Winter isn’t always a good time for long lazy hacks, but it does present a great opportunity to get on top of some of the ‘back office’ stuff that we all put off while the weather is good and there are competitions to get to! Now is the perfect time to start a new tack care routine. Set out in 2016 as you mean to go on - with a resolution for cleaning tack!

We decided to go back to basics and look at how you can show some love for what’s probably one of you biggest investments after your horse himself – your tack!

Day-to-day care

Although it seems like a chore at the time, a quick clean of your tack after each ride will save you time and effort when you do a more thorough cleaning.

After riding, giving your tack a quick wipe all over with a cloth can prevent mould growth. Mould thrives on damp surfaces, so it’s important to keep tack as dry as possible.

After you take off your horse's bridle, wipe off the bit with a clean rag or towel. A clean bit is far nicer for your horse as dried food particles on a bit are abrasive to your horse's mouth. Some riders dunk the mouthpiece in water, but this can actually expose the leather part of the bridle to regular soaking which isn’t great for its lifespan, so avoid doing this!

If your horse works the bit, he can end up with a foamy mouth. This saliva of course is wet, and if it reaches the leather bridle, it can be damaging. Water weakens leather if it has a chance to soak in, so it’s important to clean and then dry off these parts of the bridle. Dried saliva can attract dirt, which will wear away at the leather, or cause mould over time.

Keeping it dry might even be the most important part of horse tack care; if your horse has worked up a sweat, be sure to at least wipe down any part of your tack that contacts the horse's body.

Horses tend to sweat in the girth area even if they don't break a sweat anywhere else, so it's a good idea to make wiping off your girth after each ride a regular habit.

Thorough cleaning

If you compete with your horse, you already know that cleaning tack thoroughly before you enter the show ring is important. The condition of your tack alone probably won't change your score, but judges do notice appearance.

Regular conditioning can help prevent leather from cracking, but too much can weaken your tack. However, if you don't compete, it's still important to take the time to clean and condition your tack. Dirt, sweat, dust and damp weather can damage it if left unchecked, and the last thing you want is tack that fails when you're on a ride miles away from home.

The traditional method of leather care is to use a sponge or cloth that is barely moistened with clean, cool water. Then rub a thin layer of glycerine soap on the leather to seal the pores and keep it soft but not sticky. Newer methods for cleaning tack involve convenient and easy-to-use leather cleaning and conditioning products— a wide array of which exists on the market today. You can choose from one-step cleaning and conditioning creams, or two-step systems with a cleaning solution followed by a conditioning agent that restores moisture.

Almost every saddle and tack manufacturer has a recommendation or product preference for leather cleaning and conditioning products. Some tack manufacturers produce their own products. It’s always a good idea follow manufacturer's guidelines when considering commercial leather cleaners and conditioners, as they will have been tested on your specific items and will have been considered the best products for the job by the people who know your tack and materials inside out!

Key steps and top tips

When you can commit the time to a thorough cleaning, you'll need to unbuckle each and every buckle. If you've used your bridle on the same horse for a long time, there will probably be a crease in the leather at the hole where the buckle goes. However, if the tack is relatively new or if you adjust it frequently, you may want to count the holes to where the buckle was set and write it down so that you know you're putting the bridle back to the correct adjustment.

The first step in cleaning horse tack is wiping off any excess dirt from the leather surface. Then use a damp (not wet!) sponge or cloth to work your soap into the leather. Small tack sponges are ideal because they are soft and non-abrasive, and small enough to get into all the nooks and crannies.

Concentrate on the areas around the buckles and the folds in the leather by the reins and in your stirrup leathers. Wipe off any excess soap residue with a damp cloth.

Before your tack is fully dry, work in a conditioner or leather oil to keep the leather supple and prevent it from drying and cracking. Many riders overuse oil with the intention of preventing the tack from drying out. There is such thing as too much oil, and over-conditioning your tack can make it flimsy. Avoid getting oil around the stitching on your saddle as it can rot away the thread over time, leaving you with unsafe tack and costly repairs.

Besides just getting your gear clean, a thorough cleaning is a great time to check your tack for problems. Most wear and tear on your tack occurs at the buckles or where the leather folds back in a loop, like where your bit connects to your bridle, so be sure to check for cracks and tears. Conditioning as part of your tack care routine can help prevent leather from cracking, but it can't repair tack that is already damaged. If you find serious tears in your tack, it may be time to repair or replace it.

Synthetic saddles, halters and horse boots

To clean a synthetic saddle, use a specialist saddle cleaner or sponge it with a mixture of gentle soap and warm water. You can soak smaller synthetic articles like nylon halters or neoprene splint boots in a gentle soap and warm water solution to loosen grime. Stuck on dirt can sometimes be removed with a soft brush while the item is still wet. Rinse thoroughly, and allow the items to dry naturally in the sun.

Do you love or loathe tack cleaning? Let us know your top tack cleaning tips in the comments below, or share with us on Facebook.