Nov. 1999 - Remin-ASS-ing with Mules and More - Winterizing Your Tack

by Charlene Strickland

Green Grass Syndicated Features

When the chill winds of winter blow, not only do humans and horses need extra protection, but so does leather tack, whether you store your gear or continue riding in cold and wet weather. Despite the ravages of winter, you can delay the deterioration of your tack by preserving and protecting your leather against three conditions: moisture, dryness, and perspiration. Follow these guidelines for preventative care.

1. Keep leather flexible.

As an animal product, leather is porous and vital. If you study it under a microscope, you see that it consists of bundles of preserved fibers. For leather to flex, leather's protein must remain lubricated in order to allow these fibers to slide across one another. Without natural oils, the fibers clump together, making leather stiff and unworkable. Enhance leather's natural lubrication to keep it supple and flexible.

2. Choose the right lubricant.

Adding oil, a fatty substance, helps preserve leather's fat content. Apply a preservative when leather feels dry, usually about once a month under heavy use.

You can choose among two oil types: vegetable or animal. Popular vegetable oils are olive and linseed; animal oils include neatsfoot and mink. Most experts recommend the traditional 100 percent pure neatsfoot oil although some prefer olive oil, especially for bridle leather. Avoid an oil compound, which adds mineral oils that harden leather.

There are many brands of blended leather preserves on the market. The best products blend oils and greases into a lotion or ointment. Most contain lanolin, a fatty substance formulated from wool grease.

To apply, coat leather with the preservative. Apply liquid preservatives with a small paintbrush; use a sponge to rub buttery-type products into the leather. Allow the solution to soak into the leather. After a half-hour or so, wipe off any excess oil.

3. Keep leather dry.

Excess water affects leather's fat content, melting and removing fats and oils from the fibers. Winter storms soak leather with excess moisture; when you ride in rain or snow, your tack absorbs water. Wet leather can crack when subjected to freezing temperatures, as ice will separate the fibers.

Even if you give up riding during the worst of the season, tack can absorb excess moisture in a humid storage area. Be sure you keep it in a dry storage area with less than 60 percent humidity. Leather will mold and mildew if you leave it in a damp room. If you must store it in a basement, check the humidity or install a dehumidifier.

4. Keep those pores open!

Perspiration can cause deposits of hardened sweat, which block leather's pores. Perspiration threatens leather year-round, but its effects can intensify in winter. Exercising a horse in its winter coat causes increased sweat. Sweat accumulates against the leather's flesh side and hardens into whitish salt stains. Salt clogs the pores and increases the drying effect.

Throughout the lifetime of your saddle and strap goods, periodically clean the leather to open its pores.

5. Avoid heat.

Surprisingly, heat and dryness attack your tack in the depths of winter. Dryness, usually caused by too much heat, reduces the fat content by evaporation. You may think you're preserving your saddle by bringing it indoors, but leather deteriorates in the dry heat that you find toasty. Putting a sweat-stained bridle over your furnace vent will compound the damage to leather.

6. Shield your saddle.

You can't protect every piece of tack from the weather or sweat while it's on the mule. However, you can shield both you and your saddle during a storm. The simplest coverall is a slicker like the cowboy's poncho. You can also choose an Australian oilskin, a trendy British jacket of waxed cotton, or a parka of waterproof microfiber. Look for a garment that spreads over the saddle's pommel, cantle, and skirts. A waterproof cover will divert raindrops, sleet, or snowflakes downward along your body, away from the saddle.

If you prefer to wear a shorter-length jacket, you can protect your saddle with its own "raincoat." Buy a vinyl or canvas cover to fit over your saddle while you ride.

7. Clean your tack.

After a winter ride, treat wet or sweaty tack in order to remove dirt and preserve the leather's suppleness. First, rinse off any mud or sweat with a dampened sponge. Next, coat both sides of the leather with glycerin soap.

Glycerin, a soap by-product, contains fats and oils itself. All leather care experts recommend this moistening agent to clean and preserve leather goods.

Use this soap without any water, as you want to avoid adding water to leather. You can rub a bar of soap directly against flat leather, or spread liquid soap over tooled or rounded surfaces. Push the soap into the leather, not just on its surface, by massaging the coated leather with your fingertips.

8. Waterproof...or not?

Although waterproofing products exist for leather, most experts caution that these actually clog leather's pores. If a saddle is rain-soaked, you let it dry, then apply oil until the leather will not absorb any more. Finish with a coat of pure liquid glycerin, which removes excess oil and pushes oil into the leather.

9. Protect stored tack.

Even if you give up riding for the duration of winter, preserve your gear by careful storage. Rub oil all over leather surfaces. You may wish to message oil into the leather with your fingertips. Lanolin will protect against mold.

Also, protect stored tack by covering it or placing it in a ventilated bag. This prevents dust from settling, which will embed into the leather the next time you ride. You can purchase bags sized for any type of saddle, which also guards your saddle from scratches or bumps.

10. Store show tack properly.

When the show season ends, store your gear so it's ready for next year's events. Treat leather as described above and select protective storage facilities for each type of tack. Hang each show halter and bridle in a bag, or wrap carefully in a towel or the cutoff leg of an old pair of jeans. Bits can be wrapped and stored in a trunk for safekeeping. Put your saddle on a rack, shielding with a snug-fitting saddle cover.

Preserve silver's gleam by polishing it before storage. You might choose to immerse a silver-mounted bit in water to scrub the mouthpiece, then finish by scrubbing the bit with a toothbrush soaked in dishwashing detergent.

For your saddle's silver trim, use either a spray or liquid product. Apply it with a cotton ball, swap, or toothbrush, and wipe clean with a soft cloth. To discourage tarnishing, coat silver with a brand-name tarnish preventative.

Thanks to the following for contributing to this article: Lexol Division, Corona Products Company; A.C. Products; Colorado Saddlery; and Wanda Denton, silversmith.