It was a ritual. Every time you wrapped up a lesson at the barn where I rode growing up, you cleaned your saddle. Plain and simple. No exceptions. That’s where I learned that the renewing smell of glycerine soap goes hand in hand with that feeling of success when you bring your horse in after a great ride.
I thought some of my horse-owning readers might be interested in hearing about this process and how I’ve managed to carry it forward into my adult life despite new time constraints.
Back when I was a young rider, we’d strip off the sweaty — and often muddy — tack, place the saddle and girth on a stand (usually one of those simple, wooden bars that hook into the wall) and hang the bridle up on a four-pronged hook. We’d douse our sponges in a bucket of warm water, swipe them over the ubiquitous glycerine bar and wash our tack down, sparing no effort as we unbuckled the care-worn stirrup leathers and carefully scrubbed down the laced reins.
Not only did this process keep my instructor’s tack in pliable, working condition year after year, but it taught us students to take care of the things that were essential to our continued horse enjoyment each week. The tack cleaning ritual was an extension of the care that went into those well-loved lesson horses that carried us around the arena, out across the pasture and over flowing hunter courses week in and week out.
I fell out of the habit of cleaning my tack after every ride after I grew up and got my own horses. Life happened. Jobs came, babies came. I hardly had time to swing a leg over a horse, let alone clean my saddle, bridle and girth after every single ride. That was until I began lessoning with a wonderful dressage instructor who boomed across her covered arena one day that my tack was dirty and I needed to make time to clean it.
I tried to explain my dilemma, but she cut me off in a caring-but-no-nonsense manner that only a seasoned trainer can employ and said, “Make time anyway.” And so I did. I’ll admit, I didn’t do it after every ride, but I started lathering up a sponge much more frequently, and my tack thanked me. The part that made cleaning on a regular basis doable was that I realized I didn’t have to break out the rag and oil every time I was done applying soap. I tend to get pulled into perfectionistic patterns, and in the past, if I couldn’t clean and oil my saddle and bridle, I probably wasn’t going to do either one.
Let’s face it. If you’re an amateur rider with leather tack and limited time, you’re probably going to have to pick and choose which steps of the cleaning process are most important to you after a typical weekday ride. A lot of us have to get dinner on the table or help kids with homework, right?
So, here’s what I’ve chosen, and it works pretty well:
1. Have a tack cleaning kit ready to go. Mine has a sponge (I like a regular kitchen sponge with a scrubby side). It also has a good spray-on tack glycerine cleaner. This is the updated version of the trusty glycerine bar I remember from my childhood riding lessons. I also keep a small tub of leather oil for those days I do decide to condition my tack. I store all of this in the bucket I use for water.
2. Fill said bucket with warm water — if you have to run inside your house to do this, it’s worth the extra effort since warmer water loosens dirt and sweat so much better.
3. Dip your clean sponge in and use the scrubby side to clean your bit before you soap up the sponge. If you do nothing else, always clean the gunk off your bit. It’s a lot easier to remove before it dries, and forgetting to do so could result in small sores inside your horse’s mouth.
4. Wet your sponge, apply a couple of sprays of the leather cleaner, and get to work on your saddle, bridle and girth. You may need to use the rough side for places like the inside of the girth where dirt and sweat accumulate. If you have an English saddle, don’t forget to unbuckle your stirrups and clean under the buckles. Also, spend some time on your billet straps — it’ll extend their lifespan significantly if you do it regularly.
If you have a western saddle with smooth (not roughout) leather, you can clean it, too. You might not need to do it every time, but doing it a few times a year will help extend the life of the leather. Western bridles will also benefit. Once you do it a few times, tack cleaning will become your relaxing, post-ride ritual, just as it has for me.