Tack Cleaning 101

Above one of the famous riding halls in Germany , there is a plaque which translates roughly, “One learns to ride by riding.”  The grooms working below in the vast brick courtyard grumble: “One learns to ride by sweeping. . . .”  As that is indeed what they spend most of the day doing.
   If you ride, you clean tack, but let’s not plan to spend most of the day doing it. Tack cleaning can be quick, enjoyable and organized, or it can be messy, confusing and guilt inducing—the latter by not doing it or not having a good system.

What are we trying to do here?
Basically when cleaning your tack you are checking your equipment for the next ride, cleaning the dirt and sweat off it without removing too much of the oil that keeps it supple and lively, and replenishing any oil lost.  Then you put it away in the easiest possible manner to use next time.

The set up.
Have a tack cleaning hook hung near a source of water.  The water can be a bucket, a sink, or even a thermos. Make it as close as possible to your grooming area and the eventual place you store your tack..  On that tack cleaning hook hang two small absorbent towels--one for your bit and  one for your hands—more on that later  If you’ve got them, you can hang your “Woolies” there as well.

The moment you take your bridle off the horse and tie him or her up, take your bridle to the water and rinse the bit.  Don’t worry too much about getting the base of the leather reins or cheek pieces wet.  You have a towel right there and you are going to dry them off.  Wipe away any green grunge that has accumulated, quickly dry the leather, and leave the bridle there for now and go attend to your horse.

You should also have a towel in your grooming kit.  If your girth or leg gear for the horse are muddy or sweaty wipe them of now, before a crust forms.  This thirty seconds saves time and a lot of effort.

Every now and then you will want to completely take apart your bridle and clean the metal residue from the buckles and bit connections.  But on a daily basis, with the right soaps, oils and cleaning tools you don’t have to do more than wipe it down. The trouble people often have is that they don’t separate the tasks involved and get either dry or sticky and gooey tack.,  First you clean, and then you condition as needed.

Your tools are saddle soap. The clear glycerin type in bars is my favorite. Beware of additives in your bar, which might be a nice idea at first, but in my experience makes a sticky mess after a while, leaving an unfortunate residue, which you will have to wash off in a bucket. For cleaning, I don’t use anything you can’t see through, they leave a=2 0residue you can’t see through either, and I stay away from anything with silicone.  If you have a “Loaded Wooly” it will have pure German glycerin soap incorporated into it.

Then you have oil and grease.  I have a favorite kind of oil, which you can see elsewhere in the site, but a non-petroleum based oil is a must.  Olive oil is better than most commercial saddle oil.  It does not go rancid or rot stitching, and is readily available.  The German beeswax grease is nice for some applications.  

If you don’t read German, what they are saying on the beeswax product label is that its use is as a water proofing agent.  It is not a cleaner.  But it is great for billets, and any leather that gets wet—for instance girths and the areas around your bits.  It contains mostly emulsified fats and beeswax.  Good stuff, and a jar, though pricey, will take you a long way.

Then you will need  a towel or two and some natural sponges or a wool cleaner, which you can see on this site as well. (Synthetic sponges really do not work very well—though they are included in almost every saddle cleaning product.  Go figure.)

So, saddle soap is meant to be used as a cleaner with some, not a lot, of water.  It is supposed to melt away the salt and sweat, but  once melted, you have to  actually remove the grime.  You do this  by rinsing the sponge—otherwise you just get layers of soap and dirt.  Not nice.

But, rewetting often leads to too much water and too much suds.  A wool cleaner is the best tool for this, as you don’t have to rinse if very often. The wool fibers pick up an astonishing amount of grunge without being actually abrasive.  And they hold a lot of it without giving it back to the leather--you don’t have to rinse so often

Re rinsing and wetting and suds.
This is not complicated. If you get too much suds, squeeze the applicator in a dry towel till it quiets down, and keep going (See photos)

Natural oil is an ending touch, for light application after cleaning.  Oil can (and in my opinion should be)  used more generously in the beginning stages of breaking in tack.  More on that below.

Cleaning, how to start?
Add a small amount of water to your applicator of choice,  Rub it in the soap.  If you are using a “Loaded Wooly,”  you don’t have to do this, just wet the wool.

You should see some slight foam, and it should feel slippery, but if your applicator gets too foamy (see photos) you have used too much water. The easiest solution is to squeeze the applicator in the terry rag, Rinsing can be done if you just want to start again, but it’s more work and wastes the soap.  
Loaded applicator in hand, start at the top of the bridle and work your way down with stripping motions on either side of the leather, quickly checking the stitching in the cheeks and reins.  You will probably need to rinse your applicator once before you are done with the reins, and then again after the reins are complete.  

In the end, with a clean applicator (the same damp one is fine) smooth a few drops of oil over your tack to condition and bring up the luster.  If you use the proper oil you don’t have to rinse the applicator after, leave it on for next time. It gets better with use..  

Finally, if you have not taken your bridle apart this time, from your squeeze bottle or sprayer, drip a tiny bit of oil into the leather loops that make contact with the bit—move the metal to spread it slightly.  Be sparing, it does not take much. This is almost impossible to do from a bottle or can. It gets everywhere. A bottle with tip works better.

Breaking in New tack:
Most of my bridles are over twenty years old and still going strong.  One reason is that I learned a long time ago not to buy cheap leather.  Tempting as it is, the cheap stuff is not a good deal.  It’s hard to use, the keepers often don’t fit, the cleaning is difficult and it tends to crack and break shortly into the relationship.  I like flat leather (not rolled) with a good finish in either brown or black.  The reason I don’t buy rolled tack is that if you break a piece it is very hard to replace.

Oiling 20in:  Every now and then I read something about oil being bad for tack.  Of course, you should never use oil on suede, but in my experience, with the right oil, you will have no problem.  In you’ll see e a host of benefits in saddle and bridle leather.

One slight caution is that the outer flaps of your saddle (under your leg) need to not be so soft that they can bend and create wrinkles in the leather over time.  Other than that I have rarely seen a saddle or bridle that did not benefit from repeated, heavy doses of the right  oil in the first use period.  Go ahead and slather it on, let it soak in and do it again.  Be aware that oil will darken a brown colored leather.  Most of us like that and don’t consider it a problem.

The first heavy and repeated “oiling in” of the tack gives you a base to start from, and makes if much more forgiving of later potential periods of neglect.  It also makes it much softer and easier on you and your horse to break in.

A word about water and shine.
Yes, rain can make spots on your saddle, too much water (buckets full) can dry it out, but many top dressage riders actually wet their saddle  seat before they get on (ask for the story on Shultheis and Cindy Ishoy)   Many also use sticky wax on their boots (I do) to add friction.  You can see some on the products page.  

What you don’t want is a a slippery, shiny, saddle surface.  It just makes your life harder.  You do want a clean and slightly—very, very slightly—tacky surface  That is why I ride the Stubben with pig skin grain rather than a “bridle leather” type of finish.  Either will work and taking care of them is the same.  The point is shiny (like your boots) is not good.  Rudolf, by the way, never polishes the inner surface of his boots.  Came running down at Aachen to make sure I knew this too. (I did. J)  Makes sense, it’s messy on the pad and ultimately slippery.

Taking the whole thing apart.
I can remember sitting in a tack room as a D-1 Pony Clubber watching my instructor take apart all of our little group’s bridles, piece by piece, and throwing them together in a pile with the ever-helpful instruction: “Now, put them back together.”  Ah what fun!

It’s not so hard getting them apart, it’s the putting back together thing that gets you. If you are shy about this, remember it helps to always start at the top. And, you can also get a lot of mileage out of just undoing your bits and reins and cleaning a semi-deconstructed bridle. (See photo)  The soap-filled triangular  “Hand Wooly” is being used here to zip off the metal residue.

Putting the whole thing back together.
After cleaning and oiling, your disassembled bridle (this cleaning  is most easily done on a counter of flat space rat her than a hook)  it is in a million pieces (actually 7-11 pieces).  Don’t panic.  

Take the crown piece and hook it over something, (your cleaning hook is best, but the door will do)   With the smaller throat latch strap to the rear of the horse you’re now imagining in the bridle, add the brow band, facing front of course, then put on the cheek pieces to stop the brow band from falling off.  There is a left and right here: and remember buckles face outward, hooks face inward.  

So far so good.  On to the nose.  From the far side (my British Horse Society is showing here) or the right, feed the strap that holds the nose band or caveson from off to near (right to left facing forward) through the brow band, under side of the head stall, and then buckle it up.  

About “off” and “near” side—think of off and near as starboard and port on a boat.  It’s the same idea: you know what side you’re talking about no matter which direction you happen to be facing.

If you have a flash drop nose band feed the strap in so when buckled up the extra tail end of the leather will be pointing downward.  Reins get put on the same way as cheek pieces (hopefully they match, but no big deal) Hooks face in, buckles face out.

Double bridle:
I can hear it now!  “If you are using a double bridle you ought to know how to do this already! ”  This is a catch 22 that we don’t need to get into.  Here’s how it works.

If you are putting together a double bridle with two bits, the strap that hangs the snaffle part is a separate thin piece of leather with the same kind of attachments as your cheek pieces, but usually only one adjustment, mostly kept on the near or left side as well.
The curb bit is always held by the main crown piece, not the smaller extra strap..  This is because part of the curb action depends on poll pressure and a wide pressure is kinder than a thin strap—never mind the leather is stronger.

Two notes here about equipment.  Padded head stalls sound like a great idea.  They are not.  Poll pressure in a double bridle is supposed to be felt and interpreted by the horse.  Padding this is not a kindness, and leads in almost all cases to a gummy, heavy feel in the hand.  Think of it like holding the reins with huge overstuffed mittens.  You can’t feel anything subtle..

And last note, re size of the bits.   The bradoon (snaffle bit with smaller rings) will be the size your horse normally wears in his or her snaffle..  Thinner of course and with smaller rings, but basically the same width, The curb, which does not bend, should be one size SMALLER than the snaffle bit.  You see a lot of horses in the US terribly bitted when it comes to their doubles, and a lot of rider guilt and ignorance about how this tool is introduced, used, and fitted.

Anyway, the snaffle in a double bridle hangs above and behind the curb.  When you put it on, the curb chain runs  between the two bits, under the snaffle and over the curb.  People make a mistake with this frequently (usually running it over the top of the snaffle—ouch!)  and it is not nice for the horse.  

By the way, tipping the top part of the curb backwards helps make it easier to do up the curb chain.  After you have done this, make sure the snaffle part is still sitting in back of the curb.

In closing, have fun looking at Woolies and special oils on the site,  There are lots of places to get the commercial German wax, sticky stuff and whip bands.  Some may be cheaper.  (We bought these from a regular store to show you what they were and just as a convenience if you need some)   Woolies are hand made right here by us, and thus far only available here,

Other things people frequently have questions about in clinics are correct use of the dressage whip. More on that later, if you like just let me know, and I’ll show you my favorites and tell you how in that department. 

Best wishes, Dale.