For many horse owners, tack is the biggest investment they make after they buy their horse. They want to keep that tack in top condition so it will maintain its value, stay strong and safe, and look good.
Choosing the right leather care products can be baffling, however. Even well-intentioned riders' eyes glaze over when they scan the shelves in their favorite tack shop. Products are as likely to be grouped by their size or container shape as they are by their uses. Names? Many are ambiguous. Unless you read the label, the name doesn't clearly tell you whether the product you are holding is a cleaner, a conditioner or something else. Confusing and inconsistent terminology in catalog copy also calls for the decoding skills of a master spy. Which product is for what?
You can take the guesswork out of buying leather care products by understanding that all those pretty bottles and tins can be grouped by their purpose. They are either:
Start by asking yourself whether you are trying to clean, condition, shine or protect your leather from moisture. Then check the label or catalog copy for ingredients, code words and use suggestions to discover if you have a match between product and purpose.
Leather cleaners contain surfactant agents that lift away dirt, sweat and body oils from the leather's surface. They are intended for frequent use to keep damaging dirt and grunge from building up. Look for code words like "wash" or "clean" or "removes dirt."
For the longest leather life, choose mild cleaners like Leather Therapy WASH that have a neutral pH and help maintain the leather's lubricating oils rather than stripping them away. The strong alkainity of soaps and detergents, even vegetable-based soaps, damages leather over time by literally lifting the tannins preserving the leather right out of its fibers. Cleaners should not leave any greasy film behind. These residues build up in stitching lines to become a breeding ground for bacteria that weaken threads and for smelly molds.
Leather conditioners containing fats or oils to lubricate fibers and keep leather supple are meant for occasional use. Look for code words like "condition" or "restore" or "penetrate." Under a microscope, leather's fibers resemble a network of fine steel wool. A good conditioner needs to penetrate deeply within this network, not just sit on the surface. Liquid blends of animal-based oils that mimic the fat liquors tanners use to supple stiff hides after they come out of the tanning solution help preserve the leather's original chemistry. Again, choose products that have a neutral pH like Leather Therapy Conditioner & Restorer to avoid damaging your leather.
Thick, greasy conditioners sit on the leather's surface and simply cannot penetrate as deeply as liquid products can. But avoid liquid products that contain petroleum distillates. Petroleum is a solvent that can weaken leather structure over time. Read the label (the word "compound" is a tip-off that the conditioner may contain petroleum derivatives) and use your nose to detect petroleum by-products including mineral oil.
There are some multi-use products that combine a cleaning agent with a conditioner. Saddle soap was the original one-step product, combining soap with fats or moisture-retentive glycerin. The problem with most one-step products is that while they may both clean and condition simultaneously, they don't do either one very well. They tendto condition only superficially and to leave residues. Choose separate cleaners and conditioners to do both jobs well.
Leather polish helps your tack look showroom shiny for special occasions. Look for code words like "polish" or "shine" or "glossy finish." Some polishes, such as paste shoe polishes, contain colorants dispersed in wax that can be buffed to a high shine. Use these polishes sparingly as they can rub off on your clothes or horse. Wax-based polishes, liquid shoe polishes and spray-on saddle lacquers add shine at the expense of clogging leather pores. So you need to remove them before a conditioner can penetrate the leather. Silicone based polishes can dry leather out over time and can make leather slippery to sit on.
To save both your leather and elbow grease, try an acrylic-based product like Leather Therapy Finish that adds lustre and lightly seals the leather surface while still allowing it to breath and absorb conditioner.
Moisture barriers prevent excess rain or puddles from sluicing conditioning oils out of leather. When that happens, leather dries stiff or spotted. Look for code words like "repels" or "protects" or "water resistant." Paste products based on animals fats like lanolin or mink oil are rubbed in to fill the leather's pores and form a water barrier. They should not be used on napped leathers like suede or nubuck because they lay down the surface fibers. They also leave a greasy residue that makes it difficult to polish smooth leather again and can attract dirt.
Spray on water barrier formulas containing silicone can, again, dry leather out over time. Next generation water barrier sprays like Leather Therapy Water Repellent create a microscopic net of flexible acrylic polymers that allow leather pores to breathe from within while holding larger water molecules at bay outside.
Take the time to check labels and ingredients to make sure you're matching a leather care product to your purpose. It's a small investment in the long-term value of your tack.
Anna Carner Blangiforti's hand-raised Arabian gelding Justinian provided the inspiration for her Leather Therapy line which includes Leather Therapy Wash, original Leather Therapy Restorer & Conditioner and new Leather Therapy Water Repellant.