Many of us take for granted that our tack is in working condition each and every time we ride. Safety is always the first priority for our tack, but taking time to inspect, condition, and repair it will also prolong its life.
"If people take proper care of leather, it will last a lifetime," says Pino Blangiforti, creator and owner of Leather Therapy Washes. He reminds us, however, that leather is affected by neglect, the elements, dryness, moisture, mold, and mildew.
A regular inspection of your equipment will help you spot leather weaknesses or cracks before they become dangerous.
"Tack repair is always about safety first," declares Anne Fordyce, Marketing Media Manager with Circle Y & Tucker Saddles. "Any piece that attaches to the saddle itself, or is designed to hold the saddle in place, should be checked for cracking, stretching, or unraveling," she explains.
When you use your own equipment, you know how often the leather is inspected, maintained, or repaired. However, if you're using borrowed equipment or purchasing used tack, closely check each of the pieces described above before using or buying them.
"Used saddles must be inspected carefully," Blangiforti says. "Look for spots that may have dry rot or show cracking. Look at the key straps and pieces. Your trainer or local tack shop can help you spot problems."
Cinch straps, billet straps, and ties play an important role in keeping you safe in the saddle. These pieces are the most frequently used and come in direct contact with dirt, sweat, and horsehair. "Some pieces of equipment are going to wear out just like the tires on your car wear out from use," Fordyce says.
How will you know these pieces need to be replaced? The most obvious defect is a complete tear through the width of the leather. But any leather that's cracked, frayed, or stretched has been weakened and could snap completely through at any time.
In most cases, you can make these types of repairs yourself. Your local tack shop can provide replacement cinch straps, billet straps, ties, and other small items. Expect to spend $20 to $50 or more for cinch and billet straps, depending on the strap's brand, quality, and length. The same is true for basic repairs of broken throatlatches or curb straps on a bridle.
What other parts are likely to wear on your equipment?
"This depends on the type of riding being done. Performance riding like showing, jumping, roping, etc., is where I see lots of small repairs being needed," says John Dennehy, leather artist and owner of The Wild Irish Rose.
Small repairs can include the stitching on any leather product. Saddles may need decorative stitching repaired or the functional stitching around the horn, seat, or cantle replaced. "Saddles usually need a horn cap fixed or replaced or saddle strings restitched," Dennehy adds.
Another common repair includes the stirrups and stirrup fenders. "Over the years, the stirrup leathers may become worn, disproportionate, or stretched out," Fordyce says. "This is especially true if the saddle is used or stored in wet conditions."
Replacement of the stirrup leathers and fenders can be a relatively easy fix. For a Western saddle, large strips of leather are cut. Then holes are punched for the adjustment slots, and rivets and buckles are added.
Leather workers and saddle makers have the resources to locate materials for replacement stirrup leathers and fenders. Contact the saddle manufacturer to order the parts you need.
"Depending on the style of the fender and how much tooling there is, riders can purchase brand-new stirrup leathers and fenders for approximately $175 to $250, not including stirrups," Fordyce notes.
Once you locate the leather pieces, you'll likely be able to replace the fenders yourself, explains Fordyce. The stirrup leathers slide over a bar that's located underneath the saddle skirt up near the tree.
While most saddle repairs are basic, there are some that require extensive work. "The most disastrous thing we see is when a tree is damaged," says Fordyce. "Maybe it was broken by a horse or it was run over by a truck. Fixing a tree is like major surgery for the saddle. It should be sent back to the manufacturer, which has all of the parts necessary for a repair."
If your horse falls on the saddle or runs through rough brush or terrain, the rear riggings, swells, and even the horn can be damaged. When this happens, many riders are surprised to learn from the manufacturer that the saddle tree was also broken during the accident.
When the tree needs to be replaced, the saddle is put back onto the production line as though it were a brand-new saddle. It can take up to six weeks for the repairs to be completed. Fordyce estimates it can cost $200 to $300 or more-depending on the saddle-for this type of work to be completed.
New Fleece or Wool
Finally, though it's often forgotten, is the wool or fleece lining on the saddle's underside. "Tucker products have the wool sewn directly to the under-skirting of the saddle," Fordyce explains. "So if it needs to be replaced, we'll usually replace the entire skirting rather than just replacing the fleece."
However, on show saddles or expensive custom-made saddles, replacing the entire under-skirting may not be an option. In this case, the old sheepskin is removed and a new one is sewn in its place.
The main focus for repair work is always on the saddle and its straps because of safety concerns. But there are several other pieces of tack that are just as important.
"Checking the Chicago screws on bridle headstalls and the reins seems basic, but people don't always look at these pieces," says Molly Wagner, Marketing Manager for Weaver Leather. If a Chicago screw loosens on a cheek piece, the bit could fall out of your horse's mouth. Or if a Chicago screw falls out of a rein end, the reins could fall off the bit shanks. Either situation can become very dangerous for horse and rider both.
Even if your headstall doesn't have Chicago screws, this doesn't mean you're 100% safe. "The latigo ties that are used on some styles of headstalls can dry rot," Wagner adds, which can mean the same malfunctions that you'd encounter with screws. Perform regular checkups and cleaning for these straps, too, to avoid these problems.
Breastcollars used both during training and in the show ring require maintenance, as well. "It depends on the breastcollar, but you have to watch the stitching, especially around the loops, for the uptugs," Wagner explains. The leather pieces for the uptugs that thread through the D-rings can wear from regular use.
While not necessarily made from leather, saddle pads, training boots, chaps, and other assorted protective equipment also needs regular care. Saddle pads and training boots especially get very dirty after being used and can create sores if the dirt hardens with sweat and rubs against your horse's body.
"With dirty gear, bacteria has a breeding ground to set up an all-too-familiar story of contamination," says Anna Carner, co-creator and co-owner of Leather Therapy Washes. "So, easy enough, the dirt and debris must be cleaned off."
Using a specialized wash solution will protect the natural fibers without making the fleece harsh or the underlying leather brittle, Carner explains. "A product like our Leather Laundry Solution and Laundry Rinse and Dressing work together to clean out dirt plus protein-based grime in fleece and leather-without compromising the natural fiber cuticle. So, if your galloping boots are leather on the outside and fleece on the inside-both sides are cared for," she adds.
Keeping equipment cleaned and conditioned is the first step in maintaining leather tack. How frequently should you clean and condition your saddle and bridle? That all depends on how roughly and how often you use your equipment.
"Someone who's out riding trails every day or someone who's roping every day knows that his or her equipment is going to take abuse," Fordyce notes. The moisture created from the horse's sweat and dirt is the worst for leather.
"Use a good saddle soap and conditioner," Fordyce recommends. "Cleaning the saddle daily keeps sweat and dirt from building up and eating away at the leather."
For riders who use their equipment less frequently, a regular cleaning and conditioning every 4 to 6 weeks should be enough to keep the leather soft and supple.
Choosing a cleaning and conditioning product specifically designed for leather is imperative. "If you use products on leather that aren't made for leather, they'll change the pH level (leather is an alkaline product) and reverse the tanning process," Blangiforti emphasizes.
"Many people use Murphy's Oil Soap as a cleaning agent," Blangiforti adds. "But Murphy's is a high alkaline product and is not good for leather."
Blangiforti goes on to say that saddle soap, invented during the Ukranian War, is also alkaline in nature. The oil-and-soap mixture used to make saddle soap can counteract the beneficial qualities of either oil or soap alone, leaving the leather unclean and unconditioned, according to Blangiforti.
Mink oil and neatsfoot oil are also common choices that have been around for decades. Blangiforti also advises caution with these products. "Mink oil is not really mink oil-it can even include silicone," Blangiforti explains. "And neatsfoot oil is not necessarily made of cartilage and fatty tissues of animals as it originally was, but today is a petroleum compound instead that is not healthy for the leather."
Fordyce adds that she has even seen saddles coated with Crisco cooking oil!
Products that are not specifically designed for use on leather can often leave a residue or crack the enamel, or top surface, of the leather. While these products may often be cheaper, they're not always the best solution.
Conditioning your leather is as important as cleaning it. Leather is a bundle of fibers that give strength to the product they are made for. "You need to treat leather like you treat your skin. Too much conditioning is just as bad as not enough," Blangiforti says.
If you leave your leather too dry, it'll flex like a tin can, which leads to stretching and cracking. On the other hand, if you over-condition leather, it'll encourage mold growth. "You shouldn't have a tacky, sticky feel. Dirt will adhere and feed mold or mildew," Blangiforti adds.
Tack Repair Options
So what do you do if you've found leather equipment that needs repair?
One option for tack repairs is returning whatever needs repairing to the manufacturer, as mentioned. This is a good option for major saddle repairs or leather with decorative tooling. However, there are a lot of small repairs on saddles, bridles, and other equipment that may take too long to repair or be too costly, if returned to the manufacturer.
In most areas of the country, you can find a local source for repairs. Tack stores, Amish communities, and custom leather artists in your community may be available for help. If you're not sure how to find these sources, ask other riders, trainers, or tack-shop owners where they go for their leather repairs.
If you've found a leather worker on your own, ask a few questions, and be sure this person has the skills necessary to make the repairs you need. "I would ask where they get their leather and supplies," Dennehy recommends. "If they buy most of their leather from Tandy/Leather Factory, I'd ask more questions. Most folks who have moved out of the crafters stage use leather from other sources."
He also suggested asking to see the leather-worker's shop. "Look for a stitching pony, and ask to see pictures or actual items they've made," Dennehy says. "If all they have to show is a corner of the dining room and lots of laced purses from kits, then you might need to press for more information."
Enjoying Your Equipment
Purchasing tack, especially a saddle, is like making an investment. "You get what you pay for. When it's your life and safety on the line, make sure you get the best," Blangiforti concludes. Buying well-made leather products from the start will prolong the products' life.
Regardless of the piece of equipment you buy or how expensive it is, without proper care and repair it'll deteriorate over time. Regular cleaning, conditioning, and repairs will add years to your leather products' life and keep you safe.