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How To Clean A Saddle Without Breaking A Sweat

Riding horses is a dirty hobby.  Between all the mud, dust, hair and horse dander, your saddle is going to need regular cleaning.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with a worn out saddle that is impossible to restore to its former beauty. 

Cleaning a saddle isn’t everyone’s favorite chore but it doesn’t need be an arduous task.  Follow along with this guide and you’ll see that even the most intricate western saddles are easy to clean without breaking a sweat.  By the time you finish reading, you’ll know how to restore any saddle to a like-new condition in under 1 hour.  Let’s get started!

Why clean a saddle in the first place

Horseback riding is a dirty sport.  Whether you ride on dusty trails, canter in muddy pastures or work your horse to a sweat, your saddle is going to get filthy.  As a result, natural and synthetic saddle materials start to loose some of their luster over time.

To keep your leather or fabric saddles functioning right for years to come, you need to clean and condition them regularly.  Plus, without regular cleaning, all saddles start to look worn and ugly.  For equestrians that need their tack to be in tip-top shape, saddle cleaning is essential.

English riders know this better than anyone.  Your saddle is part of the whole package when you are showing.  Having a beautifully groomed horse and a spiffy pair of riding pants is pointless if you ride a top a grungy looking saddle.

Western riders aren’t off the hook either.  Trail riders, barrel racers and ropers get pretty messy after a long day of riding.  While you may not balk at a bit of dirt on your saddle, chances are you do care about preserving your investment.  Saddles aren’t cheap and cleaning keeps them functioning right for many years.  

How to easily clean a saddle step by step

Treating your saddle to a good cleaning doesn’t need to involve back breaking effort.  With quality tools and the right process, any rider can make their saddle look beautiful without breaking a sweat.  Follow along to see how it’s done.

Supplies you will need

Give yourself the best chance at saddle cleaning success by investing in a few inexpensive supplies.  Here is everything you need (and nothing you don’t) to do the job right.

  • 2-3 towels
  • 2 medium sponges
  • 1 sheep skin rag
  • Gloves
  • Nylon bristle brush
  • Toothbrush or cotton swabs
  • Bucket of water (never hot water)
  • Saddle soap
  • Leather conditioner
  • Metal cleaner/ Silver polish

Deep cleaning instructions:  Total Time 55 minutes

Step 1:  Prep your saddle (10 minutes)

Start by setting up your saddle and securing it on a stand or fence rail.  Place your saddle at waist height to avoid back strain.  Strip it down (optional) by removing straps and cinches.  Unfasten all buckles. 

Step 2:  Brush off loose dirt (5 minutes)

Before applying any soap or water, remove as much loose dirt and hair as possible with a brush.  You don’t want to rub dirt into the leather if you can avoid it so do this step before applying soap.  If you have access to compressed air, use it to blow away most of the loose debris.

Step 3:  Apply saddle soap (10 minutes)

Now the cleaning begins.  With a clean, damp sponge, dab on a small amount of saddle soap and work it onto the saddle using small, circular motions.  You don’t need to soak the saddle but use enough water to keep it slightly moist.  As your sponge gets soiled, rinse it and apply more soap.  Repeat this process over all parts of the saddle except any suede.  Don’t forget to wash accessory straps too.

Step 4:  Remove soap residue (5 minutes)

Dampened your second clean sponge with fresh water and wipe away residual soap.  Repeat this process over the entire saddle, rinsing your sponge each time, until all soap residue is removed (2-3 times).

Step 5: Dry completely with towels (5 minutes)

After the soap is removed, dry the saddle with a towel.  Swap out towels when they get damp.  Air dry if needed and be sure your saddle is completely dry before applying conditioner.  I prefer deep cleaning my saddle during warm weather to speed up drying time.

Step 6:  Apply leather conditioner (10 minutes)  

Once your saddle is dry, apply your choice of leather conditioner (Neatsfoot oil) to all leather surfaces (except suede).  Use a comically small amount of conditioner though.  It goes a long ways and excess oil leaches out as a sticky mess when exposed to heat.  Too much oil can also soak through the leather and damage the tree inside.  Use a clean sheep skin cloth to rub in the conditioner.  Buff until the saddle is restored to a polished finish.  Be sure to wear gloves.  

Step 7:  Clean metal fittings and silver, reassemble, brush any suede (10 minutes)

Wipe down all metal fittings with your choice of metal cleaner.  If your saddle has any fancy silver, this is also the time to polish that.  Spray a rag with cleaner directly to avoid spraying any metal cleaner on the saddle.  

Once all your accessory straps are conditioned, reassemble your saddle and give any suede components a quick brush to remove dust and restore the fluff. 

Congrats!  In less than 1 hour, your saddle has been deep cleaned and you didn’t even break a sweat.

Quick clean vs. Deep clean

In most cases, a quick clean is all you need.  The average rider accumulates only a small amount of dust, sweat and dander on their saddle during each ride.  That means brushing off loose dirt, wiping it down with a damp rag and a light coat of saddle conditioner is all you need.  You can do that without breaking a sweat in less than 20 minutes.

Deep cleaning a saddle involves stripping it down to its base components.  Removing parts like stirrups and cinches allows for a more thorough cleaning and conditioning.  A deep clean also involves using saddle soaps.

Most of your cleaning will be something in-between a quick clean and deep clean.  I don’t often separate saddle components but I do use quality leather conditioners after most rides.  I do a true deep clean about once a year.

Important cleaning tips

Not every saddle gets cleaned the same way, so I have provided a few more important tips you should know.

How to clean suede

Any saddle with suede components requires a bit more care when cleaning.  Suede should never be cleaned with saddle soaps or rubbed down with conditioner.  That will ruin the nap or leave permanent spotting.

Instead, dust off suede with a clean dry rag or use a vacuum to remove loose dirt, hair and dander.  You can then spot clean with a damp cloth.  Finally, using a stiff bristled brush, rub gently in a circular motion to restore the nap.  However, suede readily develops wear marks with excessive brushing.  Brush sparingly. 

What about cleaning rough out leather saddles

Rough out saddles need cleaning just like tradition leather saddles but with a couple notable exceptions.  First, rough out is more porous so it will darken when cleaned with most saddle soaps and conditioners.  If you don’t want this to happen, only use conditioners on the smooth underside of the leather.  

In addition, make sure any rough out is thoroughly dry before cleaning.  You’ll need a stiff bristle brush to work dirt and debris loose from the leather.  You can also use the brush to restore the fuzzy texture of rough out.  It’s been suggested to me that a wire brush also works for this purpose but I think you risk scratching any smooth leather surrounding rough out portions.

Saddle discoloration

Saddle soaps and conditioners are known to change the color of many leather saddles.  Some cause leather to lighten in color and others give saddles a deeper, darker shade.  It’s not going to harm the leather but you may not want to change the color of your saddle.

Spot test any new saddle soap on a discrete location on your saddle to see what happens.  To avoid the issue all together, use a mild detergent like Dawn dish soap or saddle soap with a proven track record for causing little to no discoloration.

English saddles vs. Western saddles

English and western equestrians ride in very different environments but in both cases, saddles can get pretty dirty.  However, groomed arenas result in less mud accumulation.  As such, English riders get by with quicker spot cleans and light conditionings between events to keep their saddles looking pretty.

Western riders often spend time exposed to the elements which leaves their saddles in rougher shape at the end of a ride.  It therefore takes a bit more effort to properly restore and protect the leather on a western saddle.

How to clean a fabric saddle

Saddles constructed with synthetic fabrics are a touch easier to clean and way more forgiving with water and soaps.  Basic principles still apply though.  Primarily, the idea is that you should allow fabric saddles to dry thoroughly before storing.  

Synthetic saddles with leather incorporated into the design need to be treated more carefully when cleaning and leather parts still need conditioning.  With full synthetic saddles, follow the 4 simple steps below for easy cleaning:

  1. Wet your saddle and apply some mild dish soap, or a soap designed specifically for fabric saddles, using a damp cloth.
  1. Use your rag to wipe away loose dirt.  For stubborn spots, use a bristle brush.
  1. Thoroughly rinse your soapy saddle with a hose or bucket of water.  
  1. Let it dry completely in a well ventilated area.  Finish drying indoors during winter months.  

How to clean a saddle pad

Depending on the material, saddle pads are easy to clean.  Usually all that is needed is a blast with a hose or pressure washer.  Vacuuming is also a good option to remove hair and dander.  At a minimum, just use a brush to wipe away loose debris. 

Wool saddle pads need a different cleaning approach.  Hosing down a wool pad is not a great way to clean it.  For one thing, wool can become misshapen and shrink if soaked.  Also, wool clings tightly to horse hair and dander.  Brushing it with a stiff nylon bristle brush is the most efficient way to keep it clean. 

Proper storage is critical

Riding isn’t the only thing that gets a saddle dirty.  How you store a saddle plays a big role in preserving the leather’s integrity and luster.  At the very least, never cover a sweaty saddle.  Mold and mildew will quickly ruin a saddle that is stored damp.  Be sure to always dry your saddles completely after cleaning.

Keep your saddles in a dry location with plenty of ventilation.  In a dusty barn, consider covering your saddle using a breathable nylon cover.  However, avoid covers if your tack storage area is prone to dampness.

Do you need to clean your saddle after every ride

Opinions differ here but in my experience, deep cleaning a saddle after every ride is a lot of extra work that can actually do more harm than good.  A quick wipe down with a dry rag or brush to remove dirt and hair isn’t a problem but using saddle soap and conditioners too much can damage leather.   

With moderate use, saddles should get a quick wipe down to remove loose dirt, hair and dust at least once a month.  Perform a deep cleaning that includes using saddle soap and conditioner 1 to 2 times a year.  

Adjust your cleaning frequency accordingly depending on the amount you ride and the conditions your saddle is exposed to.

Best saddle cleaners and conditioners worth the money

I’ve tried many saddle soaps and conditioners on my saddles but in my opinion, only a few brands are worth buying again.  Not so surprisingly, the best saddle cleaners are also the most popular.  You can have confidence that the ones I list here are worth the money and are sure to work on any leather saddle. 

Saddle soaps

Fiebing’s Saddle Soap (Gold Standard!)

Fiebing’s has long been a favorite saddle soap for bringing neglected saddles back to life.  It’s a gentle soap that works on any saddle.  I’ve used it for years and been quite pleased with the luster it brings to my saddles.  Plus, I barely noticed any discoloration on my saddles.  Fiebing’s is prone to drying out so buy only what you need for the next year or two.  A 3.5 ounce tub is all you need to start and it costs less than $10.

Farnam Leather New Saddle Soap (My Favorite)

For those that prefer a liquid saddle soap, Farnam Leather New is a favorite.  It is my go-to soap for the quick cleans since it sprays on easy and deftly removes light dirt layers from all the nooks and crannies.  A little goes a long ways so the 32 ounce bottle will last years.

Saddle conditioners

Fiebing’s 100% Pure Neatsfoot Oil (Most Popular)

Neatsfoot oil has long been a staple among avid riders as the ultimate in leather conditioning.  Natural Neatsfoot oil revitalizes leather by restoring oils lost during use.  If you want your saddle to last forever, then keep it from drying out with Fiebing’s 100% Neatsfoot oil.  8 ounces costs about $10 but a little goes a long ways.

Carr & Day & Martin Belvoir Leather Balsam (Best for Old Saddles)

This lanolin and beeswax based conditioner is the best way to nourish aging leather.  It smooths out cracks and truly brings back a dry and stiff saddle’s supple texture.  Belvoir Leather Balsam provides a long lasting coat that prevents drying and resists dirt after application, making it easier to brush away debris on subsequent rides.  When you need the best for aging saddles, this is the one to pick.

Can you restore an old dirty saddle

Not all saddles can be saved.  An old dirty saddle that is growing a significant amount of mold is probably not worth restoring.  Mold degrades the integrity of leather and leaves lasting stains.  Not only are moldy saddles an eye sore, they can fail during a ride.

Saddles with dry and cracked leather that is starting to curl may be beyond hope as well.  It would take lots of oiling to restore its shape but other issues are likely to be present at that point as well.  

Before trying to clean up an old saddle, always inspect for mold and weak leather components.  In addition, make sure that the internal saddle tree has not lost its rigidity.  Saddles with excessive mold, curling leather parts and collapsing trees are not worth cleaning or restoring. 

Other common questions

Can you use dawn dish soap to clean a saddle

Dawn is a very mild, yet effective, soap that’s great for cleaning leather saddles.  Use it sparingly though.  Otherwise, it is difficult to fully remove soap residue without soaking your saddle with water.  

Dawn dish soap is also unlikely to discolor leather saddles like other types of saddle cleaning products.  However, it is still wise to spot check a discrete area on your saddle before proceeding. 

I find it best to put a drop or two of dawn dish soap in a small bucket of water as opposed to putting it directly on the saddle.

Does vinegar ruin leather

Any advice you hear that vinegar is an effective way to remove mold from your saddle is a little outdated.  While vinegar will certainly kill mold, its acidity is likely to cause significant damage to leather.  

Ditch the vinegar and opt instead for pH-neutral cleaning solutions specially formulated to kill mold without harming leather.