Leather Care

Are Saddles and Tack Ruined After Hurricane Harvey?

The most common question that I have received recently in my shop is “Are saddles and tack ruined after hurricane Harvey?

Many of us in Texas have been affected directly or have someone close to us that has been affected directly by hurricane Harvey and the effects will surely be felt for many months from now.  I grew up on the Gulf Coast in Aransas Pass, TX so I am aware of the damage that hurricanes can cause but in my lifetime I have never seen this magnitude of damage in our state.  I have so many friends and family along the South Texas Gulf Coast that are dealing with the aftermath of Harvey and are working hard to help others while trying to also assess the damage to their homes, barns, communities, livestock, and countless other recovery concerns.

In this article, I want to help you see if your saddles and tack are ruined after hurricane Harvey.  Saddles and tack are surely some of the most treasured items that were damaged due to flooding and or damaged barns and saddle houses.  As you begin to go through these areas and find your saddles and tack severely water damaged and possibly beginning to mold or mildew, the first instinct may be to put all this in the ruined pile and possibly claim them as part of items lost due to damage from the hurricane.

This may be the case in some instances, but there are some things that I want to discuss that may save some of those pieces of equipment so that you can continue using them.  Although water damage is surely not good for leather in general, it does not always mean that they can not be salvaged.

Things that damage leather:

  • Water alone does not damage leather, but contaminates in the water will damage leather.  Since we are dealing with flood waters, we have no idea what is in the water that your leather goods have been soaking in.  So the first thing that we want to do is thoroughly clean the leather to remove as much of the contaminates as possible from the leather.
  • Leather being wet is not what causes dry rot.  What causes dry rot in leather is when the leather is saturated with water and then allowed to dry and then not oiled.  When this is done multiple cycles over time the leather will begin to dry out and rot will set in.  Leather is a natural material and every time water is added to it and then allowed to evaporate during the drying stage, it takes essential oil and lubrication with it.  After a few cycles of this without replenishing the oil within the leather, dry rot will begin.
  • Mold and mildew left unchecked will further deplete the oil within the fibers of the leather and cause dry rot to set in at a faster rate.  This mold will also begin to stain the leather.   For another article on mold and leather Click Here.  Oiling leather that is still wet and not completely dry will trap moisture in the fibers and cause the leather to mold.

Headstalls and Strap Goods

Let’s first talk about all those bridles, breast collars, reins, bits and other accessory items that you have in your barn.  The good thing with these items is that they were probably hanging on the wall in your tack room and may have been lucky enough to be up high enough where they didn’t get submerged in flood waters.  But even if they were, or if the roof was compromised and they were soaked in water, we can still try and save them.

The first thing that I would recommend here is to clean all the items to remove any contaminates that may have been in the water.

To do this you can fill buckets or muck tubs with clean water and dish soap.  I would recommend Dawn dish soap (if it’s good enough for baby duck it’s good enough for our purposes) or Murphy’s Oil Soap.  Use a good amount of soap in the water, we want to do a deep cleaning on the leather to remove as much of the contaminates as possible.  Put as many of the pieces into the bucket as you can and still be able to move them around.  You can let them soak for a few minutes but I find agitation is key here for strap goods.  Use your hands or a stick to work them around in the soapy water for a few minutes to get them as clean as you can.  Once they are clean, hang them up on a fence so that you can spray them off with a water hose with clean water to rinse the soap from them well.  You might use a stiff bristled brush to clean the bits that are attached to the headstalls during this process.

A Trick:  Use an all in one horse shampoo attachment that screws on to the end of the water hose.  This makes the cleaning step much easier as many of these create a thick foam of soap that you leave to set for a few minutes and then rinse away clean.  The soap in these should be fine to use here and you can hang all your strap goods and bath them all at one time on a fence railing.

Now that all the strap goods and bridles have been cleaned and rinsed, they will need to dry completely before oiling.  I recommend they hang in an area that has some sunlight but not direct sun and has good airflow.  This will allow them to dry without being cooked in our still hot Texas sun.  This could take a couple days for them to completely dry out and be ready for oil.  The leather may feel a bit stiffer than normal when they are dry but we are about to saturate with oil so don’t worry about this at this stage.  When the leather is completely dry, it will not feel cool against your cheek or hand.

To oil all these pieces, I suggest getting a small 1/2 gallon or 1 gallon pump sprayer (be sure it is new or really clean… not something that had chemical in it… this could damage the leather) and filling it with olive oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, or neatsfoot oil.  Use this sprayer to spray light coats of the oil on all the items.  You can do this over a day in multiple coats until the leather seems to be about full with oil.  You really don’t want to over saturate the leather with oil but I want to make sure that it gets all that it needs.  When spraying the headstalls, I would spray the bits and all… the oil will probably help the bits from rusting or tarnishing some as well.

After a few good oilings your strap goods should begin to feel like they did before.  Let this oil have some time to soak in good before conditioning with a leather conditioner.  I recommend Skidmore’s Leather Cream as a follow up to the oil as this will bring back even more of the feel to them as well as help to prevent dry rot and mold.  Here is an article I wrote about Leather Conditioners and their purpose.

Now that you have done all you can for the strap goods that were affected, I would take some time and go through each item and check the feel of the leather and any safety areas.

  • Try and fold the leather in half in spots and look for signs of cracking or brittleness.  If you find areas with this then you may need to make the call to through the item away and replace it.
  • Replace any chicago screws on any of these items… these are usually nickel plated and they will rust over time making them impossible to remove in the future.
  • Check all of the leather lacing at bridle/headstall bit ends to see if they are still okay.  These are thin pieces of leather and dry rot sets in quicker here so it may be better to just replace them for safety sake.
  • Any stainless or brass hardware on these items can be cleaned and used without any trouble.  The nickel or brass plated hardware will need to be assessed and possible buffed clean or replaced.  If the hardware is fairly new, then you should be fine.  But if it is chipping, rust will begin to grow in these exposed areas and could pose problems down the road.

Saddles

Now we come to the saddles that were in your barn during all this.

The saddles will need to have the same cleaning, oiling and conditioning steps done to them to insure that the leather is brought back to where it needs to be.  This usually requires a bit more elbow grease and I would recommend a complete disassembly for the cleaning and oiling process.  This can be challenging if you have never taken a saddle apart before so if you do not feel comfortable taking it apart then you can wash the saddle as is.

The main thing here is to clean as much of the saddle as you can reach with the same soap that that you chose to use for the bridles and strap goods.  You can use a soft bristled brush to work the soapy water into the leather and the tooled areas to remove as much of the contaminates as possible.  Saddles are big so this step will take more work but with a bucket of soapy water you should be able to get it really clean.  This is how we clean them in the shop except we open them up and disassemble them to make getting to areas much easier.

Tip:  You can use a pressure washer for this, but be sure not to get to close and use the low pressure setting so that you do not scar the leather with the strong water pressure.  I would feel more comfortable if you used a good spray nozzle on a water hose just to be safe.

Once the saddle is washed really good, you want to rinse the saddle well with clean water to remove all the soap residue and rinse away any contaminates.  After this, then set the saddle in the same area you used for the bridles and strap goods to let it dry really good.  Be sure the saddle is on a saddle rack of some sort or on a fence rail so that all the parts hang as they should as they dry.  The amount of time it may take for the saddle to dry could be as short as 2 days or as long as a week depending on the humidity and the amount of water the saddle received.  Again, the leather should not be cool to the touch and completely dry before oiling.

Note:  If the saddles were completely submerged for a good length of time, the leather may be dry but the tree may still be wet for quite some time after.  Feel the rawhide covering for the rawhide covered trees and if it is soft you can oil and condition the leather but wait to ride until the tree is completely dry… this could take as long as a week or more.

Once the saddle is dry, you can begin oiling with whatever oil you chose to use from the bridle and strap good section.  I use a sponge for this but you can sure use the pump sprayer to get to those hard to reach places.  When you feel that the saddle has been oiled enough (I would recommend 2-3 coats at least) then you can condition the leather.

As far as the leather of the saddle goes, you will want to check all the safety areas for any signs of cracking or brittleness just like with the headstalls and strap goods.  Be sure that the stirrup leathers are flexible and not cracking when they are folded in a few areas especially around the holes for the blevins buckles.

If all looks good at this point then we may be okay.  The only area that we can’t really know the effects is the saddle tree.  This is where things get a little up in the air.  If the saddle you are working on has a rawhide tree in it then there is a good chance (depending on the amount of water damage it had) that the tree could be warped.  This happens when the rawhide covering of the tree becomes so saturated with water that it softens up and expands.  As the rawhide begins to dry back out it becomes hard again and also shrinks back.  During this shrinking stage, the rawhide could bend the bars of the tree slightly causing it to no longer be square and true when it comes to saddle fit.  A saddle that fit great before the water damage could now be ill fitting.  There is really no way to know if the tree has warped or the fit has changed without tearing the saddle completely down to the tree and this is cost prohibitive.  This is not to say that any saddle that has had severe water damage now has a warped tree, but it is something to be mindful of if you decide to keep one of these in your program.  Always check your gear before and after riding and pay attention to any fitting issues that you notice when you begin using it again.

If your saddle has a fiberglass tree in it, then this warping issue is much less likely since the fiberglass should not be affected by the water.  The only issue here is the water that may have gotten to the wood inside of the fiberglass through the many holes made in the tree during the build process.  Again, this is something to consider as you begin to use these saddles again.

Conclusion

None of this is a guarantee that all the saddles and tack that was affected by the hurricane can be saved unfortunately.  But it is worth a shot if you had a lot of your gear damaged.  As with anything when it comes to horses, use good judgement and be mindful of the condition that these items are in.  If something seems questionable then it may be best to replace it and save any trouble down the road.

If you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to give us a call and we would be glad to help you assess your gear and give you our opinion.  I hope you found this helpful and our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected.

Note:  Even after all the cleaning, oiling and conditioning of these saddles and strap goods, you may notice mold beginning to form a week or so after this.  This is somewhat normal with all the humidity and can be taken care of with a light coat of half and half vinegar and water treatment of the areas where the mold is.  Refer to this article for more information.

YouTube Q&A #1- Oiling Leather

In our last newsletter, I asked for any questions that I may could answer with a YouTube video to better serve you and we received some great questions.

In this video I answer a question from Chris on how to oil leather to a dark color without over saturating the leather. Oiling leather can be tricky and sometimes can take a good project in the wrong direction.  These types of questions are so much easier to answer in a video rather than in a written format.  I hope you find this video useful Chris, as well as anyone else who may be wondering the same thing.

If you would like to have your question answered on our YouTube Channel then send us an email with your question and put “YouTube Q&A” in the subject line.  I would like to make this a regular series on our channel so bring on the questions and I will work to answer them for you.

Thanks so much and be sure to subscribe to our channel so you get the latest updates on new videos we post.

Spring is Almost Here!!!!

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It’s March and we are still dealing with cold weather and many of us across the country are experiencing a fair amount of “winter mix” weather, but the fact is that winter is almost over and sunny days are soon to come.  With that, now is a great time to take a sunday afternoon and go through your tack room.  The majority of folks are fair weather horsemen and haven’t paid much attention to your saddle since before the holidays.

This is the time of year that our repair shop gets pretty busy and, depending on the repair, your normal wait on getting something fixed could be a couple weeks or better.  Now is a great time to go through your saddles and check key areas that may need attention before your right in the middle of the season and your saddle is in the shop. Continue reading

Killing mold on leather!

If you live in the south where humidity is high, you will run across mold on leather or some of your gear from time to time.  This usually happens when you take a break from the horse world for a bit and keep your gear stored in a dark saddle house or in the tack compartment of your trailer when temperature and humidity are at their worst.

In my opinion, mold on leather is a good sign that your leather goods are healthy enough to support the life that is mold.  By this I mean that you have done a great job of keeping your tack and saddles oiled up.  Mold will not grow on saddles or leather that is dry rot and dead…  nothing available for the mold spores to live on. Continue reading

Hard to reach spots?

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Having trouble getting to the tight areas when oiling that saddle in your tack room? Here’s a trick I have learned!
Pam makes a spray olive oil that, although maybe a little pricey, works great for those spots a big fat hand won’t fit! Since we oil all our leather products with good clean olive oil, this oil in a spray can is a great complement in our shop and takes a lot of pressure and worry from the hard to reach!
Try this out and let us know what you think!

What kind of oil should I use?

I get this question a lot both at the shop and when we are out at events and trade shows.  The most common time this question is asked is when a customer brings in a saddle for repair and the repair needed is so extensive due to the amount of dry rot.  Here the customer will usually say, “I would of oiled it but I didn’t know what kind of oil to use.”  To this I always answer, “Even the wrong oil would have helped more than what you did… which was nothing.”

I know, oiling your saddle and gear is not the most exciting thing to do on your weekends off, but neither is writing large checks for saddle repairs or worse yet visiting the ground suddenly when something finally breaks.

There are hundreds of saddle conditioners, cleaners, lubricators, creams, savs, liquids, and the like that make choosing the best product for your gear a tuff choice.  Again, ALL of these will, in some way, help your leather retain its life better than nothing at all.  And if you still don’t feel comfortable making a decision then there is always a shop like ours that would be happy to handle this for you.

For oil, we use Olive Oil.  We buy it from a local grocery supply company by the case and use it on both new and used leather items.  I have heard of many people using canola, peanut, vegetable, and other food oils and they seem to work fine.  My only issue with the other oils is that it seems to me that they would attract rats worse than the olive oil.  Neatsfoot oil is the old standby and is still widely used.  There is nothing wrong with this but it seems to me that olive oil seems to oil more evenly than neatsfoot and the main reason that we use it in the shop.

When it comes to conditioners, I recommend Skidmore’s Leather Cream above all else.  This cream is great for lubricating the fibers in the leather and restoring life to dry stiff leather.  This product is made of all natural ingredients including vegetable oils and beeswax and will also water proof the leather.  A little bit of this cream goes a long way so don’t over do it, multiple light coats is always better than one heavy coat.  This product is also amazing on boots and hunting gear.

The one thing to remember with conditioning your saddles and tack is that putting oil and conditioners on top of dirty leather can damage the leather.  In doing this over time, you create multiple layers of dirt and oil which becomes a thick film that is almost impossible to remove.  I always recomend washing leather with a mild dish soap like Dawn, Ivory, or even Murphy’s Oil Soap and rinsing thoroughly.  Scrub the saddle with a medium bristle brush to lift the dirt and grime out of the leather.  I don’t recommend saddle soap because it is suppose to be left on the saddle to dry and then the dirt stays on the leather.  If you want to lather the saddle up with saddle soap after its cleaned, then that’s okay.

Always let your saddle dry completely (could take a day or two) before oiling and conditioning.  If you oil too soon, you could get a real bad case of mold.  I will talk more about mold and controlling it in a later post.

I know its hard to remember to oil your saddle and tack, but here is my suggestion on a system that may not make it such a big deal.  Every time you worm your horses give all your tack and saddles a good look over and wipe them down with a light coat of oil.  And when it comes to doing a complete washing and oiling, I recommend this once a year.  This could be every time your coggins is due or at the end of your show season.  And if you don’t want to go through the trouble of doing it yourself you can always drop it off at the saddle shop and we will do it for you.

Continue reading

How do I clean my saddle?

Saddles generally get abused and thrown back in the saddle house or trailer till their next use. Many times and for most folks they get oiled little and washed even less. Dirt is a big problem for leather because it draws the oils out and dries the leather if left for extended periods of time. This leads to dryrott and damage that can lead to expensive repairs.

I recommend washing saddles and leather goods with a mild soap like Ivory dish soap or Murphy’s Oil Soap. Scrubbing this in with a soft brush and rinsing with warm water will get the dirt up and away from the leather. Once completely rinsed, set outside and allow to dry fully before conditioning leather with oil or leather conditioner. Not allowing the leather to dry fully can lead to mold growth.

It helps to take the saddle apart as far as you feel comfortable, this will allow you to get to the places that are hard to reach. A lot of saddle repairs are needed for the small, but important, parts that are underneath the main pieces of the saddle(rigging, connectors, stirrup leathers, etc).

Keep your saddle clean and maintained and you can save a lot of money on repairs. If all this sounds like too much work or just not your thing we would be happy to do this for you. We offer a complete Clean, Oil, and Polish in our shop as do many other saddle shops. I recommend this once a year with proper quaterly maintenance depending on use.