A Spotless Reputation: Tack Cleaning Tips

December 08, 2015
By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM

For some people, cleaning tack is a relaxing activity, while for others, it is a necessary chore. Whatever your feelings, it is important to clean your tack regularly and check for wear-and-tear while you clean.

Leather tack originates from animal skins, generally cattle or water buffalo hides. It gets treated through dyeing and finishing, which results in different layers – the smooth surface grain with pores and the underside or rough. Dirt, hair, sweat and grime can accumulate on the outer layers when riding. Dirt can be ground into the grain and salt from the horse’s sweat can penetrate the fibers, decreasing its longevity. Natural oils that keep the leather supple can also escape through the pores. When leather dries out, it is more likely to crack or break.

To Clean or Not To Clean

To remove dust and dirt from daily riding, a quick swipe over the surfaces with a damp (not wet) sponge may be all you need. If sweat has dried on the leather, you may need to take a bit more time to remove most of the material. If your leather is dry, follow-up with a leather conditioner.

You should perform a very thorough cleaning on all your tack every 1-2 months depending on how often you ride. This includes unfastening all buckles and straps, and cleaning all areas of your saddle. As you do this, check for wear, cracks and loose connections. Inspect the stitching on all tack; stitches can wear out or loosen up, leading to a disaster on a ride. Make sure that your stirrup bars are tight and that your stirrups themselves are in good condition. Remember, metal can wear thin and break too. Check bit fittings as well.


Take a Bite out of Grime

The goal when cleaning your tack is to remove dirt, hair, sweat and grime. This can be done with a soft sponge and gentle soap (make sure to choose one with neutral or slightly acidic pH) and water or a “made for leather soap,” like glycerine soap. Do not use anything with bleach or harsh chemicals, it will harm the leather. Many horse owners are moving towards one-step cleaner/conditioner combos, which save you time and steps.

If your tack is really dirty, you may need to do a thorough cleaning first, then condition. A soft bristle brush or toothbrush is ideal to help clean the crevices, bends in leather and fancy tooling. Always wipe the debris you work to the surface away with a damp cloth.


Don’t Wait, Hydrate

Leather dries out when it’s exposed to excess heat or water. Condition your tack periodically; don’t wait until it feels hard or inflexible, as it will be harder to revive. Applying multiple light layers is better than one or two heavy coats because it allows the conditioner to soak into the leather. You will need to experiment to find the right amount of conditioner. Too much oiling can make the saddle slippery, sticky, leach onto your breeches or chaps, or attract dust and dirt. Avoid conditioners containing petroleum; it can damage the leather and stitching. When trying a new conditioner, always test it in an inconspicuous area first.


Break It In

New leather tack may need to deep conditioned more thoroughly, even before use. Always check with the manufacturer for their guidelines and recommendations. For synthetic tack, skip the oils and conditioners. You can generally rely on mild dish soap and water for keeping your tack clean.


Ride & Shine

If you do not use a girth cover, clean your girth after every ride. Grime and sweat can build up, potentially leading to sores and discomfort for your horse. If you use a sheepskin cover, be sure to brush it once it is dry, and wash it frequently.

Also wipe your horse’s bit off after every ride. This prevents the build-up of dried saliva and hay particles. Most bits can be soaked in warm water and wiped with a clean, wet rag. To get into the nooks and crannies, you may need a toothbrush. Make sure to feel for any sharp areas that may appear as the bit wears.

Whether you find tack cleaning to be a chore or a relaxing pastime, doing so regularly will increase the life of your tack and keep both you and your horse comfortable.