Every spring, people come into the store saying: “I’m going to clean my saddle. Where is the oil?” To which I reply, “Oiling is not cleaning. Do you have saddle soap? A sponge and a soft brush? A couple of buckets for warm water?” To which they reply, “Ah, no.”
I explain that we treat our saddles like our skin. We use saddle soap and lots of water to wash away dirt, salt from our horses, and anything else that gets splashed across us and our saddles during a spring calf branding! We don’t just use oil on our skin to wash away dirt, so why would we do that to our saddles and tack that are made of cowhide (a skin)
This is the job list which over the years has kept our saddles looking and feeling good:
Two buckets of a fairly large size;
Saddle soap, preferably the glycerin bar type;
A soft bristle brush (ie. old horse curry, fingernail brush);
A new or old bath sponge;
A leather conditioner (something liquid that will penetrate –not waxy);
Some kind of top coat wax (i.e. depending if you want a shiny finish or a rainproof one – Ray Hole’s Saddle Butter for rain proofing, Fiebings Tan Kote (which is a wax top matte finish). Both products are available for sale in the store.
So after we find everything you need for this daunting project, we give you the quick version of washing.
On a reasonably warm (not hot) day (outside or in your garage), fill two buckets of warm water.
Get your saddle on a rack that won’t matter if you get it wet.
Have your saddle soap, soft bristle brush or old bath sponge at the ready.
If you want a thorough cleaning of all parts, take off the fenders, stirrups, rear cinch (billets and belly band if you have one), front cinch, latigo, and off-side billet and set them aside.
Soap, Rinse and Repeat!
Wet your sponge and start with the skirts, left or right side, front to back, wet the whole skirt. This way, if the entire skirt is wet and you drop water on it, it won’t leave a watermark stain.
Lather up your sponge with your saddle soap and start scrubbing in circular motions where you just wet. The stuff that comes up on your sponge is gray or muddy and leaves the water murky and muddy when you rinse. This is lifting the dirt, salt and horse oils off the surface. Rinse and repeat across the whole skirt. Repeat again if it’s been a while (or never) since your saddle has been washed. For those saddles with tooling or carving design on them, this is where the soft bristle brush or toothbrush comes in. Wet, lather, scrub, rinse and repeat.
Once you have the skirt washed and rinsed, it’s time to move up to the rear jockeys, cantle, Cheyenne roll, and front of the saddle. Wet only the section you are working on at present. Soap, scrub, rinse and repeat.
Washing the Suede vs. Smooth Leather Seat
If you have a suede seat and your saddle is fairly new, a good brush with a dry curry will get the dust out. If you have an older saddle where the roughness has been worn off by use, you can wet and soap it up like any other part of the saddle. There are suede cleaners on the market (Fiebing`s Suede Nubuck Cleaner is one) if you are hesitant about wetting the suede. Not all stains will come out with soap and water or a cleaner.
If you have a smooth leather seat, wetting, soaping, rinsing and repeating are the same processes to cleaning.
The Rest of the Saddle
Once you have completed one side, it’s the same for the other side and all the parts that you have removed. You may want to clean the other parts on a picnic table or an old table to lay everything flat to dry.
At this time, when the fenders are wet, you may want to bend and shape them so that they are turned. Once they dry, they will stay that way. Only if you thoroughly wet the fenders and let them completely dry, will they stay bent for your foot to easily find them when on the saddle.
Drying time depends on the heat, humidity, etc. of where you washed your saddle. Please don’t leave your saddles to dry in the direct sun, as the heat tends to dry things out too fast and curls things like jockeys and skirts up. So in a warm garage, it will take almost 24 hours to dry out.
Putting on a conditioner is next and may be done even when the saddle is slightly cool to the touch (meaning it’s not completely dry). Use another sponge or some type of applicator to put on the conditioner. Usually, even when conditioning leather, some additional dirt will be lifted out so rinse and wring out your applicator as you go.
Waiting, Be Patient
Once the conditioner is put on, you need to leave the saddle for an additional couple of hours to let the conditioner soak in–1. to see if you need an additional coat(s), and to let any further moisture evaporate.
Waxing or Waterproofing
If you are a fair weather rider (one I seem to be turning into the older I get) an acrylic or water-based wax is good to keep in the conditioner you just perspired over and keep the dust and grit from penetrating too far.
If you occasionally get caught in a downpour (which is hard not to do on longer trail rides or working conditions), something like Ray Hole’s Saddle Butter is good for repelling water and may only need to be touched up on a monthly basis. It will mean more soaping and scrubbing to clean later, but worth the effort to keep your saddle from getting saturated in an all-day rain.
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