Tricks of the trade: tack cleaning

  • After a long hard day, by the time the horses are settled and the lorry emptied, the concept of cleaning tack may be just too much. However, most people agree that it is preferable to wipe off at least the worst of the wet mud before it gets a chance to dry.

    But saddlers would recoil in horror at the methods employed by many yards with tack that regularly gets very dirty.

    Hunt groom Gwen Kemp admits: “After hunting I operate a conveyor-belt system. One of us takes the tack apart and washes it off in a bucket of water. The next person dries it with a towel, and a third treats it with a mixture of saddle soap and oil. Then it goes back to the first person to be reassembled. The stirrup leathers do occasionally stretch from being wet, but the job gets done quickly and effectively.”

    Many polo grooms swear by a bucket of water, washing up liquid and cooking oil. The entire bridle is dunked as it comes off the pony, and the theory is that the combination strips the grease and sweat but stops the leather from drying out.

    Qualified master saddler Andrew Reilly recommends a rather less aggressive approach. “Use a damp cloth to sponge off mud and grease, then allow the leather to dry naturally before applying saddle soap. If the leather has become very wet it is a good idea to towel-dry it,” he says. “Take care not to use too much water as wet leather will stretch, and the steel work and rivets inside the saddle could rust. Also, if leather is dried too quickly, by a radiator for example, it can get very hard.”

    On the care of synthetic kit, Andrew recommends using a nailbrush to scrub leather-look saddles, before giving a final wipe over with a damp cloth.

    “If synthetic suede has become very wet, use a towel to mop up excess water, but do not rub, then leave the saddle to dry naturally,” he advises. “Once dry, use a soft brush to clean the suede — a water brush kept for the purpose is ideal.”

    Other problems are more deep-seated. Those “jockeys” of dirt and grease, that can build up no matter how conscientious you believe you are, can prove highly resistant to sponge and soap. One traditional method is to rub them with a ball of mane or tail hair. Andrew suggests using the back of a blunt knife to scrape them off without damaging the leather.

    “Washing up liquid is my secret weapon,” says horse trainer Emma Sullivan. “I put a little in the water, and rub a spot of neat washing up liquid into difficult jockeys. It’s meant to break down the protein in the grease so it just rubs away.”

    The only secret with mould, unfortunately, is to prevent it from taking hold in the first place. The temperature at which tack is stored and allowed to dry is vital. Leather kept even in brick tack rooms with no form of heating will soon deteriorate.

    “Once mould has been allowed to form on leather it will cause staining, which is very difficult to remove because the fungi spores can be resistant to dyes,” says Andrew. “This makes it hard to dye the leather back to a uniform colour. I would recommend fitting a low-wattage electric bar heater in every tack room, obviously ensuring that it is wired in safely.”

    Horse & Hound 29 July 2004

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