Your saddle is most likely going to be the most expensive piece of horse tack you’re going to buy.
A good saddle will run you anywhere from hundreds to thousands (depending on the type of saddle you need) – and because of that, it’s worth the time and effort to do everything in your power to keep it in good condition for as long as possible.
Reasons why you should care well for your saddle:
- You can irrevocably damage your saddle leather by cleaning it, oiling it or conditioning it too much, so have a care when cleaning your saddle.
- Storing your saddle correctly will help avoid stretching or misshaping your saddle.
- Avoid extreme temperatures and humidity to preserve the leather on your saddle.
- Your saddle is one of the most expensive pieces of tack you’ll buy, so taking care of it pays off!
Saddles are most often made out of leather, meaning they’re made out of animal hide.
Saddles can also be made out of synthetic materials, such as durable fabrics or faux leather, and these most often contain or are made of some type of plastic.
Faux leather is made with a plastic base which is treated with wax, dye or polyurethane to create the desired colour and texture.
Durable synthetic fabrics in saddles are typically some kind of nylon (a silk-like thermoplastic) or vinyl (polyvinyl chloride aka PVC) or polyurethane (plastic polymers) and require less care than a leather saddle.
Saddles come from a factory or a saddle maker’s shop with the leather conditioned and ready to be used.
Though a new piece of leather tack will never look or feel as good as an old piece that’s been well taken care of.
Saddle makers will usually include information on how to best care for the saddle and I definitely recommend following the maker’s instructions as they know their saddle best.
If you’ve bought your saddle second hand or have lost the care instructions, chances are that you can check the manufacturer’s website for care instructions or a customer service line to reach out to.
Sweat is harmful to genuine leather because the salt in it dries the leather. Eventually, the leather will crack and deteriorate if you don’t clean out the salt.
Any leather tack that comes in contact with sweat – saddles, bridles, harnesses etc. – should always be cleaned after use.
Cleaning is the cornerstone of saddle care.
The cleaner you keep your saddle, the better it will age.
Never put your saddle away dirty.
Though a leather saddle is pretty hardy and can take heavy use in its stride, you should check and clean it after every ride.
Most often a good dusting and wiping off any stuck dirt is enough, you don’t have to break out the entire arsenal of cleaning products every time.
By always brushing off and wiping down your saddle after use, you’ll spot any issues or areas that need attention early on.
When your saddle needs a thorough cleaning, put it on your saddle tree or throw it over a fence for easy access to all parts of the saddle. It’s best to keep it in the shade to make sure it doesn’t end up blotchy from sun exposure.
1) Prepare your saddle for cleaning.
Remove the cinch, stirrups and any other parts that come off to clean separately.
If you have a Western saddle with sheepskin or fleece on the underside, turn it upside down on a blanket and vacuum the underside.
An unused paintbrush works well to clear out any sand, dirt and dust that’s gotten lodged in the gullet, around the bottom of the horn, under the skirts or around the conchos.
Use a damp towel to gently clean the surface of the leather and remove dirt, dust, mud, hair and anything else that may have accumulated on it.
The dirtiest part of the saddle is the underside.
All the sweat and moisture that seeped through the saddle pad is on the underside, so make sure you clean away all the salt.
The same goes for any leather that’s been in contact with your horse’s skin: bridles, reins, stirrup leathers, girth straps etc.
Keep turning your cloth to a new side of your saddle is very dirty.
Any dirt or sand trapped between the cloth and leather will start scratching the surface of the leather.
If your saddle has intricate tooling, make sure to get the dirt out of any decorative areas with a towel or a small paintbrush.
If your saddle has suede areas, brush the dirt out of them with a suede brush (the hard side with metal bristles is for removing dirt that’s really stuck in, the rubber bristles are for lighter cleaning and finishing).
2) Clean your saddle.
There are two ways to clean your leather saddle.
The most typical way people will teach you is to take a clean, wet sponge, apply a thin layer of saddle soap or leather cleaner to your saddle using small, circular motions.
Cover the entire leather area of your saddle (avoid getting any suede areas wet), including the underside of the leather and between flaps.
If your saddle is dirty and you notice your sponge getting dirty, rinse it and reapply as many times as needed.
Again, any dirt trapped on the sponge and rubbed into the leather will damage the leather.
Only go into your saddle soap jar with a dirt-free sponge because any dirt that gets pushed into the soap will eventually end up rubbing against the leather.
Once you’ve covered your whole saddle in soap, take a clean, damp towel and wipe down the entire saddle.
You want to remove any excess soap residue from your leather, so make sure you get into all the folds and crevices where the soap can accumulate and damage the leather over time.
And make sure you’re washing the underside!
You’d be surprised how often people just plop a saddle on a stand and don’t even touch the panels, padding or gullet (where all the sweat is).
Dry-rot is the number one killer of plump wallets because having a saddle seat replaced can easily cost hundreds. Wherever there’s sweat left on the saddle, the leather will start cracking and the stitching will wear down.
The other way, which I like to use when the horse sweats a lot (such as in hot weather or after a strenuous workout), is to skip the sponge and wash the leather with a hose and saddle soap.
This only works on saddles that are well cared for – the water will simply run off the surface of the leather – and that don’t have any suede of fabric parts attached (because you want to be able to dry the leather with a towel, not leave it to dry on its own which will damage the leather).
Once you’ve washed off the saddle, dry it with a towel and make sure you get in every nook and cranny where the water touched it.
If you leave it to dry by itself, it’ll become covered in splotches that you can’t get out because the water will dry unevenly – it’ll be even worse if you leave it out in the sunshine where the water acts like a magnifying glass and further ruins the leather.
3) Conditioning your saddle.
Once you’ve dried your saddle, it’s time to apply your leather conditioner. When you condition your leather after every use, it’ll be supple and resistant to water.
Water will simply bead off the leather and you won’t have to worry about getting rain spots all over your saddle after riding in the rain!
Leather will stay fantastic when you take good care of it.
Use a non-detergent conditioner and make sure to not over-apply.
Too much conditioner can penetrate through the padding, even to the tree, and cause damage over time.
Use the conditioner sparingly, take a little bit at a time and vigorously spread it out.
Rubbing it with a cloth will also give it a nice, shiny finish (just like when polishing shoes!). For saddles with fine tooling, I like to use a soft shoe-shining brush to get the conditioner in everywhere and give it a nice finish.
It’s better to put too little the first time and then go around with a second coat than to put too much in the first place.
When you’ve finished with the leather, take a dry cloth (microfiber works well!) and clean the metal fittings.
If your saddle has silver buckles, use silver polish to clean them. Be careful to not get any polish on the leather and use a separate towel for the silver polish.
4) Cleaning the removed saddle parts.
Some people like to clean all leather pieces at the same time, others prefer to first do the saddle and then all the parts you removed in the prep phase.
With all the leather parts that you took off the saddle, you’ll want to repeat the same steps as with cleaning the saddle.
Depending on what material the cinch is made of, you can brush it or wipe it clean with a damp towel.
If your stirrups are very dirty they may require a wash. Use water and a brush to wash the dirt off, then dry them with a clean towel.
Once every part of your saddle is clean and dry, it’s time to reassemble your saddle and place it in storage.
How to store your saddle the right way.
Store your saddle in a cool, dry place where it’s protected from temperature changes, extreme heat and extreme cold.
Have a saddle stand shaped like a horse’s back or wall-mounted saddle racks where to place your saddle so that it’s stored in the same way it sits on your horse’s back.
I prefer a wooden saddle stand because it’s sturdy and won’t wobble when you’re using it. If you’re tight on space or need a portable stand, you can also find foldable saddle stands.
Notes for Western saddles:
- Never leave the stirrups hanging from the pommel. This causes the skirt and fenders to bend in an unnatural way.
- If you need to set your saddle down on the ground – only temporarily! – make sure you stand it on end with the pommel and horn towards the ground and the cantle in the air. This will prevent the tree or leather from bending.
- When storing Westerns on a rack, their stirrups are left down and the saddles take a bit more space in storage due to their larger size, so make sure you account for this when choosing and mounting racks on the wall.
Notes for English saddles:
- Stow your saddle with the stirrups pulled up and secured. Make sure they’re clean and dry before storing! Don’t leave them hanging crossed over the saddle seat.
- Do not store the girth on top of the saddle seat! If there’s any sweat, dirt or moisture in the cinch, it’ll seep into your seat leaving you in need of expensive repairs and replacements.
Store your saddle pads separately from your saddle – do not throw the saddle pad on top of your saddle.
You can rig up a rack in your tack room to store your saddle pads (always a good idea to have a few) separately so that they can dry out completely between uses.
Clean your saddle pads after every ride and wash them as needed. Rotating your saddle pads often will mean your saddle will always sit on a clean, salt-free pad.
If you’re a sucker for nice looking leather, like me, you’ll wash and condition the tack after every use.
To further protect your saddle, you can use a dust cover that will keep it safe while not in use, though this isn’t necessary for a saddle that sees a lot of regular use (because then you’re constantly checking and maintaining it).
If you want to put a saddle in long-term storage you should definitely have a good dust cover.
Choosing your saddle cleaning supplies.
It’s a good idea to check with the manufacturer of the saddle to see what kind of products they recommend using for their saddles.
By following the manufacturer’s guidelines, you’ll be more likely to successfully increase the longevity of your saddle.
What you need for cleaning your saddle:
- Bristle brush
- Small paint brush (optional)
- Leather cleaner or saddle soap
- Leather conditioner
- Accessory cleaner
- Bucket of water
Since leather is a natural product it’s best to stick to natural ingredients when caring for leather.
Most leather today is sewn with nylon and polyester thread, rather than linen cord, and since they are plastic are more likely to be susceptible to any harmful effects any kind of petroleum can have on them.
And the last thing you want is for the stitching in your saddle to come apart!
Some people will say that a petroleum product is better for the leather and that the petroleum completely evaporates, but there will typically always be some kind of residue left.
Advertisers and manufacturers want you to buy their products, so reading the label to check ALL the ingredients is a good idea.
Some manufacturers will sell their products as a 100% natural product, but when you flip the jar over and check the ingredients you’ll see that they’ve still used some kind of petroleum distillate or mineral oil as a carrier.
When choosing your leather care products, read the ingredients to make sure each ingredient listed is a by-product of animal or plant material and doesn’t contain synthetic oils.
Beeswax, carnauba wax, pure neatsfoot oil (made from cattle hooves) and different types of fats and tallows are best.
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