Spring Cleaning - Equestrian style
Saddle cleaning. For some people it seems like a daunting task that is best left for professionals, and for some people it's a relaxing task scrubbing off horse sweat and trail dust. Whichever kind of person you are, it is a necessary task whether you have someone do it for you or you do it yourself. I tend to be the latter person and LOVE to clean my saddles and tack. Do I always take the time to do it when it needs to be done? Umm....no. (Hey, at least I'm honest.) While I do try to keep up on caring for my saddles life does sometimes get in the way.
Is it hard to clean a saddle? No, not really and the supplies needed are pretty simple too. I'm not here to endorse particular products or tell you that they are the BEST products for the job or that my way of cleaning a saddle is the ONLY way. Honestly, there are a whole lot of cleaning and conditioning products out there and just as many techniques to do it. This is just my way of cleaning and oiling that I prefer to use on my own personal saddles and customer saddles. It's fairly quick, simple and doesn't require a lot of experience.
First you'll need to gather the cleaning and oiling supplies and your dirty tack. For supplies I use liquid glycerine saddle soap. (Any brand will work. I prefer to use Farnam Leather New as it seems to cut through the dirt and grime pretty good.) While this particular saddle soap comes in a spray bottle, I prefer to pour it into a small glass jar (baby food jar) and dip my tooth brush into it. If you have access to it, sheepskin works really well in place of a toothbrush and won't scratch your leather like a toothbrush could. I chose to use a toothbrush because it's what I have on hand and most people have easy access to them. (Disclaimer: using a spouse, child, or siblings toothbrush that they use is not recommended. Saddle soap tastes nasty and they WILL know you used it even if you rinse it out really well. Lol!) It makes cleaning a little less messy and gives you more control over where the saddle soap is going. For saddles that don't have tooling you could easily spray the saddle soap on them and wipe with a rag to clean off the horse sweat and dirt. Saddles with tooling are a little more difficult to clean and the use of a toothbrush comes in really handy. You'll also need some rags to wipe off the saddle soap after you're done scrubbing. I found some cheap little towels that have a good nap on them that get down into the tooling really well. I believe they are from Home Depot, but any kind of towel will work. (Heck, I've even used old socks turned inside out before.) You just need something that's absorbent with a little bit of texture to get down in the tooling to get all of the saddle soap off.
Before you start cleaning you can remove any unnecessary parts from your saddle like the cinch(s), breast collar, stirrups, etc. (You don't have to remove them. It just helps keep saddle soap off of the parts you don't want it on.) I like to start at the top of the saddle and work my way down. This keeps the parts that you've already cleaned free from drips and possible dirt getting onto the parts you've already worked on. I like to work near a table or stand so I can put my saddle soap jar on it to dip my toothbrush in and be able to have the towel in my other hand to control any drips and running saddle soap. Dip the toothbrush in the saddle soap and go to scrubbing! A circular motion will do really well to scrub in the tooling. Changing directions will help get into all the nooks and crannies of the tooling. For really tough dirt deep in the tooling you can gently use a toothpick to sort of scrape out the super tough dirt. Did you notice I said gently? You don't want to scratch or damage your tooling with too much force. Once you scratch it, it won't go away. I scrub until the bubbles start to go away and then I wipe it down with the towel to remove the saddle soap. If you still see dirt, keep repeating in that area until you feel that you have it clean enough.
While it's tempting to just clean the parts that are easily seen, don't forget about under the skirts and stirrup leathers. It's important to keep those parts cleaned and oiled as well. While you're under the skirts be sure to check out your cinch rings, screws, nails, saddle strings, etc. Safety checks are always a good idea and cleaning your saddle gives you the perfect opportunity to check everything out! (I'll do a blog about safety checks on all of your tack.) For cleaning the saddle leathers I undo the stirrups and pull the leathers out just enough that there is still enough of the leather to get a firm hold of to pull them back through the saddle. I don't recommend pulling the stirrup leather all the way out! They can be a real pain in the rear to get back in! If you're worried you might pull them all the way out, just pull them enough that you're able to clean and oil where the leather goes over the bar of the tree. That is one of the most important parts to clean, oil and check on your saddle. (Yes, I know it's not the absolute most important part but it could cause a bad wreck if it were to break.)
Once you've cleaned the entire saddle, top to bottom and have allowed it to dry a day or so, you can now oil the saddle. Just like with the saddle soap, there are a whole lot of conditioners, oils, etc. out there to keep your saddle in tip top shape. While I've used several different conditioners over the years, my favorite is still extra virgin olive oil. (Once again, most any brand will work. Most times the cheaper oil is considered "not as pure" as the more expensive oils, but they all seem to work well.) Why do I like olive oil? While it may slightly darken the leather initially, it does lighten back up. It doesn't leave any kind of a "tacky" residue like some conditioners that will grab dirt and make your saddle look like you never cleaned it. Years ago when I was a kid everyone swore by neatsfoot oil. So, when I found my grandpa's saddle hanging in the grainery that's what I used to condition it. Honestly, I wish I hadn't have done that. It took a nice old high back saddle that had a nice patina on the leather and turned it black. Did it condition it any more than the olive oil would have? Probably not. At that time I hadn't been told about the olive oil and that was the only option that I knew about. After almost 30 years it has never lightened up and is still a black saddle. Another issue with the neatsfoot oil and some of the other conditioners is that it stays tacky. That may not bother some people. After spending a couple hours really deep cleaning a saddle, conditioning it, letting it soak in, I really like to enjoy seeing it almost glow for quite awhile after I'm done with it. I won't forget the time we were heading to gather cattle for a neighbor and I had deep cleaned my saddle and had it looking almost new. It was gorgeous! (was) We saddle up the cow ponies, loaded them in the trailer and headed on down the gravel road to the neighbors. When the trailer door opened there was my muddy, filthy saddle. I'm not going to lie, I kinda wanted to cry a little after spending so much time making it pretty. I tried to wipe it off, but the dirt had soaked into the oils of the conditioner and became a sort of dirt spackle in my basket weave tooling. After that incident I talked with a saddle maker who told me about using olive oil. Now it's all I use on all of my leather goods from good old cleaned saddles to fresh off the bench leather goods.
While this article is aimed at saddle cleaning, you can really clean most any leather items using these techniques. The only items that I condition differently are chinks and chaps. I still use the liquid saddle soap to clean them, but I prefer to use Aussie Conditioner in place of the olive oil. (We'll discuss that in another blog.) When using cleaners and conditioners on leather items it's always a good idea to test the products on an inconspicuous place first. That way you can make sure that it won't discolor your leather. These techniques shouldn't be done on suede, nubuck, and some roughout leathers. (It can smooth down the grain on suede and roughout and could discolor nubuck.) I would also avoid conditioning padded saddle seats as some conditioners and oils can break down the padding in the seat.
I hope this simple way of cleaning and oiling your saddles has been helpful. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me! Happy cleaning!