fine leather” creams will not. Wipe away any excess conditioner or oil so they don’t stain your clothes or collect dirt.
Step 8. Buff. When the conditioner has been absorbed, buff the leather with a lint-free rag. As you go, check for any residual soap or dirt, especially in those hard-to-see places.
Suede Touchup Tip
Suede is leather that has gone through the process of having the fibers of the flesh side of the hide buffed to give it a nap effect. Because the flesh side is more porous, it’ll absorb moisture quickly and will stain easily.
Use caution when cleaning suede. While there are commercial products made especially for suede, one home “dry-cleaning” product is cornmeal. Simply rub the cornmeal into the stain with your fingers in a light, circular motion. Then use a soft suede brush to gently lift up suede’s nap.