How to Clean Your Leather Saddle

Man cleaning leather saddle
Marc Dozier / Getty Images
  • 01 of 08

    Clean a Saddle - What You'll Need

    Equipment for cleaning your saddle.
    Gather your equipment. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Many older horse books state we should clean our saddles every time we use them. However, that may not be practical. How often you clean your saddle may depend on how it is used. If you only use your saddles on weekends for leisurely pleasure rides, you might not need to clean your saddle as frequently as someone who participates in a sport where the saddle is exposed to sweat, mud and dirt regularly such as distance riding or cross country jumping.

    If you keep your saddle uncovered in a dusty stable, or ride in a dusty arena, you may want to clean your saddle so that grit doesn’t ruin the finish and dry the leather out. To protect your saddle, use a saddle cover of breathable material and wipe it with a dry cloth after every use. Or a quick wipe with a soft, damp cloth may be all a saddle needs.

    But, it makes sense to clean them well before storing, before a competition, or before selling one. (And if your stored saddle has sprouted mold, don’t worry. Just follow the steps below.)

    Gather all your cleaning equipment. You’ll need:

    • Mild saddle soap ( glycerin)
    • Non-detergent leather conditioner
    • Small sponge
    • Towels (3 to 4)
    • Small bucket or bowl of water (not hot)
    • Stiff bristle or fine wire brush (optional)
    • Cotton swabs and/or toothbrush
    • Metal cleaner

    You may also want a saddle stand, saw horse, or two chairs placed back-to-back to put your saddle on while you work. This will give you a sturdy work surface. 

    Continue to 2 of 8 below.
  • 02 of 08

    Strip The Saddle

    Saddle ready to be cleaned on stand.
    Saddle stripped of stirrups, girth and ready to clean on a saddle stand. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Strip the saddle of all fittings, like the girth or stirrups and undo any buckles.  Taking off all the fittings allows you to get into the nooks and crannies, where dirt gathers, more easily. Wipe the saddle down with slightly dampened toweling to remove any loose dust, dirt and hair. Don’t ever get your leather too wet, because this in itself can dry it out.

    Continue to 3 of 8 below.
  • 03 of 08

    Saddle Soap

    Sponge and saddle soap.
    Squeeze the sponge out and work up a foam on the cake of soap. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Dampen the sponge in the water. You’ll want it damp, but not dripping wet. Dip it in the saddle soap and work up a lather.

    If it’s the first time you’ve clean your saddle try any leather cleaner, especially all-in-one cleaners on an inconspicuous spot on your saddle. Choose all-in-ones carefully because some all-in-one cleaners that promise to clean and condition in one step may not be good for leather. Some contain detergents that over time, can damage the leather. Some can discolor your leather, so be sure you can live with the color change. Most will darken the leather, and this is to be expected. But if your leather has a colored finish, you don’t want that removed. 

    Continue to 4 of 8 below.
  • 04 of 08

    Clean the Leather

    Apply saddle soap.
    Apply the soap, then wipe off any residue. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Apply the lather to the leather. Work in small circles covering all surfaces of the saddle; top, underside, and between flaps. On an English saddle, be sure not to over-wet the underside, as this can soak the wool flocking under the leather, causing it to compact.  Frequently rinse and re-lather the sponge. Do not apply soap or water to suede or roughout leathers often found on seats or knee rolls. Give these a rough-up with a stiff brush—just enough to loosen the dirt. You don’t want to wear through these softer leathers.

    In areas where the 'jockey' is built up--that thicker, black layer of dirt that tends to build under the stirrup leathers, repeat the soaping a few times, without wetting the leather too much. Pay special attention to where sweat has soaked through the leather.  

    Brush the underside of a western saddle lightly with a stiff brush. Did you know you can have this fleecy layer replaced if it gets too worn and dirty? 

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Clean Off Any Residual Soap

    Clean off soap
    Clean off soap. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Wipe the saddle with a damp towel and then a dry towel. You’ll want to remove any residual soap from the leather as soap left behind may damage the leather over time. Some saddlers recommend using only a damp cloth and no soap.

    Residual soap left in crevices and folds will also hold grit that can eat away at the leather. Use dampened cotton swabs or the corner of a towel to get all soap out of tiny stitching channels and crevices.

    Wipe the saddle dry. The next step is conditioning, and most conditioners work best on leathers that are a tad damp.

    Continue to 6 of 8 below.
  • 06 of 08

    Apply Leather Conditioner

    Apply conditioner.
    Apply a light layer of a good quality leather conditioner such as pure neatsfoot oil. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Apply a non-detergent leather conditioner such as neatsfoot oil, lanolin or beeswax conditioner to the leather. Make sure you are using real, not synthetic neatsfoot oil. The container will say something like “animal based” or "100% Pure". Apply the oil very sparingly. You don’t want to clog the pores or give dirt a place to cling to. Too much oil can soak through the leather into the padding or tree underneath and cause damage. Be aware also that some conditioners will darken the leather. If you don’t want your leather saddle to darken choose a conditioner accordingly and test in an inconspicuous place.

    (Use rubber gloves if lanolin will irritate your hands.)

    Beeswax and other thick conditioners can leave a residue, so be prepared with towelling and elbow grease to buff this away. 

    Continue to 7 of 8 below.
  • 07 of 08

    Clean Metal Fittings and Stirrup Leathers

    Clean the metal fittings
    Clean the metal fittings and stirrups being sure not to get metal cleaner on leather. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Wipe down all metal fittings such as stirrups and buckles, and remove any residual soap or conditioner that may have gathered on them. Use an old toothbrush or cotton swabs to clear out any small areas where soap or conditioner are caked.

    Follow the same steps of applying soap and conditioner to clean the stirrup leathers. This is a good time to check their condition and ensure they're still safe. Metal cleaner can be used on stirrups, but they can also be cleaned with regular dish soap and water. Rinse well. Be careful if you clean the metal fittings on the saddle with metal cleaner that the cleaner doesn’t get into the leather. Try placing a corner of a towel between the leather and the metal, to protect it. Vinegar works well on metal fittings too.


    Continue to 8 of 8 below.
  • 08 of 08

    Brush Up Suede or Rough-Out Leathers

    Brush suede or rough-out
    Brush the suede or rough-out portions of your saddle with a stiff brush. 2006 K. Blocksdorf

    Very occasionally you may want to make suede or roughout seats or knee rolls look nice. Use a stiff bristle brush to brush up the nap. Do this very infrequently.  Too much brushing will wear through the suede, and you’ll end up holes. You may want to do this step only if you're trying to make the saddle look extra good for a special show or to sell.