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Cleaning Horse Tack: How to Make Homemade Saddle Soap

Well maintained horse tack and saddle lasts for years.
Well maintained horse tack and saddle lasts for years. | Source

The Function of Saddle Soap

Saddle soap has two functions, these are cleaning and preserving. Well maintained horse tack remains strong and supple in use. Saddle soap is a specifically designed for this purpose. This specialized soap contains a cleaning agent that removes dirt and grime from your saddle. It also contains emollient oils which act as a preservative and conditions the leather. Without the application of saddle soap or similar, leather saddles would crack and distort as they dried out.

Propert's Leather and Saddle Soap used in World War One 1914-1918 when horses were the main method of transporting men and munitions.
Propert's Leather and Saddle Soap used in World War One 1914-1918 when horses were the main method of transporting men and munitions. | Source

Traditional Recipe for Saddle Soap Using Lye

There are several ways to make saddle soap but the traditional method uses lye (sodium hydroxide). Lye is a dangerous and caustic alkaline chemical. It should be handled with extreme care as it causes nasty burns if it makes contact with your skin or eyes. For this reason you should always wear rubber gloves and eye goggles when using lye.

Making saddle soap using lye should never be carried out by younger kids. The recipe below should only be taught to older children if they are under close experienced adult supervision. The following video shows how to use lye safely. The presenter demonstrates how caustic lye can be by pouring some onto a chicken joint; the flesh is quickly dissolved away by the chemical.

The video is aimed at people making cosmetic soaps rather than saddle soap, but the principles of soap-making and the safety precautions needed are the same. It is only the type of oils and fragrances used in the recipes that differ.

Health and Safety When Using Lye to Make Soap

Equipment Needed to Make Solid Saddle Soap

2 saucepans (made of stainless steel or heat resistant glass)

2 stainless steel or plastic spoons

Some wide mouthed glass or plastic containers for soap molds

Method and Ingredients to Make a Bar of Saddle Soap

1. In the first saucepan (stainless steel or heat resistant glass): mix 6 ΒΌ parts Beeswax, 10 parts pure flake lye (sodium hydroxide) and 10 parts water. Boil for five minutes stirring gently.

2. In the second saucepan: mix 2 parts Castile soap shavings with 10 parts water until melted.

3. Remove from the heat source and slowly blend the melted soap mixture into the lye mixture.

4. Turpentine is flammable, so make sure you keep it well away from any heat sources. Stir in 15 parts gum turpentine to the now cooling soap and lye mix.

5. When all the ingredients are blended pour the saddle soap mixture into the molds. On cooling the mixture will thicken and solidify into bars.

6. To remove the bars, dip the cooled soap-filled molds briefly into a bowl of hot water. The bars should slide out of their molds. The finished saddle soap will keep indefinitely if covered and stored somewhere cool and dry.

Do you make your own saddle soap?

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Western style American leather saddle.
Western style American leather saddle. | Source

Modern Saddle Soap Recipe Made Without Lye

If the thought of using a dangerous chemical like lye puts you off making your own saddle soap, there is an alternative. The following recipe avoids the step where you have to heat lye by using shavings of a commercially made soap.

In addition, in this recipe neatsfoot oil replaces some of the beeswax. This makes the final product a thick paste rather than a solid bar which can be preferable for some cleaning tasks. However neatsfoot oil is not suitable for your saddle soap if you live somewhere with high temperatures like Arizona. Some horseback riders have reported that neatsfoot oil can damage leather when it's subjected to extreme heat.

Method and Ingredients for Making Saddle Soap (Without Lye)

This recipe makes approximately four pints of saddle soap. You will need 2 saucepans, 2 stirring spoons and some storage containers with lids.

1. In the first saucepan, boil 2 pints of water. Reduce the heat and slowly add 24 tablespoons of grated ivory soap. Stir gently until all the soap has melted.

2. In a second saucepan melt 8oz. beeswax and 4oz. neatsfoot oil. Blend together to make a smooth liquid.

3. Remove the beeswax and neatsfoot oil mixture from the heat. Slowly add it to the soap solution and stir on a low heat until it thickens.

4. Pour into some clean dry containers with lids and allow to cool. It will not solidify into bars but will be a thick cream consistency.

Steer wrestler Luke Branquinho, one of eight Army-sponsored cowboys in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, leaps off his horse and onto a steer at the Pace Picante Pro Rodeo Chute Out in Las Vegas.
Steer wrestler Luke Branquinho, one of eight Army-sponsored cowboys in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, leaps off his horse and onto a steer at the Pace Picante Pro Rodeo Chute Out in Las Vegas. | Source

How to Clean Tack Using Saddle Soap

Homemade saddle soap works in the same way as the store bought version.

1. Use a damp sponge or soft wet cloth to apply the soap. Make sure your cloth or sponge is well wrung out before dabbing it onto the soap.

2. Apply the soap to the leather saddle using firm smooth arm motions.

3. Then rinse out your cloth in warm water and remove any excess lather from the saddle.

4. Use a second dry cloth to buff polish the leather to a glossy shine.

Don't Use Saddle Soap on Leather Sofas

The recipes given in this article are only to be used for cleaning leather horse saddles. Horseback riding saddles are made of strong, sturdy, hard-wearing, very thick leather. Don't be tempted to use saddle soap on leather-covered domestic furniture.

The leather used for three piece suites, sofas, settees and armchairs is a thin and inferior quality animal hide. Often a leather skin of just a few millimeters thick is glued to a synthetic liner to give it the draping quality of a softer fabric. However, this means that it cannot cope with the harsh chemicals (like lye) found in saddle soap. Over time, using saddle soap on this type of surface will result in it dissolving and holes appearing in the fabric. To clean leather covered domestic furniture use either a commercial leather cleaner or wipe it down with a solution of vinegar and water.

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