Growing up with horses you think you know all there is to know about horse care. But spend a few years as the photo editor for a horse health publication and you get a quick check of reality that you have a lot more to learn. But it was a great education and I loved learning everything I could about horse health, equitarians, etc.
This is the time of year where horse owners are chomping at the bit to get their saddles of storage and hop on their woolly beasts immediately. (I bet you didn’t know that saddles wear out more from neglect than use.) But there’s so much you need to do with that dormant tack before you can hit the trails, and that’s where this article comes in. There simple steps you can take to make sure your tack is ready for a full season:
The days will soon begin to get longer and the riding bug will start to bite–it’s almost time to dust off your saddle and deep clean your furry beast of a horse. But will your tack be ready to use after sitting in storage through the winter?
Whether you ride Western, hunt seat, saddle seat, or sidesaddle, simple acts such as checking potential stress points in the leather, the soundness of your saddle’s tree, and hinges of bits are often left out of the routine. It’s often assumed that just because your tack got you through your previous ride without any problems, then it’s in good shape for the next ride. That assumption can get you in trouble if your horse jumps to the side quickly or you must pull him up at the last minute; one small crack in the leather could turn into a big tear at the wrong moment, and it could leave you and your horse separated, and maybe injured.
Check, Check 1-2-3
Dennis Moreland of Weatherford, Texas, who’s been a tack maker for more than 30 years, says the one place most people tend to forget to look when checking Western saddles is the off-side of the girth. “They don’t see it every day,” says Moreland.
He advises riders to check the leather everywhere it folds, especially in the latigo, where the straight part might look and feel great, but where it folds around the cinch buckle it could be dry and cracking. Chicago screws in headstalls should be tightened and replaced where needed.
Western and English girths come in a variety of materials, including leather, neoprene, nylon, mohair or rope cords, and sheepskin. Moreland says, “The cinches made from 100% mohair tend to stretch, but the cord I use is mohair, wool, and Dacron mixed. It’s important to check your cords (to make sure) they have not stretched.”
If you choose to use nylon, sheepskin, or leather girths, it’s important to check for any cracks that could be uncomfortable to the horse and compromise the integrity of the girth. Also check all the buckles to make sure there isn’t any corrosion.
Buddy Baird with Stübben North America, an English saddle manufacturer, reiterates Moreland’s advice on checking saddles routinely. “The one thing we run into all the time is that people never look at their stuff,” he says. “They basically just assume that when they put it up it’s okay, and when they get it out it’s okay. Saddles don’t really wear out from use, but more from neglect.”
Two minutes is all it takes to give an overall tack check, says Baird, “Go up and down the reins to make sure everything is right and not stretched, go over the stud hooks to check if they are intact and not being pulled out, check for cracks, dry fissures, and dry rot.” If anything looks questionable, get it repaired.
Baird likens tack to a pair of leather shoes: “If you wear a pair of leather shoes in the rain and stick them in the closet for three months, or on your back porch, you will find those shoes to be very uncomfortable and very difficult to break back in. If you can keep leather soft, supple, and moist, that’s an ideal situation to go into the spring. You need to condition the leather to keep it from dry-rotting and getting hard and brittle because of the sweat.”
Saddle trees are the most forgotten part of saddle maintenance because they are hidden. Baird reminds owners to know what type of tree their English saddle has before they check it. Some saddles, like Stübbens, have flex trees. “In our saddles, the frame and tree are supposed to bend. If you can bend it, it is not a guarantee that the tree is broken,” says Baird. “However, the points of the tree are fixed points and should not be able to flex. (Other English saddle trees aren’t designed to flex like this.)
“It’s always good to check with the saddle manufacturer on how to check the saddle tree,” he adds. “Typically, there are different ways to check the different trees.”
While other aspects of your tack should be checked at least weekly, saddle trees can be checked yearly, unless you get into a wreck with your horse. In this case, Moreland offers general guidelines for checking Western saddle trees:
- Set the saddle on a saddle rack and stand directly behind it.
- Put the back of the saddle against your belt.
- Reach over and pull the horn toward you. (You’re holding the saddle between your hand and stomach.)
- Also, you can put the saddle on the ground and gently try to flex the tree. If the saddle wiggles or flexes, you’ve got a broken tree.
Bits also require a seasonal checkup because they are a direct communication line to your horse. “Bits will deteriorate faster not being used rather than being overused, because they tend to rust just hanging there,” says Moreland.
Check all swivel shanks to make sure the shank hasn’t rusted to the point that it’s frozen at the swivel. Some guides say to use a penetrating oil such as WD-40 or 3-IN-ONE Oil to help break any rust. However, Ed Boldt Jr., DVM, of Performance Horse Complementary Medicine Services in Fort Collins, Colo., offers other alternatives to using oil to clean the rust. He suggests using a steel wool pad with light soap and water. “You should watch how much oil you use on a bit because it could irritate the horse’s tongue or mouth,” warns Boldt. “I’d also recommend using a mineral oil instead.”
Always remember to disinfect bits if they’re shared by horses to prevent transmitting diseases. Filling a bucket with a solution of chlorhexidine (Nolvasan) will make disinfecting easier with just one dunk.
A Little Cleaning Goes a Long Way
There is such a thing as too much cleaning when it comes to your saddle and tack. Too much cleaning, especially with an aggressive-type of glycerin soap, can dry out the leather, eat away at the stitching, and it might cause mold.
“If you put your leather in a situation where it can grow mold, it will,” states Baird.
Moreland suggests using a gentle liquid saddle soap, such as Fiebing’s Liquid Glycerin Saddle Soap, with a dampened sponge or piece of sheepskin to clean the leather. If your saddle has a lot of dirt caked on, use a scrub brush like a nail brush or toothbrush. Green mold can be easily killed and wiped off using a concoction of one part Listerine and two parts water in a spray bottle.
Oiling your leather is not an everyday activity. Just as with cleaning, too much oil is not a good thing; it can make the leather spongy and break it down. In older tack stitched with flax thread, excessive oil can eat away at the stitching. (Tack makers use nylon thread now.) Use neatsfoot compound oil rather than pure oil because the pure oil can get rancid, and in the high humidity it will cause mold.
It’s best to check with your saddle’s manufacturer for what they recommend. Stübben representatives, for example, recommend their Hamanol conditioner, which is made in conjunction with the company that tans their leather.
Baird suggests after every ride to take a damp cloth and wipe the underside of your saddle to remove the sweat and dirt, thus prolonging the life of your leather. “Wiping the saddle down will remove the oils and acid that come with the horse’s sweat,” he advises. “That can break down the leather.”
Storing your saddle in a dark, unheated tack room is detrimental to the leather. The absence of light or heat causes mold to grow on your leather and could freeze it. Over the course of the winter, or even during the summer, if you’re not going to ride in it, it’s in your tack’s best interest to be in a controlled environment and not subject to temperature and moisture fluctuations.
The state of your tack has an impact on your horse’s health and well-being, as well as your own safety. By just taking a few moments and applying a little TLC, you will apply the right preventive medicine that will keep you and your tack safe and healthy.
Next week I’ll share some advice I learned from a veterinarian about keeping your horse healthy when sharing tack.