Cleaning & Conditioning

You wouldn’t put yourself through two dozen work-outs in a dirty environment without regular clean-ups, so don’t’ do it to your saddle.

Like most of us, saddles don’t respond well to neglect.  The abuse of a rough work-out, the residue from a dusty world, and the damage by a changeable climate are part of a horse-riding lifestyle, but they all take their toll on a saddle.  Without regular cleaning and conditioning, your saddle will age long before its time.  You will see this impact in an altered appearance, and you will feel it in a stiffening hide.  By making saddle upkeep part of your normal riding routine, you can reduce wear and tear while prolonging the life of your saddle.

Consider How You Ride the Hide

Schedule your saddle cleaning and conditioning according to your usage pattern.  Make it a twice-yearly or thrice-yearly operation if you use your saddle once every week or two, but do it every two to three months if you ride every day.  Although it’s possible to over-condition a saddle, it’s never a bad idea to free it of dirt and debris with a soft, clean, slightly damp sponge every time you return from a ride.

Saddle Survival Kit
There is a bewildering array of saddle care products on the market today, but we have found the following ones to be especially good:

•    Soap: Fiebing’s saddle soap paste or glycerin bar soap or gel (used with tack sponges)
•    Synthetic Saddle Cleaners: These are designed specifically for faux leather and other man-made materials.
•    Oil: 100% pure neatsfoot oil (never use diluted forms)
•    Conditioner: Skidmore’s leather cream, a carefully guarded trade secret among boot makers and saddlemakers
•    Rawhide Cream: Vaquero rawhide cream softens, preserves, and protects rawhide without compromising its strength.

Saddle No-No’s
Stay away from the following products or practices:

•    Wax, Silicone, or Lacquer Finishes: They effectively suffocate leather by sealing its pores and making it unable to absorb oil or conditioner.  They also create a hard surface that makes leather brittle.
•    Dubbins (Tallow and Oil) or Greases: These have the same pore-clogging drawback as wax, silicone, or lacquer, with the added disadvantage of being sticky and wet, so they attract dirt and extend drying time.
•    Harmful Agents: These include caustic household chemicals or preparations that contain turpentine, mineral spirits, or alcohol.
•    Mink Oil or Animal Fat: These tend to darken leather, and fats can putrefy, causing leather and stitching to crumble and noses to wrinkle.
•    Liquid Soaps: These water-heavy products over-moisturize your saddle.
•    Oil Overkill: Avoid too much of a good thing, as excessive oil drowns fibers, attracts dirt, and weakens leather.  Use oil sparingly and infrequently, and never apply it to a dirty saddle.

Nine Steps to a Clean Leather Saddle
Follow these directions to clean a genuine hide saddle:

1.    Position your saddle on a saddle stand.
2.    Detach any add-ons, such as stirrups and girths.
3.    Use a dry cloth to remove surface dust and debris.
4.    With a tack sponge, work up a thick lather by using as little water as possible with saddle soap paste or glycerin bar soap or gel.
5.    Wash the saddle and its attachments section by section, cleaning both the top side and underside and paying particular attention to those places that come into direct contact with the horse.
6.    Use a stiff-bristled brush to raise the nap of any rough-out or suede pieces.  Be careful here, as too much force or overly frequent brushing can make holes.
7.    Use a smaller, softer brush to reach between crevices and into tight spots.
8.    With a minimum amount of warm water and a clean sponge or rage, rinse all traces of soap from the saddle.
9.    Give the saddle enough time to dry naturally, away from any direct heat or sunlight.

Three Steps to a Clean Synthetic Saddle
Clean-up is easier with a synthetic saddle, and conditioning is not necessary.  Follow these guidelines to spruce up a saddle with man-made material:

1.    Remove dirt and debris with a stiff, dry brush and wipe away any remaining loosened residue.
2.    Using a synthetic saddle cleaner or mild soap with a softer brush, scrub the saddle top to bottom and front to back.
3.    Use clean water to rinse off the saddle.  If any part of the saddle is leather, clean and condition it as instructed above and take care not to saturate the hide.

Conditioning a Leather Saddle
Once your leather saddle is squeaky-clean, it’s time to condition it with oil or a conditioning cream.  Too much oil attracts dirt, smothers pores, and weakens leather, so limit its application to only once or twice a year and use conditioning cream for the other times.  Never use oil on rawhide-covered parts, which require rawhide cream instead.

When oiling a saddle, use a soft rag to apply a light but even coat of 100% pure neatsfoot oil to only the grain (smooth) side of the leather and not the rough-out side. An uneven application can cause spotting, so be consistent.  When using conditioning cream, apply a similarly light but even coat and work it into all the hiding places.  Give the saddle an hour to absorb the oil or conditioner before removing any residue with a soft, dry cloth and buff.

Make this maintenance program a regular part of your horse-riding routine.  Both Father Time and Mother Nature will be much kinder to your saddle.

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