Tack Cleaning: The “Old Faithful” Saddle
Admit it. At one point in a rider’s life or another, we’ve all got one. That “old faithful” saddle that has been on every horse we ever owned or rode. Through thick and thin, that saddle was there for us – at shows, at home, on trails, that time you rode the green one – and now has been left to collect dust in the basement, as newer, fancier saddles have taken over. Or maybe, in the case of our rider, life has taken over. Kids and work mean she can only get out once or twice a week to ride, and when she does, her “old faithful”- in this case a 17-year-old Cliff Barnsby saddle - comes with her. And boy is it in need of some TLC!
Our saddle owner told me that it had been at least 5-6 years since she’d spent any time doing more than giving it a quick wipe down. Even then that only happened about once every 6 months. After a decade and a half of showing hunter/jumper with it, including a few trips in the rain, she figured the cracking, veining, and wear were all beyond help and if it got dirty, well, that was just par for the course. In some ways she’s right, once leather cracks and splits, there’s really nothing you can do to fuse it back together, BUT you can prevent it from getting worse. After a friendly bet that I could make her saddle supple again, she handed it over to me, and I got to work.
Here are some before pictures I took. Aside from the cracking and veining, you’ll notice the healthy build-up of dirt, and what I like to call “saddle tar”, which is what you get when you mix dirt and sweat together. The saddle had a bit of mould developing on the under flap, which was surprising to me because I had expected to see more. The owner basically rode in it once a week, and then chucked in in her dark storage room in her basement. Not an ideal place for leather!
Time to get to work. The first thing you want to do when cleaning a saddle is to get the stirrup leathers and irons off. I don’t know how many times I see people cleaning and conditioning saddles with the irons and leathers still on, but let me tell you – those places are a dirt warehouse! The dirt loves to nestle into the little crevices behind your stirrup leathers. Add some sweat or some water and/or saddle and you’ve got a nice thick tar-like substance that cakes itself on your saddle (more on how to remove "saddle tar" later).
With this saddle, I noticed that the leather flap underneath the stirrup bar had become folded and bunched up under the stirrup bar, hindering the ability to move the stirrup leathers. That had to be solved first!
I’m happy to tell you how I did it, but with any saddle repair, I recommend you take it to a professional. Once I could free the stirrup leathers and get them off the saddle, it was much easier to get in there to clean.
The most common question I get asked with tack is, “What is the best thing to clean it with?”
ALWAYS start with clean water and a clean sponge. A dirty sponge will only put dirt back onto the saddle you’re trying to clean! I can’t emphasize this enough, if you want clean tack, you need clean water and a clean sponge. Don’t be afraid to change your water several times while your cleaning, and make sure you give your sponge a good rinse. Over the course of this saddle, I think I changed water 4 or 5 times!
Also make sure you give your sponge a good squeeze. You want a barely damp sponge – a soaking wet saddle is a no no! Trust me, water and leather don’t mix in large quantities!
When you soap your sponge, whether it be from a spray bottle like mine, or from a bar of saddle soap, remember that less is more. You don’t need a big frothy bubble bath lather to get your saddle clean, in fact too much soap can leave a filmy white residue on your tack, which isn’t very appealing to look at, or for the long-term health of your leather.
After a good soap, I was starting to feel like the saddle was looking better already!
Next, it was time for the toothbrush. I’ll admit, I used to get a lot of funny looks in the tack room when I pulled out my trusty soft-bristle. For cleaning in the seams and crevices of tack, including those braided hunter reins, there is nothing I have found that does a better job, while being gentle to your precious tack! Here’s an example of how I used the toothbrush on this saddle:
Now for the conditioner. I gave the saddle a good rub down with the conditioner I had chosen. Because it had the mold and mildew inhibitor, I also made sure to conditioner the underside of the flaps and the panels to make sure this saddle would stay protected, even in less-than-ideal storage conditions.
Remember how I said different leathers need different things? Well after careful consideration, I decided to give the seat some extra TLC. The seat on this saddle had seen some water, a few shows in the rain, and then not letting it dry properly afterwards had contributed to some cracking or “veining” of the seat leather. I chose some deeper conditioner, in this case Effax Leader Balsm for the job, and I applied it by hand. The warmth of my hands rubbing on the saddle really helped the product to soak in.
Now to tackle the stirrup leathers! Because they were worn through in some spots and very brittle, for safety reasons, I recommended to the saddle owner that she replace them. But in the meantime, I was on a roll! Just as I had done to the saddle, I took clean water and a clean sponge, soaped up and started scrubbing gently on both side, working from one end to another resting them on a towel to not scratch them.
You could imagine my surprise when I got to the end of the leather and I could finally see the brand, “Luc Childric”. Back in their day, these nylon core, calf-skin leathers would have sold new for around $175-$200 dollars! Wouldn’t you know!?
Unfortunately, all the soap and conditioner in the world, won’t return these leathers to their former glory, but with a little bit of elbow grease, I was able to return them to a flexible state.
But now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the final reveal!
Can I get a drumroll please?
Fresh, clean, grippy, and ready to ride!
This saddle was not the hardest one I have ever done, but it was up there. From start to finish, it took me about 2 hours, and longer if I factor in the time I let the conditioner soak in. It doesn’t have to take this long. With regular maintenance, saddle cleaning on average can take as little as 10-15 minutes a week and you get to reap the benefits of a great piece of tack that looks as good as the day you bought it, but without that dreaded break-in period.
'Till next time, happy riding!