• “People used to worry about having their stitching rot from neatsfoot oil, but modern stitching is synthetic,” said Colleen Meyer. “It doesn’t rot. It won’t harm your stitching. Personally I think neatsfoot oil is really gunky, sticky, and it stains. I wouldn’t use it for that reason, but it won’t rot your stitching.”
• “If you get your saddle wet, treat it like you would treat your own skin. It is skin, it is a hide,” said Meyer. “If you condition it lightly while it’s wet and let it dry naturally, and it’s a good leather, well cared for, not stressed to begin with, it will come out just fine, no matter how wet it got.”
• Your wool-flocked saddle is capable of taking on the shape of whatever it is sitting on, so be careful how you store it. “There will be a ridge in the flocking underneath where they spend 23 hours a day sitting on the metal rail,” said Meyer. She recommends putting a wool blanket or gel pad between your saddle and the rack.
• Mold on tack should be avoided at all costs, so tack will last longer if it’s stored in dry, cold places rather than hot, humid ones. “I know a lot of people keep their bridles and saddles in bags,” said Kitt Hazelton. “Toss a desiccant into the bag if the weather is going to be really damp.”
• While many horsemen swear by olive oil and other household products for tack cleaning, Meyer disagrees. “If you’ve spent that much money on your saddle, there are so many good products that are formulated for leather care,” she said. “Olive oil is more expensive than leather conditioner. You can get a tub of the German Bienenwachs Lederpflege-Crème, and that’s going to last you a long time.”
“It’s always a good idea to check with the manufacturer, especially for a high-grade saddle,” said Meyer. “There are different processes for tanning leather. Most European saddles are vegetable-tanned leather. Most western saddles are chrome-tanned leather.”
Meyer recommends using European tack cleaning products on European leather.
“There is no true black in vegetable tanning. It’s many layers of very dark dye, green, red or blue. So if you’re using a cleaner that is chemically harsh, you can strip layers of that color out,” she explained. “Occasionally we’ll hear reports about a saddle turning green. If you have a European saddle with European leather, stick to European products because you can be fairly certain they were formulated for vegetable-tanned leather.”
Meyer has two personal favorite brands that she uses, Effax and Oakwood.
“As a cleaner, Effax is my favorite,” she said. “It’s German, it’s clean, it’s clear. It’s like toner. It’s so far from the gunky days of bar saddle soap. I take a cloth-covered car waxing sponge— they cost $.50. I wet it. I sprinkle Effax on it, which has a lovely smell, and I wipe it over the saddle. That’s it.
“I like Oakwood because it gives a little bit of waterproofing,” she continued. “The Oakwood conditioner works really well. It’s inexpensive and very effective. It’s popular in the motorcycle world. Those guys are really sticklers about their leather. It’s an Australian product. Oakwood specifically says it won’t stain your stitching, stain your breeches or strip the dye out.”
Hazelton likes to use Passier Lederbalsam for conditioning. “The Effax Lederbalsam is OK too, but I don’t like the smell as well,” she said.
Of course, tack-cleaning standbys like glycerin soap, neatsfoot oil or Murphy Oil Soap won’t ever go away, but Hazelton and Meyer prefer more modern products.
“I do like plain old castile soap for everyday stuff,” said Hazelton. “I used glycerin for years on my saddles, and it worked beautifully, but given some of the technology we have today, and some of the products that are a little more
high tech, maybe we’ve got some stuff that’s better.”
Hazelton also pointed out that the products you choose will depend on where you live.
“I was in Southern California for three years, and we used Horseman’s One Step on the tack because it was so arid and dry. It worked wonderfully,” she said. “If you use Horseman’s One Step up here in New Hampshire, it leaves a nasty residue, so that’s not a product I particularly like for this area, but it did work well in a drier climate.”
Bringing It Back From The Dead
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, tack care falls by the wayside, and you’re left with leather that needs a bit more than wiping off. Maybe that bridle fell behind the tack trunk and has completely dried out, or you got caught in a downpour and your saddle grew a fuzzy coat of mold before you had a chance to take care of it.