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Tend To Your Tack | Summer 2007 Out Here Magazine

If you remove sweat, foam, and mud off of your leather tack, and keep it properly oiled, it will last for decades.

Weather, dirt, and sweat take their toll

By Lynn Allen
Photography by Andrew Shurtleff

Good riding tack — saddles, halters, bridles — is a major investment, and with care, will last a lifetime.

Some gear is easy to keep clean. Halters, lead ropes, blankets, wraps, and bits are mostly wash and wear.

Leather saddles, bridles, and harnesses, however, take more effort.

The first step to caring for leather is understanding how local weather affects it.

Mold is the great destroyer in humid areas. "If the tack isn't wiped off every day, it will mold," says Susan Yeaman Deal, of Grovesprings Farm, a Culpeper, VA, stable that offers summer camp, lessons, training, and boarding.

"Every time we ride, the bits get rinsed, bridles and saddles get wiped off with a sponge — scratchy on one side to take mud off," Deal says. "Then we squeeze all the water out of the sponge and rub glycerin soap into the leather."

Girths are taken off the saddles, washed, and hung separately, she says. "Anything moist that comes in contact with the leather will cause it to mold," says Deal, who keeps a heater in her tack room to lower humidity.

Conversely, arid climates can be just as damaging to tack.

"Dry leather will rip like paper," says Delbert Jones, who owns the Tack Shack in La Junta, CO, where he builds, repairs, and restores tack.

"I get more stuff because of lack of care. Saddle soap and oil has to be used regularly. If people would learn to do that, they would probably put me out of business," he says.

Water, followed by oil, is the remedy to dehydrated tack, Jones says.

"Some guys buy a set of this old junky-looking, dried-up harness and take it to the car wash and blow the heck out of it with hot water, take it home and when it gets almost dry, paint a light coat of oil on," Jones says. "The pores are open so it'll go in good and deep. It takes several coats. You have to get oil into it between wet and dry, but you can do amazing things with a little hot water."

He recommends wiping sweat, foam, and mud off after every use to prevent salt and mud from pulling precious moisture out of the leather.

Anytime the leather looks or feels dry or stiff, it needs to be oiled, even if it's new. Don't overdo it, however.

"Don't soak anything in oil," he says. "Every time you twist it or it gets hot, that oil comes back out. Oil on the surface collects dirt, which works on the stitching like an abrasive. It'll cut the stitching."

Jones recommends glycerin, lanolin, or other surface product to seal in oil.

"Leather was skin once," he says. "If your gloves get wet, they suck the moisture out of your hands. After a few days, your hands are all dry and cracked and sore. One little dab of lotion isn't going to fix that."

"Leather's the same way," he says. "It takes lots of oil and care. But you'll pass that saddle to your grandkids if you take care of it."

Lynn Allen is an agricultural journalist based in Colorado.