Leather Care, Conditioning and Cleaning

Did you know that the hide on your saddle and tack needs the same care as the hide on your hands? You have a $1,000-plus investment on top of the “best horse anyone ever had” and you must take good care of it. Restoring leather is a difficult, if not impossible job that can be easily avoided with proper maintenance.

Beyond this, many people do not realize the harmful effects of dry leather on their horse. Chafing and rubbing from dry, stiff leather can create raw spots on your horse. It is extremely important that tack is completely pliable before being put on a horse. Do your horse a favor and make sure all leather that comes into contact with its skin is soft and pliable.

Leather deteriorates largely by four means:

  1. Oxidation is most readily seen in very old, dry leather. The leather shows surface cracking and flaking, and over-all weakness. Eventually oxidation will turn leather to dust. The only way to stop oxidation is application of  an inert dressing to coat the fibers.
  2. Chemical damage can be caused by the effect of ultraviolet light, ozone, acidic pollutants in the air, or through chemical action following treatment with improper compounds. Both oxidation and chemical damage occur faster at higher temperatures. Leather should be stored away from heat, and not needlessly exposed to sunlight.
  3. Internal wear or breaking of fibers occurs when dry leather is flexed. A lubricant is essential to allow the fibers to slide one against the other.
  4. Abrasion can be caused by friction or dirt particles ground into the leather.

To clean a leather item, first choose a cleaner that will help preserve the natural lubricating oils instead of stripping them. Saddle paste and glycerine soap are commonly used products for saddles and tack. The cleaner of your choice should not leave any greasy residue behind. Residue makes leather susceptible to bacteria and can break down the stitching of your item. Before applying anything to your leather item, be certain to test it out for effect and possible color distortion on an area that isn't visible to the eye. Once you've determined that the leather care product is acceptable to use, apply it to your item and thoroughly remove the cleaning product with a lightly dampened cloth.

Leather conditioners are meant for occasional use. They contain fats and/or oils that help lubricate leather and replenish the suppleness. Look for a product that will penetrate the strong fibers in leather, but beware of any that include petroleum or mineral oils. While petroleum by-products won't damage your leather immediately, they do over a period of time. After 26 years, we still prefer Fiebing's Pure Neatsfoot Oil for reviving extra dry leather, and Ray Holes Saddle Butter, Fiebing's Aussie Leather Conditioner, or Fiebing's 4-Way Care Leather Conditioner for saddles and tack that are in pretty good shape. Just make sure whatever product you use does not contain modern synthetics, mineral oils or commonly used leather-treating chemicals which break down the natural fiber and slowly rot your leather goods.  First, clean your saddle and tack with your favorite soap. Rinse, pat dry and apply a couple of light coats of the conditioner and see the difference.

Don't forget: rawhide needs the same care as high quality leather.  Ray Holes Vaquero Rawhide Cream cleans and conditions rawhide in one step.  You should feel the difference on a bosal after applying this cream. It’s also helpful while braiding rawhide. Ray Holes Vaquero Rawhide Cream is also excellent for cleaning and conditioning light leathers.

For leathers more exposed to the harsh elements, such as boots and chaps, moisture barriers are extremely crucial in preventing rain or other liquid hazards from damaging leather. There is a drawback in protecting leather with a moisture barrier product. They tend to fill in the pores with a greasiness that makes cleaning, conditioning, and polishing difficult, but it's a necessary process to ensure leather isn't destroyed. Periodically apply a moisture barrier and allow it time to penetrate and dry before using your leather item.

For best results, waterproof with Ray Holes Chap Wax or Fiebing's Mink Oil Paste. After cleaning the leather, apply over the whole area. It is best to apply these products at room temperature or slightly warmed up. There are no salts or chemicals in the products, so you can apply as often as necessary.

Polishing is done for special occasions when you want a more glossy finish on your leather. There are a couple things to be wary of when purchasing a polishing agent. Some products contain coloring factors that will brush off on things you come in contact with. Some products also have a tendency to clog the pores in leather or dry leather out. Just as with cleaning, be sure to test out the product on a small area and when ready, buff to a shine.

Removing Mildew
To remove mildew from leather, create a mixture of one-cup rubbing alcohol per one-cup of water. Wipe the mildew area with a cloth dipped in the diluted alcohol, and then allow it to dry completely. Once all mildew has been removed, condition the leather to replenish the oils before reuse.

Wet Leather
An important key to keeping leather in top-notch condition is to treat wet leather before it has a chance to dry. Remove any dirt, mud, or other stains with a mild cleanser, then condition while the pores are still fully responsive. It is critical to remember that leather should be dried away from heat.

Storing Leather
Remember that leather is a natural material and should never be stored in plastic because it encourages the growth of mildew and bacteria and will ruin the leather. Always store leather in a cool, dry place away from heat. If necessary, use a breathable bag for storage.

Would you like more information?
How to Set a Rivet
Leather Tools for Do-It-Yourself Leather Repair