Saddle Fit and The Proper Care of your Saddle
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As with anything you own, taking time to take the proper care of your precious leather goods greatly enhances their appearance and lifespan, no matter the brand. Nowadays, saddles cost enough that they can easily be considered investments, and proper “tune ups” easily extend lifespans to 15-20 years (a good quality, adjustable saddle that fits the rider and can be re-fitted to the horse as necessary). So what does this really mean when it comes to cleaning and maintain your saddle and tack?
Saddle soaps are exactly what their names imply—soaps—and should be used for cleansing only. Soap (usually somewhat basic in its pH level) and sweat (more on the acidic side) are the two greatest enemies of skin, impacting leather longevity and appearance if not removed. Saddle soap rids accumulated sweat and grime which, if left on, will result in the leather becoming brittle and cracking. Better just to use water rather than leave on a layer of saddle soap. A clean saddle doesn’t irritate your horse’s hide, although most people protect their saddles with a pad, which is easily washed. Important here is to find a detergent that won’t irritate your horse’s skin as you keep the pad cleaned.
Soaps containing built-in moisturizers are beneficial only because they remove less natural lubricants of the leather during washing. But think: after washing your hair, you rinse out the shampoo; after washing your hands, the soap is rinsed off; then conditioner or a hand lotion is applied to return some of the moisture removed by the soap. Leather gets destroyed by unremoved soap faster because of more chemicals remaining on the surface. Every time you clean your saddle, the soap (even glycerine) should be rinsed off and moisturizer applied, since leather is no longer alive and cannot replenish its moisture content itself.
NOTE: Leather is basically treated dead skin (via tanning) and still retains about 25% moisture. Historically, the tanning process was called “vegetable tanning” using cedar oil, alum, or tannin (derived from oak or fir trees) as the tanning agent. After the mid-1800s, chromium (chemical) tanning became more popular, as it was deemed more efficient and more effective. Either process permanently alters the protein structure of the skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition from bacterial attack. In some countries, urine was (is) used to tan leather, leaving the end product with a very distinctive and unpleasant odor! Tanning takes about six weeks, but an alternative to tanning is simply drying the hide, which results in rawhide. Leather is an incredibly versatile and natural product—it can be made into incredibly soft, delicate material used for gloves and other outerwear; it can also be made into impenetrable armour. The waste from tanneries can be extremely detrimental to the environment (especially in third-world countries with little environmental protection policies!), but they have largely disappeared from the North American landscape over the last decades, which can account partially in the increased cost of products made from leather, since most leather is now available only from overseas—Europe, Asia, or South America.
We recommend that for moisturizing, you use a leather cream without any cleaning ingredients. Leather oil should be used sparingly once or twice to darken the original color, and thereafter only on the saddle panel as a lubricant—the wool will soak up any excess. On the seat, it will soak through into the laminated glued layers of the tree, possibly eventually causing tree breakage. (True for most English saddles which still use beechwood trees; not so much for saddles made with synthetic bases.) Oil should not be used anywhere the leather comes into contact with you (breeches, gloves) as it discolors these. Oiled flaps can soften the leather, making them too flexible. If used too generously on bridles, the leather may stretch out of shape. Use only products that are meant for leather—olive oil for salads, baby oil for babies!
Saddles and tack should be cleaned after every use; at least wiped over and then cleaned thoroughly once a week. If you store your saddle or tack over a longer period of time, keep it at room temperature—never cooler than 5⁰C—with 30-40% humidity to retain leather suppleness. Mildew is sometimes an unpleasant by-product of storage, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing! Mildew development indicates that the leather is still alive with enough moisture content to allow its growth. Giving your saddle or bridle a good wash and applying leather moisturizer will quickly restore the original looks.
The best kind of saddle rack to store your saddle is one that is the same length of the gullet, either free-standing or wall mounted. The panels of the saddle should not be touching the saddle rack to maintain their form. When riding, the panels heat up from the horse’s back. The warmed leather and wool could actually change shape to the shape of the rack if not allowed to cool before storing. The best materials for a saddle rack are materials that do not retain moisture because if the leather is damp when put away, this could cause mold. Saddle racks should not have anything that protrudes into the gullet causing scuffing of the leather and should support the saddle from pommel to cantle. Overall, the saddle rack should not interfere with the panels or the gullet. A saddle cover is good to keep out excess dirt and moisture while the saddle is not in use. There are many good products available on the market that will help you store your saddle properly, but best is to have nothing touching the panels at all to let them air out completely.
Following these few simple steps should ensure you have a saddle to enjoy for many years. At the very least it will still look good, but remember, looks aren’t the only thing that you should be concerned about! FIT is probably even more crucial to ensuring that you get maximum use and enjoyment out of your investment (and your horse will thank you even more for!)