The southern United States has a very active horse community. From hunters and jumpers to western show enthusiasts, trail riders and working cowboys, many have found the South's climate to be appealing for equestrian activities. While riders enjoy the weather, it creates some challenges in caring for saddles and other tack.
During the cooler months and during periods of drought, most horse owners have little problem with their leather equipment. But when the weather becomes hot and the humidity climbs and the rains are frequent, a tack room can become a breeding ground for mold and mildew. Frequent care, particularly of tack used daily, can become a chore. There are several things a rider can do, however, to lower the incidence of mildew on saddles and tack.
Leather items under frequent use should be kept as clean as is practical. Headstalls, reins, stirrup leathers, and other saddle parts contact sweat from the horse and may additionally be impacted by dirt, rain, and sweat from a rider. Daily cleaning can involve a simple wipe-down with a cloth and proper storage in the tack room. Several times each year (or as is practical), saddles and bridles should receive a thorough cleaning. This should involve some disassembly of the piece (Figure 1). Each item can then be scrubbed with a good liquid glycerin saddle soap, sponge or brush, and adequate water (Figure 2). Don't be afraid to use a water hose on light pressure to rinse away soap and dirt. However, absolutely avoid submerging a saddle, because damage to the saddle tree could occur. When cleaning and conditioning saddles, attention should be given to the back of fenders, top of stirrup leathers, and back of riggings, as these areas take abuse and are often missed in the maintenance process.
Saddle soap comes in bar, cake, and liquid varieties. Bar and cake soaps tend to build up in tooling and stitching and can be difficult to rinse clean. Liquid saddle soaps are easier to apply and easier to remove. Some horsemen report good results with Murphy's Oil Soap. There is the occasional misconception that leather can be cleaned and conditioned in one process. Most saddlemakers disagree; they contend that leather must first be cleaned, allowed to dry, and then conditioned. An exception to this rule applies to antique leather items. To discourage excessive cracking and drying, very old leather should not be allowed to completely dry before being oiled.
Vintage saddle leather can be a challenge to restore. Leather can become as porous as a sponge when it has aged for a long period of time. There is the temptation to continue to add oil as it is absorbed; however, discretion should be used. Only add enough oil to restore life back to the saddle. When in doubt, consult an experienced saddlemaker who deals in restoration.
Oiling and Finishing
A side effect of leather cleaning is removal of oils from the leather. Those essential oils must be replaced in order for tack to remain flexible and to have a long life. One hundred percent pure neatsfoot oil is derived from livestock byproducts and serves as excellent nourishment for dry leather. In hot, humid environments, however, pure neatsfoot oil has some disadvantages. It mildews more readily than other oils and will sometimes leave residue on a rider's pants. Blended oils such as Tee See penetrate and condition well. They also soften the leather fibers, making the leather more pliable. Saddles treated with blended oils are less likely to mildew than those conditioned with pure neatsfoot oil. Remember, though, not all blended oils are equal. Certain "neatsfoot compounds" contain heavy petroleum products and should be avoided. As an alternative, some saddlemakers use extra virgin olive oil to condition saddles. Olive oil does penetrate well but does not provide the same conditioning and softening effect as neatsfoot oil and many of the blended oils. Corn and vegetable oils should be avoided for leather care, because these oils can become rancid and they tend to promote the growth of molds.
Any saddle or tack item being oiled should first be allowed to dry after the cleaning process (though antique leather items should not be allowed to completely dry out before oiling). Oils will penetrate better if warmed, and many saddlemakers will also place the leather in the sun to "warm up" prior to oiling. This process allows oil to penetrate the pores deeply and more evenly.
In locations with high humidity, it is important not to over-oil an item. The goal is to add life back to the leather but not to saturate the leather fibers. One to two coats are typically sufficient for the task. Too much oil will break down leather, cause excessive mildew, and leave residue on clothing. Oiling leather can also have a darkening effect. This might not be a problem for many horsemen but can be a concern for a western showman attempting to keep a saddle as light-colored as possible.
Once a saddle or bridle has been oiled and allowed to dry, apply a finish to the leather. A finish will serve to seal the fibers and add protection from moisture and dust. Finishes fall into two categories: lacquers and conditioners.
Lacquers such as Fiebing's Tan-Kote do an excellent job of sealing and waterproofing but do add some stiffness to the leather. This might be a plus for someone who wants their tack to have a shine and be scratch resistant, but it may sacrifice suppleness in that favorite, broken-in saddle. Tan-Kote does do an excellent job in helping to prevent the molds and mildews that can be a problem in Southern climates. Some riders have used commercial wood lacquers and floor polishes as finishes for their saddles, but these should be avoided as they are very difficult to remove when an item needs to be re-oiled and the finishes can crack after time in sunlight.
Leather conditioners such as Passier's Lederbalsam may contain oils, natural waxes, and lanolin. These products provide an excellent finish while tending to enhance the pliability, softness, and suppleness of the leather. They are generally applied with the fingertips and worked into the leather. After drying, any excess may be buffed with a soft cloth. Conditioners are typically a better choice than lacquers for English saddle leather and for western saddles where a fast break-in and soft leather are considered important. Applied in moderation, conditioners do not typically encourage the growth of mildew.
Protecting an Ultra-Light-Colored Western Show Saddle
For a number of years, many riders showing in Western Pleasure classes have selected saddles with a very light finish. These saddles are often only used at the horse show and spend the remainder of their time in the trailer or tack room. Keeping the leather light on a saddle is a challenge. Saddle skirting tans just like human skin in sunlight and in man-made lighting. Therefore, keep such a saddle covered when not in use. Saddle covers should be stored unzipped so air may circulate, particularly when a saddle might still have moisture from a recent ride. Care for a light-oil saddle should be minimal and less frequent than for a daily work saddle. A wipe-down with a damp sponge and saddle soap should be sufficient for cleaning. One of the few oils that does not darken is Lexol-NF Leather Dressing. Some saddlemakers will also use Tan-Kote as a protective finish and to add a shiny coat to a light-finished saddle.
Many western saddles have suede padded seats and some English saddles have suede knee rolls. Often the best cleaning technique is simply to take a stiff plastic brush or a brass brush and remove dust and dirt. This method will also help to raise the nap of the leather. Some saddlemakers use a brass brush on a cordless drill. That procedure works well but should be avoided on padded seats with quilting because the drill will damage the stitches. Suede typically does not need to be conditioned.
Ranch saddles are often made with the rough (flesh) side of the saddle skirting turned to the outside. This "rough-out" texture provides grip for the rider and may be found on the seat, fenders, skirts, or the entire saddle. Rough-out saddles should be cleaned and oiled the same way as tooled or smooth saddles. Additional finishes are typically not applied to the leather; however, conditioners are an excellent choice for the back side of fenders, stirrup leathers, and any rigging parts that may contact the horse.
Heat and humidity are tack's enemies. When practical during the summer months, saddles and bridles should be stored in a tack room with some method of removing moisture from the air. Using a dehumidifier or an air conditioner will make for a drier storage environment.
Points to Remember
All leather products have a useable life expectancy.
There are high-quality leathers and poor-quality leathers. Purchasing high-quality tack will cost more upfront, but the horseman will enjoy its use for a longer period of time.
Saddle and bridles should be evaluated frequently to ensure the rider's safety. Cracked leather in stress areas should be replaced.
Healthy leather in occasional use can and will harbor mold and mildew during hot, humid weather.
Without routine care, saddles and bridles can become too dry. While these items may not grow mildew, they may be in danger of breaking and causing injury to horse or rider.
Mold and mildew on leather tack can be successfully managed with the correct products and a moderate amount of time and effort.