cleaning saddles

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.