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Care of the Western Saddle
by Dusty Johnson

As leather prices continue to rise, so does the resale value of leather items.  A good saddle may be a very good investment both in long term comfort and, sometimes, in financial return.   A used, 20 year old saddle can often be sold for its original price or more if it is in good condition.  Cleaning and conditioning will not help much if the saddle is mistreated on a regular basis.  It should be protected from excessive or prolonged wetting.  This could soften the rawhide on the tree or cause the surface leather to stretch.  When it dries it is liable to crack and the evaporation of water takes the oils with it.

western saddleAvoid extreme heat, such as the trunk of your car or in a window exposed to sunlight for long periods.  Store the saddle in a dry place on a saddle stand.  Saddles are intended to fit horses and tend to curl up when put on something much narrower like a fence rail or sawhorse.  Leather has a memory” and tends to curl up and stay that way.  Once it is badly curled there is not much that can be done about it. 

Do allow the stirrups to touch the floor as the fenders may be bent out of shape.  When stored the stirrups should be twisted into a riding position and held that way with a stick through them both (a broomstick works fine).  Never allow any leather to touch the floor during storage because it allows small “critters” to crawl up the saddle and do damage to the leather and sheepskin.  When the saddle is in storage always cover it to keep off the dust.  Dust can settle into the pores and damage leather over a period of time.

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Never lay the saddle on the ground.  If it must lie on the ground for a short time it should be laid on its side with the fenders and stirrup leathers laying smoothly in a natural position.  If the sheepskin is allowed to touch ground it can pick up sticks, dirt and debris, all of which are hard to clean off and can be even harder on a horse’s back.

Tanned leather won’t last long without regular cleaning, conditioning and protection from the elements.  The most important cleaning tools are time and elbow grease.  Regular care makes cleaning and conditioning a short job, but let it go and it will be a half-day chore. A number of good products are available today, but beware of anything that claims to “clean, condition and protect” in one operation.  Logic will tell you that this cannot truly be so. The best products are individually formulated to work together to meet all three of these basic requirements  ... without causing damage to the leather.

Cleaning dirt, sweat and other damaging substances from the surface of the leather.  The oil in the leather naturally attracts dirt!  A good cleaning agent breaks down the oil to remove the dirt.  Most soaps are alkaline and may damage leather if left on for any length of time.  Most soaps intended for leather contain glycerin to begin conditioning while removing oils.

antique saddleI cannot recommend saddle soaps because they contain too many fats that are liable to plug up the pores of the leather and not allow the dirt to be washed out while cleaning.  (I make a lather from a bar of Ivory soap and scrub my saddle with it.)  First, wipe the saddle with a wet cloth, then work in the Ivory lather and flush with a very wet cloth.  Liberal water is needed to flush away the dirt.  It makes no sense to just move the dirt from place to place.

Use a well wrung-out sponge or rag so that the excess water doesn’t carry the alkaline soap deeply into the fibers.  Rinse the sponge frequently and use clear water to wipe away excess soap lather. 

Give an extra washing to the areas that have come in contact with sweat, such as the underside of the cinch strap, the back side of the fenders and stirrup leathers, the flank cinch and the billets.  Allow the saddle to dry at room temperature.  Never allow it to dry in direct sun or too close to a heater as this will cause the leather surface to shrink and make it crack.  Once it cracks it cannot be repaired. 

Once leather fibers have become brittle and dry, all the oiling and conditioning in the world will not make it strong again.  If the leather has deep cracks or is powdery, it is too late.  You may be able to make it look better, but it will never be whole again.  One way to judge the leather’s strength is to twist it severely back and forth.  Pull at the stitches and try to tear them.  If they tear apart they are rotted beyond repair. Further, if you can damage the leather in any way with your bare hands you don’t want to trust it and must consider it unsafe to use.

stirrupMildew is one of those good news, bad news affairs.  On one hand, mildew’s presence means there are still oils in your leather.  You never find mildew on leather that has been completely dried out. On the other hand, it is a sign that destructive molds are at work.  Its presence is made known by either a white powder or a blue-green “sticky” surface, particularly around brass fittings and rivets. An excellent way to get rid of it is to use white vinegar straight from the bottle.  Sponge the entire surface of the leather, applying heavier over the offending areas.  Repeat until the mildew is gone.  Rinse out with clear water and thoroughly wash the leather with Ivory soap to minimize any damage the vinegar may have done. Set aside to thoroughly dry before applying conditioner.  Be sure to keep this saddle in a very dry area to prevent this from happening again.

 

Since removes most oil, the next step is to replace the saddle’s oil and rejuvenate the leather.  Leather conditioners restore softness, flexibility and strength.  You can test a conditioner by applying a small amount to the back of your hand.  If it feels sticky or greasy, it will attract dirt and probably won’t be absorbed into the leather.  If it burns your hand, it will burn the leather, too.

Unlike cleaning, leather conditioning should only be done periodically depending on the amount of use and climate that the saddle is exposed to.  Over-conditioning will not make it stronger or better.  There is only so much oil that a piece of leather can absorb.  Too much oil can cause the leather to become mushy and allow the fibers to detach from each other.  This makes the leather weak and unsafe.

Before I talk about what conditioners to use, let me tell you what NOT to use.  Please never, never, never use bacon grease, motor oil, lard, unsalted butter, olive oil or any type of food product.  Food products (olive oil, lard, etc.) will live in the fibers of the leather and will begin to decompose (turn rancid) in warm weather.  This rancid action will rot the leather, too.  Remember, leather is skin — “dried meat” — and anything that is in contact with it will transfer its rotting bacteria easily to the internal fibers.  Never try to condition with anything that is based on a food product!

mecum saddleMy longtime favorite leather dressing is 100% pure neatsfoot oil. This old standby for leather conditioning was produced by boiling cattle hooves and skimming off the oil.  True neatsfoot oil is no longer available.  Every can that has “neatsfoot” on its label does not contain the same product.  Products with this name now on the market are actually blends of various fats and oils such as lard oil and petroleum based oils.  Manufacturers are reluctant to reveal their formulas, however, some contain animal-based oils such as mink oil, lanolin and fish oils.  Others contain plant-derived oils, primarily vegetable oils, while still others are based on beeswax.  They have a variety of consistencies and spreading rates.

Always use “pure” neatsfoot oil. Neatsfoot oil containers labeled “compound” contain a mixture of animal fat with petroleum-based mineral oils.   Petroleum oils are not the bogeymen many people have made them out to be.  They do not rot stitching any more than other leather care products do.  However, they do tend to darken the leather very much!  They also tend to “spread” indefinitely.  While vegetable oils bond with leather and stay put, mineral oils do not.  The excess oil will end up on your hands, clothing and other places you probably don’t want it.

Avoid the compound and always stay with “pure” neatsfoot oils.  Each saddlemaker and tanner usually has a favorite conditioner, however, they all agree that they should be made of animal - not vegetable - fat since they most closely resemble the natural moisturizers that the cow originally produced for himself.

Apply the oil in thin coats.  Let it soak into the leather for a while and then go back over it again.  Two or three light coats will spread nicely and penetrate much better than fully soaking the leather.  After the last coat, go back over the entire saddle with a dry cloth to wipe off any excess.

(A short side note: ... Be sure to pull the stirrup leathers part way out and oil where they bend around the bars.  Most folks forget to do this and this is an area that takes a lot of stress.  DON’T pull the leathers out all the way as it is very difficult to get them back in place!)

saddled horseAfter the has had time to spread evenly (usually overnight) some form of surface protection must be applied.  This is a step that is frequently overlooked.  If some sort of sealer is not applied the oils will dry out fairly quickly and dust and dirt will work into the fibers of the leather.

Avoid any kind of finish that is sticky as this will attract dirt and will soil your clothing each time you ride.  Examples of the finishes NOT to use are: oil, wax products,  seal, waterproof waxes, etc.

Most natural waxes such as beeswax be used if applied very sparingly.  Never allow them to cake up in carved or stamped leather.   This not only looks bad, but it chokes off any air or oil that could be beneficial to the leather.    The worst thing you can do to leather is apply a lacquer finish of some type.  Lacquer seals the grain surface and the leather cannot breathe and it will have to be stripped before any leather conditioner can be applied again and this requires the use of acetone or some type of lacquer thinner.  These harsh substances will permanently damage the surface of the leather.  The commercial names of products of this type give themselves away.  A simple rule in my saddle shop is “If it ends in -lac, put it back”.

I prefer simple, flexible wax finishes.  Some companies make these in liquid form and others offer them in spray containers.  New products are being introduced almost weekly.  Before using them always try a sample on a small piece of leather and test for ease of removal and affect it will have on leather color.

A very beautiful and mellow finish can be had by simply using a bar of pure glycerin. (Yes, the same glycerin bar you used to clean the saddle)  By polishing with glycerin on a slightly damp cloth, you will put on a very mellow shine and provide an oil free surface that doesn’t attract dust and dirt.  Be very careful to have your cloth “dry” when polishing over the carving and stamping or you’ll defeat your previous cleaning work by clogging all of the deep areas with the glycerin residue.

Don’t neglect the tie-straps, latigos and saddle strings while doing this cleaning and conditioning.  These items are more exposed to sweat and salt than the rest of the saddle and need excellent care to extend their useful life.

How frequently should all of this be done??  If you ride daily, in addition to wiping off the saddle daily with a damp cloth, it should be thoroughly cleaned every 6 to 8 weeks if your area is average in humidity.  More frequently if it is very dry.  If your saddle becomes extremely wet (heavy rain, fording a stream, leak in the roof of the barn)  the cleaning and oiling procedure should begin immediately.  A thin coat of leather dressing will slow down the drying procedure and will help prevent curling.  When it has gotten back to dry condition proceed as you would after a normal cleaning.

If you only ride occasionally, the leather treatments need only be done twice a year.  If your saddle sits on a rack in your home as only a display an annual treatment should be adequate.

A well-built saddle that is cared for consistently should outlast many horses.  It may even outlast the owner to become a treasured heirloom appreciated by the next generation or two.


Author Bio: Dusty Johnson has been a leatherworker and saddlemaker for more than 50 years.  He operates the Pleasant Valley Saddle Shop and School in Loveland, Colorado.  He is also the President of Pleasant Valley, Inc and Saddleman Press.  Saddleman Press currently publishes books and videos of saddlemaking instruction, holster making instruction and details of how to make chaps.  Contact Dusty at:  Pleasant Valley Saddle Shop, 1220 So. County Road 21, Loveland, CO, 80537, USA.  Telephone (970)669-1588 or email to DustyJohn@aol.com



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