With the right care, you can ride in the same quality saddle for decades.
"If leather is taken care of, it's mind-boggling how long it can last, even a lifetime," says Jim Weaver, supply sales manager at Weaver Leather in Mount Hope, Ohio.
Do the Two-Step
No matter the season or weather conditions, keeping leather tack clean and conditioned is the answer to longevity. Proper leather care is a two-step process of cleaning and conditioning that preserves and protects leather equipment so it can be used for many years.
Weaver says a common mistake is using a conditioner on tack that hasn't been well cleaned first.
Before cleaning, you want to remove dirt and dust, which can be done with a shop vacuum or lightly dampened cloth.
Whether you prefer bar-type saddle soap, foam or liquid cleaner, be sure to follow label directions for thorough cleaning. Use a cloth or sponge to rub the cleaner well into the leather, making sure to get into crevices and carving and around stitching.
How often should you clean leather tack?
There's not one right answer. As Weaver explains, this really depends on how often you ride and the conditions your equipment is exposed to. For example, a feedlot cowboy riding for hours every day, often in muddy or wet conditions, is going to have much dirtier tack than the horse owner who saddles up for a leisure ride on weekends.
Although you'll want to keep both cleaner and conditioner on hand, you won't need to condition leather as often as you clean it. Even if tack is used heavily and cleaned regularly, it generally won't need conditioning more often than every 30 to 45 days.
Use a soft cloth to apply conditioner to clean leather. Allow it to dry completely so the leather absorbs what it needs for restoration. Then buff the leather with a separate clean, dry cloth to remove any excess conditioner.
For tack that is quite dirty and has been neglected for some time, several sessions of cleaning and conditioning may be required for restoration.
Threats to Leather
Sweat is a serious enemy of leather. Not only can it stain the leather, but it draws out the natural oils, drying out the leather.
"Because of the salt, sweat is really hard on leather, and more damaging than if your tack just gets wet in the rain," says Weaver.
"Every time you ride, you'll want to clean the leather off with a cloth afterwards; never just hang up the tack and leave it. You must remove the sweat as soon as possible. In addition to damaging leather, sweat corrodes hardware and eats away at thread."
One of the worst things you can do is leave a sweat-dampened saddle pad on top of your saddle to dry — something many riders do. If you don't have time to clean the tack the right way at the very least wipe the saddle down completely with a dry cloth and hang the saddle pad to dry in an area with plenty of ventilation.
Climate will also affect leather. Weaver points out that cleaning and conditioning is especially important if you live in regions with high humidity and/or near saltwater.
Dealing with Wet Leather
It's happened to all of us at some point. You get caught in a sudden downpour and by the time you get back to the barn or trailer, you, your horse and your tack are completely soaked. Relax. It's not a disaster.
Wipe everything down to remove as much moisture as you can initially, then hang the equipment in the barn to dry. Don't try to speed up the process by using a heater, blow-dryer or by placing it in the sun. Just let it dry naturally in a non-humid environment. Then wipe it down with a good conditioner when it's almost dry. "As the water evaporates out, the conditioner takes its place," says Weaver.
After the saddle is completely dry, you can apply conditioner again if needed.
"A common misconception is that wetting leather hurts it, but it doesn't, so long as you put oil and tallows back into it. Conditioning the leather helps it shed water and handle the elements," Weaver explains. "It's kind of like washing your hands and then putting lotion on afterwards."
Breaking in New Tack
Bought a new saddle, bridle or leather halter? Conditioner will help break it in faster, whatever the time of year.
Weaver highly recommends conditioning new leather tack before you use it for the first time. "Leather is a unique product," he notes. "To conserve it and make it last longer, you want to condition it before you start using it."
You may have seen sealants for sale at your local equine supply shop and wondered if they’ll help protect your leather tack. Such products can also add a shine to equipment, but think twice before using anything that seals the pores of leather.
"I'm not a fan of using a sealer, because leather needs to breathe," says Weaver. "It's better to just keep it clean and condition it regularly."
Storing Leather Tack
If you won't be using leather tack for an extended period, you'll want to store it properly. The first step is making sure it's clean, conditioned and thoroughly dry.
Then wrap the equipment in a blanket or a piece of flannel or put it in a natural fiber bag, and store it in an area where it’s protected but the leather can still breathe. A climate-controlled room is ideal, but if that's not possible, at least avoid temperature extremes and keep the equipment out of direct sunlight.
Never store leather tack in a plastic bag or an airtight container.
"Plastic can create condensation, which defeats the whole purpose of keeping leather dry," says Weaver, adding that dampness can cause leather to mildew and mold.
If leather completely dries out, it becomes hard and brittle. Leather that is cracked on the surface and no longer pliable can be dry-rotted inside. Once it reaches this point of deterioration, you can't restore it with oil or conditioner.
"We call it 'dead' leather and it can be unsafe because it will break more easily," says Weaver.
Should you have an old saddle or sentimental piece of tack in that condition, you can keep and display it, but for safety's sake, don't risk riding in it.
If you have concerns as to whether a specific item of neglected leather can be safely used, get an expert's opinion. A reputable saddle repair shop should be able to answer your questions.