Cleaning horse tack, much like mucking out, seems to be a marmite task – people seem to either find it immensely satisfying (like me), or view it as a chore. Which ever of these camps you fall into, it is an essential task! In this guide we’ll look at the following things so you know how to clean horse tack properly…
What do you Need to Clean Horse Tack?
Before thinking about how to clean horse tack, you’ll need the right products and equipment…
- Suitable space – tack cleaning can sometimes get a bit messy, especially when tack is covered in mud! On the yard, the tack room is the ideal area to clean tack if there’s space. Sometimes, before a show, I’ve cleaned the worst off at the yard then bought my tack home to finish off, laying it out on an old towel
- Cleaning hook and rack – a bridle cleaning hook suspended from the ceiling, and a free standing saddle rack that holds the saddle at roughly waist height, are ideal – if you don’t have these, you can make do with a wall hook for the bridle and a stable door for the saddle
- Access to water – you ideally need warm water to clean horse tack, not only does it help to loosen the dirt it also keeps your hands warm! So preferably you want access to either a hot water tap or a kettle
- A good sized container – to hold the water, a large Tupperware bowl, washing bowl, or small bucket are good options
- Several sponges – I like to have a range of sponges, one for the bit (washing up sponges tend to be good for this), a larger one for getting the worst of the dirt off with water, one for saddle soap, and one for leather balm
- Soft cloth – some leather balms are easier to apply with a cloth than a sponge so it’s handy to have a cloth
- Saddle soap* – saddle soap comes in blocks, liquid sprays or tubs. I personally like the blocks or solid type in tubs, as they last ages!
- Leather balm* – leather balm helps to protect and condition leather, and also make it shine (although overuse can make leather feel sticky).
- *Synthetic Tack Cleaner – if your tack is synthetic, you will need a specialist cleaner for synthetic tack, instead of saddle soap and leather balm
- Metal polish – generally stainless steel fittings don’t require polishing, however, if you have brass fittings a good brass polish will help to keep them looking their best
- Soft brush – essential if you have suede parts of a saddle, and also handy for fabric style synthetic tack
- Small scrubbing brush – handy for scrubbing muddy stirrup irons!
- Neatsfoot Oil – Neatsfoot Oil is used to soften leather, it’s not generally used within a regular cleaning routine, but can help new tack to soften quicker, or revive dry older leather
- Towel – a towel can be handy for drying off stirrup irons and bits if they’ve needed soaking, microfibre ones are particularly good
- Butter or flat knife – this is totally an optional extra, but I find having one very useful (I’ll explain below!)
- Washing up liquid – useful for stubborn dirt on bits, stirrup irons and rubber treads
- Olive oil – I find olive oil really useful if the joints of a bit get squeaky
- Emery board – an ordinary emery board you’d use on your nails can be handy for gently removing stains from suede
How to Clean Horse Tack – The Daily Essentials
How to clean horse tack after each time you ride – I recommend a minimal cleaning routine of at least wiping off the bit with plain water, and any sweat or mud that has accumulated on your tack and stirrup treads with a damp sponge. This will make the bit more pleasant for your horse, and prevent a build up of dirt affecting the leather, or rubbing your horse. It will also give you the chance to check the tack for condition.
If numnahs (and fabric girths if you have these) are sweaty, remove them and hang them up to air out. You should also wash these regularly with a mild detergent to prevent rubbing and bacteria build up.
How to Clean Horse Tack – Quick Cleaning for Maintenance
I generally aim to give tack a quick clean once a week to maintain it (or more if it’s particularly sweaty or muddy).
Before we continue with how to clean horse tack, it is worth noting that if you have any suede parts of tack (such as saddle knee rolls), or fabric/faux suede, these are best to be left to dry and then be brushed off with a soft brush, or wiped with a very well wrung out cloth. And, as mentioned, for faux leather type synthetic tack, you need to use synthetic cleaner in place of saddle soap or leather balm. Also if you have a clencher or diamante browband, be careful not to get saddle soap or leather balm stuck in them! (I recommended saving fabric/ribbon covered show browbands for show days only as they are hard to keep clean!).
- Start by prepping your tack cleaning equipment, hanging up your bridle (and breastplate/martingale if you them), and putting your saddle on the rack with the girth removed and numnah/saddle cloth straps undone
- The first stage is to slide any keepers off (for a quick clean I tend to leave billets and buckles done up)
- Start by washing off stirrup irons – clean mud off with warm water. If the mud is particularly congealed, submerge the iron and rubber tread into the bucket of water (you can add some washing up liquid if the dirt is stubborn on the rubber treads – being careful not to dunk the stirrup leathers too!) and use a scrubbing brush and sponge to clean, then dry with a towel
- At the same time, to avoid stirrup leathers stretching unevenly from mounting on the same side, I usually swap them over (remember if you are using bent leg or peacock irons you’ll have to reverse these on the leathers too)
- Then clean the bit using a sponge dampened with plain warm water (I find a washing up sponge useful as the rough part helps to clean off any stubborn grass – again, you can use washing up liquid too if needed)
- Next, using a larger sponge dampened with plain warm water, wipe off the worst of any mud, grime and sweat off the rest of the tack (regularly rinse and wring out the sponge!). If you have rubber or webbed reins, clean them thoroughly with this sponge
- Then, dampen a smaller sponge with clean warm water, wring it out thoroughly and apply a sparing amount of saddle soap to it, then wipe over all of the tack again. Regularly repeat the rinsing and wringing out of the sponge, and reapplying saddle soap, as you clean (remember substitute saddle soap for synthetic cleaner if you have synthetic tack)
- If any buckles have accumulated dirt or grime, undo them, clean them, and re-fasten them as you go
- This is generally sufficient for a quick clean, but if any parts of the tack feel dry, use a dedicated soft sponge or cloth to apply a small amount of leather balm to these areas
- To finish off, replace all of the keepers, re-attach your numnah/saddle cloth (unless it’s sweaty), and store your tack away
- If, like me, you favour leather style yard boots/wellies, I also take this opportunity to give them a clean too!
How to Clean Horse Tack – Strip Cleaning for Show Stopping Tack
Strip cleaning is a very similar process to the above (quick clean), however, you ‘strip’ the tack by taking it apart, meaning you can access the parts usually hidden under buckles and billets, etc.
Strip cleaning is how to clean horse tack when you are going to a competition. I also like to strip clean tack once a month regardless of whether I’m competing or not to keep it in good condition. Strip cleaning is also a great time to thoroughly check the stitching that is usually hidden, and for any cracking or damage.
- As with a quick clean, prep all of your cleaning stuff and get the tack ready
- Instead of hanging the bridle, you need to take it apart; I find that laying it out on a large towel is easiest. If you’re not confident about putting it back together, take a photo of it intact before hand and make a note of which holes the buckles were done up on!
I once made that mistake as a child and brought my bridle home the night before a Pony Club rally to give it a proper clean, took it apart, cleaned it to within an inch of its life, then had no idea how to put it back together – I had to get the yard owner to put it back together for me in the morning before we headed off!
If you are really worried about putting tack back together, or the tack room is really busy and you don’t want to bring tack home, you can get away with un-doing buckles and billets as you go
- With your saddle, take off the numnah/saddle cloth and girth, remove the stirrup leathers, take the irons off, and then remove the rubber treads from the irons
- Now you’re ready to clean!
- Follow the same steps as a quick clean – start with the bit and the stirrups irons, then wipe the worst of the dirt off the leather with plain warm water, and then use saddle soap. Pay particular attention to the areas under buckles and billets that are usually hidden, and take this opportunity to thoroughly check stitching, etc. Also, turn the saddle over and clean the underside of the saddle and check the flocking
- Brush any suede saddle parts, gently rub any stains with tan emery board and wipe with a very well wrung out cloth if needed
- Now here’s the knife tip I promised to explain earlier that one of my wonderful client’s showed me years ago – if the reins (or breastplate/martingale), are particularly congealed with sweat, use the flat part of a knife to scrape it off works really well (with the grain of the leather and hold the knife at an angle, and DO NOT use anything sharp or serrated or you’ll scratch the leather!)
I used to spend ages cleaning with a sponge or ruin my nails picking it off before I had this tip!
- If you have any brass fittings, give them a polish and wipe off any excess brass cleaner
- Allow everything to dry, then sparingly massage leather balm into the leather with a cloth or soft sponge – it’s better to apply a small amount, then apply more layers if needed, to avoid saturating the leather and making it greasy
- Once the balm has soaked in, put everything back together, and store your tack away
How to Clean Horse Tack – Synthetic Tack
The cleaning routine for horse to clean horse tack that is synthetic, is much the same as normal leather if it’s the type that looks like mock leather – you just use synthetic cleaner in place of saddle soap, and of course, there is no need for leather balm!
However, some synthetic tack is more fabric in style – for example bridles that are made out of webbing, and saddles that are fabric or faux suede. These are generally very low maintenance – wait for any mud to dry, brush it off with a soft brush then wipe it clean with a damp sponge or cloth. Some of the webbing bridles and stirrup leathers can even be washed in a washing machine on a cold wash (just allow plenty of time to dry!).
How to Clean Horse Tack – Other Items of Tack
- Numnahs/Fabric Girths – as mentioned, if numnahs/saddle cloths and fabric girths or covers, are sweaty after exercise, remove them and hang them up to air out. You should also machine wash these regularly with a mild detergent on a cold wash to prevent rubbing and bacteria build up (to protect the washing machine from metal parts and excess horse hair, you can put them in a specialist washing bag or even an old pillow case). Saddle covers, ear covers and exercise sheets, etc, can be treated the same way
- Protective Boots – Leather and synthetic leather boots can be cleaned in the same way as synthetic and leather tack. Neoprene and fabric boots can just have mud brushed off when its dry and be wiped with a damp sponge, when they need a wash they can be hosed off or dunked in a bucket and hung up to dry, or even washed in a machine the same as numnahs (bandages can be also be washed in a machine)
How to Clean Horse Tack – Storing Tack after Cleaning
So now you know how to clean horse tack properly, and your tack is all spic and span… now, how do you store it properly?
Firstly, make sure your tack room is free from from damp and maintains a reasonable temperature (extreme temperatures and damp aren’t good for leather).
- Bridles – where possible store your bridle on a proper bridle rack – a rounded wall hanger for the bridle, rather than a standard hook (which will help prevent creasing). It is quite popular to cross the throat lash around the front of the bridle and loop the reins/breast plate/martingale through before doing the lash back up, to keep it tidy – I find this fiddly day to day, so tend to just loop them through the throat lash without crossing them, or just hang them straight up. Generally bridles are left uncovered, but you can get special bridle bags, or use an old pillow case to cover the bridle to keep it clean the night before a show.
- Saddles – use a free standing or wall mounted saddle rack for the saddle. Wooden saddle racks are best for saddles, but if you only have a metal frame type one, I recommend you cover the tubes with pipe insulation to prevent denting the flocking on the underside of the saddle. Use a proper saddle cover to protect it (avoid the water proof types as they don’t seem to allow the tack to ‘breathe’), or a soft towel. Always remove the girth to avoid bending the girth straps; I usually place the girth over the saddle on top of the cover
- Boots – once dry, boots can be done up (it is useful to wrap them in pairs!), and kept in a box or cloth bag to keep them organised. Same goes for bandages, etc, which should be rolled up neatly
- Fabric items – numnahs, saddle cloths and exercise sheets, etc, should be aired then neatly stacked or folded. I leave my day-to-day numnah on the saddle if it’s dry, or remove and place it over the saddle upside down to air it if it’s sweaty
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide and you’re now confident about how to clean horse tack…. good luck, and I hope you find it as satisfying as I do!
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