BY JESS CLAWSON
Maintaining proper daily maintenance for your tack means that when it’s time to really deep clean it, whether for a big horse show or Pony Club turnout inspection, you’re working from a cleaner baseline with healthier leather. When it’s time to go the extra mile, here are some tips for beautiful tack that will pass any inspection and demonstrate professionalism in the show ring.
Clean the Entire Saddle
This sounds obvious, but when I look at a saddle I can tell if it’s just been top-level cleaned or if it’s really been gone over carefully. Yes, you want the seat, skirt, and flap to be clean. But the first thing I’m going to do when I inspect a saddle is lift the skirt to, one, make sure the stirrup bars are down (safety first, kids) and two, to see if it’s dusty or mildewy under there.
When I’m doing a thorough tack cleaning, I clean those harder to get to spots with a soft bristled toothbrush instead of a sponge. A toothbrush is good for scrubbing out crevices and loosening crud that might have been accumulating for awhile. Pull the stirrups leathers off and clean those and then make sure you’ve got the underskirt area clean too.
I love the Effax Leather Combi for this job because it gets into the pores of the leather and makes it genuinely clean–just wipe some under the skirt with a sponge and go to town, and then wipe down with a rag.
Then, make sure you’ve got under the flap all cleaned up too. If you’re not using a monoflap saddle, the underside of the flap gets neglected a lot. Using a sponge and a toothbrush, make sure you’ve got it really clean, including the seams around the knee patch.
Same thing with the sweat flap (the part that’s against the horse’s body under the billets). Get the crevices and knee/thigh block seams with a toothbrush, and clean up the rest of it with the sponge.
Then, look at the pommel and cantle–are the seams clean there too, or are they harboring dust? Look at the saddle from all angles and make sure you’ve left not a trace of dirt or dust anywhere visible. Next do yourself a favor and flip the saddle over. It’s good to clean the parts that are closest to the horse, too–they absorb a lot of sweat and heat and will eventually deteriorate, so prolong the life of your leather by cleaning the parts of the saddle no one can see when it’s on your horse.
You Don’t Have to Completely Disassemble Your Bridle
While we’ve got our Leather Combi out, let’s go ahead and clean up the bridle. I first take the bit off the bridle and remove the reins from it, and then put it in a bucket of hot water and dish soap and let it soak while I do the rest of this.
Pull all the straps out of the keepers and runner, but don’t unbuckle them yet. Unless you’re really really sure you can put your bridle back together correctly, you don’t actually need to take it apart to clean it thoroughly.
I take my sponge and start from the top, working my way down. Make sure to get the underside of the bridle where it touches the horse and not just the top part that people can see. Apply the Leather Combi on a damp sponge and scrub a little to really make sure you’ve got it clean. If your bridle has a lot of seams, like a padded noseband, you might want to use your handy toothbrush to make them sparkle. It’s all in the details.
When you get to each buckle, unbuckle that one and with an eye to which hole it was on, clean the strap thoroughly with the sponge, wipe with the rag, and re-buckle it. If you’re thorough and careful, you can get the entire bridle just as clean as you do when you take it apart this way.
Once the headstall is clean, I unbuckle the reins. If you’re using laced reins, scrub the soap in under the laces with a toothbrush. It’s important to get them looking spotless because they’re visible and will make your horse’s neck look dingy if they’re not clean. After I soap them up, I wipe them down with a rag. If you’re having trouble getting the soap out from under the laces, rinse the toothbrush clean and use that. Voila, clean reins.
Polish the Metal
This is a critical step to looking professional and prepared. It’s the difference between okay and beautiful. Let’s start with the saddle: you’ll want to polish the nail heads, the stirrup bar, the D-rings, and the stirrups (if you’re using metal stirrups). Over time, these can get really grungy so you’ll need a bit of elbow grease here.
I’ve tried a lot of metal polishes, and my favorite by far is the Herm Sprenger Diamond Paste Bit Metal Polish. I don’t just use it for my bit, I use it for all my metal. I put just the tiniest dab on a paper towel and carefully rub it into the metal I need to polish, and then wipe it off. The Diamond Paste lifts the grime, wipes off clean, and best of all, it’s non-toxic.
If your bridle has nickel buckles, they may not need too much work, but wipe the buckles off carefully anyway. Be sure to wipe off any excess polish before you re-buckle the leather. If the bridle has brass fittings (which my favorite one does), you’re in luck–the Diamond Paste works well on brass too, and gets them gleaming in no time.
Pull the bit out of the soapy bucket, rinse and dry it off, making sure it’s spotless, and then polish the cheeks with the Diamond Paste.
Don’t forget any martingale or breastplate–those need to be cleaned and polished too! I see a lot of eventers with nice clean saddles and bridles but then the metal isn’t polished on their five point breastplate and it just drags the whole presentation down.
If you’re about to compete or go to a turnout inspection, you’ll want your tack lightly conditioned. Ideally, you’ll have been maintaining the leather conditioning all along, either by using something like the Effax Leather Cream Soap or the Lederbalsam. Condition your saddle, the whole thing, and be careful not to let conditioner build up in the seams. Then condition your stirrup leathers and put them back on.
Next, condition the bridle using the same one buckle at a time method as you did when you cleaned it. Grab a toothpick and a rag and poke built up soap and conditioner out of all of the holes. Trust me, it makes a difference. Then go ahead and tuck the straps back into the keepers and the runners and reattach the bit and reins. You’re all done with the bridle!
Don’t forget to condition leather girths and martingales too.
Stirrup Pads & Elastic
If you use the rubber stirrup pads, pop them out and clean them with–you guessed it–a toothbrush and dish soap. I often recommend to pony club kids that they get new stirrup pads just for turnout inspections because they’re very inexpensive and easy to swap out. Whatever stirrups you’re using though, make sure they’re spotless all over, including underneath. It would be awful to clean your saddle thoroughly and then let dirt from your stirrups make a mess again.
If I’m using a breastplate with elastic, I use dish soap on those straps too. Then I rinse them thoroughly and hang to try. Make sure you give yourself enough time for the elastic to dry so you’re not putting it on your horse wet. Yuck.
Okay, very last thing, and something that often gets overlooked the most. Dirty boots might as well have a neon arrow pointing at them at a turnout inspection or horse show. If you’re using dress boots it’s an easier job, but with field boots, please make sure that you’ve cleaned under the laces. Nicely polished boots with dirty lacing look unkempt.
Don’t use saddle soap on your boots–get a specific boot cleaner for this job. It’s a different kind of leather and saddle soap will dull the shine. Clean the entire boot with careful attention to the parts that touch the horse and get dirty. Then polish polish polish–the more you polish your boots, the more they repel dirt. Don’t forget the soles, either. Polished leather and a dirty heel looks bad.
Finally, just before you go into the ring or to inspection, the Effax Speedy Leather Boot Shine sponge is an incredible tool. It adds that level of shine that shows the judge and spectators that you really care about your turnout.
All right! You’ve put the time in, your tack and boots look beautiful, and you’re ready to go. Have a great ride!
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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