How to Break in a Western Saddle
When breaking in a new western saddle, what’s your favorite method? We’ve got some suggestions outlined here.
HN staff writer Lorraine Jackson sent an email my way with a plea: “I got a western saddle last spring that had been lightly used before it found its way to me, but not enough to really break in the leather or kill the squeakiness. Now, I have sat in broken-in western saddles, and they’re every bit as wonderful as a nice English saddle. But a new western saddle feels like a torture device. Can you hook an English girl up with an overall western saddle cleaning/softening tutorial?”
Cleaning tack, whether you ride English or western, is one of those magical processes that doesn’t have a “right” answer (though there are a few decidedly “wrong” answers–don’t put your saddle in the washing machine, don’t put your saddle in the dishwasher, don’t clean your bit with neatsfoot oil, etc.) Western saddles in particular can be a little tricky, however, thanks to the different materials you’re likely to find: seats are often finished in suede, for example, or a natural or light oil finish can turn dark with a single drop of the wrong brand of leather oil. Here are my suggestions for cleaning, oiling and generally breaking in a new western saddle.
Ride in it.
Sorry, Lorraine–nothing will ultimately beat just climbing up in the saddle and going for a ride. It’s still the best and quickest way to get that nice broken-in almost-custom feel of a good, old saddle. As the leather breaks in, the saddle will start to shape itself to the horse as well as the rider, so it’s crucial that the saddle be fitted properly and padded appropriately. (Feel carefully over the horse’s shoulder to make sure there’s an even fit and no pinching, and also check the withers for good clearance. A particularly short-backed horse may also rub over the hips with a large saddle.) Pay careful attention to your horse while you are saddling, during your ride, and after you’ve untacked–your horse will likely “tell” you if something’s uncomfortable.
Working the leather will help speed up the breaking-in phase, and there’s no better way to clean and maintain good leather than cleaning regularly. I prefer a plain old bar of glycerine saddle soap–I find that it keeps leather clean, doesn’t make surfaces sticky and helps replace lost moisture. Good leather often doesn’t need anything more than a regular cleaning with glycerine to stay soft, moisturized and supple. The added bonus with plain glycerine soap is that it’s usually pretty economical. This bar from the good people at SmartPak even comes in its own tray, negating one of the few things I don’t like about glycerine soap (you know–when you’ve used the bar too much and it falls apart right in the middle–now rendered an irrelevant argument.) For a new saddle, clean regularly and thoroughly until the leather starts feel broken-in.
Note: don’t clean your suede seat or rough-out training saddle with soap and water! Glycerine soap should be used on the smooth side of leather only: it will stain suede and destroy the nap.
There are zillions of tack oils on the market and everyone’s got their personal pick, but my favorite is Leather Therapy Restorer & Conditioner–I’ve had excellent results on light oil saddles without darkening the finish, when used conservatively but thoroughly. When worked in with a rag, it softens the leather beautifully. Make sure you wipe the saddle down again after the oil’s soaked in especially if you are a liberal conditioner, or you may find a lot of oil soaked into your jeans the next time you mount up. For an initial conditioning of a new saddle, conservatively oil (where appropriate) both sides of flaps, fenders, stirrup leathers, etc.
Again, keep oil away from suede and rough-out!
Tips and Tricks:
Use a toothbrush for cleaning detailed tooling.
Toothpaste works well as a “poor man’s” silver polish. (Apply with a rag or toothbrush and then polish carefully with a plain wet cloth.)
Silence squeaky leather with a little baby powder puffed into the “joints”–most squeaks come from where the fender, stirrup leather and seat jockey come together. Lift up the fender and apply a little baby powder and the squeaking should stop.
For new stiff fenders, train the leather to bend so your stirrups hang perpendicular to the horse: on the saddle rack, twist your fenders a full rotation and then stick a broom or pitchfork through the stirrups. Leave this set up overnight, remove the broom, and voila! Your fenders will be turned the way you want them and your stirrup will hang nicely perpendicular to your horse right where your foot needs it to be. If you’re not riding every day, check back regularly to make sure you don’t overtrain the leather! Some folks suggest spraying the underside of the fender with water to help set the leather; I’ve never found this to be necessary but it may help set the leather faster (and you may be able to get away with only a half-rotation of your fenders.)
The old cowboy method:
The “old cowboy way” to break in a saddle is to leave the whole thing in the stock tank, then ride in it wet. In the era of suede and show saddles, the thought of doing this gives me mild heart failure (and it’s also really cold outside, so the idea of riding in a wet saddle makes me shiver.) Ultimately, drying leather in a particular shape is actually one of the best ways to help form it (see turning the fenders under “Tips and Tricks” above) but I’m not sold on this idea. If you’ve ever tried this, please let us know how it worked!
What are your favorite tips, tricks or leather care products for breaking in new tack? Share your thoughts: we’ve got an entire forum board devoted just to talking tack.
Go riding! (Especially if you’re breaking in a new saddle.)
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