Leather Therapy Makes Leather Behave...Beautifully

Leather Care is a Balancing Act

Everyone knows that their leather tack benefits from an occasional application of a good leather conditioner. In the tanning process, a liquor of fats and oils is tumbled with preserved hides to lubricate the leather’s microscopic protein bonds and make it supple.

Over time, however, some of that lubricating liquor dries out or gets floated away when water is used in the cleaning process. Enter conscientious tack owners who decide that it is time to replenish that fat liquor and restore their leather to its supple best. So far, so good.

In the good ole American way, however, our conscientious owners think that if a little conditioner is good, a lot will be better. The Guilty Rider has neglected his tack. Now it feels dry and sounds creaky. He figures he can “catch up” by really pouring conditioner on. The Hustler is always in a hurry, always looking for short cuts. She figures that the more conditioner she uses now, the longer she can go before she has to condition again. The Perfectionist just did her tack three days ago and she really loves the way it looks. She figures if she conditions again, the leather will be even nicer still. Whatever the rationale, they slather their leather front and back, top and bottom with as much conditioner as the leather will soak up. Then they slather on a little more for good measure.

When these riders daub excess conditioner on their tack, however, they may not get the results they want. Like a sponge absorbing water, leather can only soak up so much conditioner at any given time. Our Guilty Rider may get good results because dry leather that has lost its lubricating emollients can absorb “extra” conditioner. Our other two riders are likely to find sticky residue left on the leather’s surface that rubs off on their clothes and attracts dirt.

Riders can be disappointed by leather conditioners for other reasons, too. They may have chosen the wrong product. Thick, viscous paste-type conditioners cannot flow into the leather’s inner corium and tend to stay on the surface. Or the leather’s surface may be sealed so that conditioner cannot penetrate. When sealers (on, for example, a Western saddle that has been treated with shellac to give it a showroom shine) rub away in some spots but not in others, the leather absorbs conditioner unevenly and can develop a mottled appearance.

Finding the right balance between too little leather conditioning and too much is an individual thing for each piece of tack. It will depend on a mix of factors including how often the tack is used and under what conditions, how hot or cold or humid or dry the climate is, and where the tack is stored. When horse owners use bridles, saddles and other gear regularly, they develop a sense about when the leather may be getting a little drier, stiffer, or even “creakier”. Ideally, they will condition the leather before those changes become too evident. Leather saddles that are used hard under extreme conditions of dry or wet will need frequent conditioning. Leather that is used very little may only need conditioning several times a year depending on the climate and storage.

When it’s time to condition your leather, wipe a thin, even coating of conditioner on all of the leather surfaces you can reach. Open up buckles, reach under flaps and skirts, and spread conditioner on any surfaces you can reach (the exception is sueded leather surfaces which should only be brushed). Give the conditioner a little time to soak in then recheck the tack. Dry leather may need a second application. Wipe the leather down with a dry, lint-free rag to remove any excess conditioner not absorbed by the leather.

Cleaning leather is a balancing act, too. Theoretically, water is leather’s enemy. When leather becomes saturated with water, the water temporarily bonds with those oils lubricating its fibres and floats them to the surface. The leather dries stiff and brittle. Leather dyes are water-soluble so excess water can lift them right out. A poor dye job may spot, streak, or even change colour. Rubbing hard on any water-saturated leather can lift the dyes right out of even top quality leathers.

However, trying to clean muddy, sweaty tack without using any water at all is not exactly practical. Again, the key is using just enough water to float dirt and debris off the leather’s surface but not so much that it soaks down into the leather’s fibres where it can dissolve dye and lift out lubricants. Between hosing your tack off and trying to rub off mud and sweat with a dry rag, you need to find the right balance of moisture necessary to do the job.

As a general rule, clean your tack after each use with as little water as possible and condition the leather only occasionally. Wiping the worst of any mud or sweat off your tack with a damp rag or sponge immediately after removing it from your horse can minimize the use of water on the leather and help cut your overall cleaning time. Once your horse is taken care of, finish going over your tack with a pH-balanced leather cleaner to remove dirt from leather pores and stitching lines more thoroughly.

Maintain a cycle of regular cleaning and occasional conditioning to help keep your tack sound and supple. Remember to keep things in balance—using just enough water to sluice away dirt but no more and just the amount of conditioner the leather can absorb but no more—and you’ll keep your leather at its best.

Anna Carner Blangiforti
President and Founder
Leather Therapy Products