As horse owners, we spend a lot of money on “stuff” for our horses - tack for riding, leg protection for work and injury care, coolers and blankets for chilly weather. A little time spent caring for our investments will pay off in safety, comfort and a long useful life.
The leather goods in your tack room also require care, similar to the care your own skin needs. Leather, after all, is really just processed animal hide. Dirt and sweat are leather's enemies and need to be removed, while a good soaking in the rain takes natural oils out of the leather causing it to dry and crack.
General Leather Cleaning
For general cleaning, Murphy's Liquid Oil Soap from your local supermarket does a good job at removing grime and restoring moisture. Just remember to use a sponge that is damp enough to get the job done but not too wet. Rinse the sponge out after cleaning every couple of pieces /sections of tack, squeeze out all the water that you can, and then pour a little more Murphy's on both sides.
A daily wipe-over of your tack after every ride is best, but not always practical with the busy schedules that we all have. Try to shoot for a couple of days when it gets a little extra dirty (i.e. a long sweaty cross-country ride). But please rinse the bit off after every ride - courtesy to your horse.
At least once a week do a thorough “take apart” cleaning. This enables you to remove accumulated dirt around the buckles and bit attachments. It's also the time that you “safety check” your tack for excessive wear, cracks, loose stitching or any other signs of weakness. If something looks unsafe, please do yourself and your horse a favor and either send it out for repair (tack shop, cobbler) or replace it. You don't want to be out foxhunting, galloping towards a big stone wall, and have a rein or stirrup leather break.
If your tack or turnout halter does get soaked in the rain, hang it up to dry for several hours. At this point, it needs a conditioner to help restore suppleness to prevent cracking and to be comfortable again for your horse. Horseman's One-Step by Absorbine is a great product for this job as it is a combination cleaner and conditioner. Your sponge should be barely wet. Take apart your tack and rub the One-Step in thoroughly. If a “quick fix” is needed, you can wipe your tack down with Lexol.
You may have heard the myth that new tack should be dipped in hot neatsfoot oil to soften it up and remove the white waxy stuff on the surface. It's a myth! HOT oil just weakens the fibers in the leather and rots the stitching. The “wax” is just a natural content of new leather and will gradually wear/wash away.
Metal pieces like spurs and stirrups can be washed with soap and water. Polishing them will add a bit of sparkle to your show-ring turnout. You can use a liquid like Noxon or the polish-impregnated fiber wadding Nevr Dull.
Care of Leg Boots
Your horse's protective leg boots need daily care in order for them to stay comfortable for him. Leather galloping boots should be cleaned as outlined above. The neoprene-and-velcro variety, such as Woof boots, can be washed with regular soap and water and then set in the sun to dry. Bell boots just require a quick rinse to get the sand and mud off the inside so it doesn't chafe the pasterns.
Doing Horse Laundry
Keep a laundry basket in a convenient location in the barn for dirty saddle pads, grooming towels and leg wraps. Plan on doing a “barn laundry” load once a week. Fleece pads, cotton pads, terrycloth towels, leg quilts, track bandages and polo wraps can all go safely through your washer and dryer.
Some shipping boots can be safely laundered as well. If yours are nylon/fleece/velcro and are of the small-medium variety, the washer is fine. But if you have the sturdy, over - the - knee/hock type with stiff plastic bottoms, it's best to wash those by hand with a hose out on your driveway.
Brushes and grooming tools can use a periodic washing with dishwashing liquid. Then dry in the sun. Any grooming equipment that has been used on a sick horse or one with a skin problem should be soaked overnight in bleach. Then wash and dry as above.
Buckets and Stable Equipment
Your horse's water buckets (indoors and outdoors) should be scrubbed out daily with a stiff-bristled brush before they are refilled. Otherwise they gradually accumulate a slimy scum. Feed tubs/buckets need a weekly scrubbing. I do mine on Monday mornings to clean up the leftover bits of Sunday night's bran mash. Stable equipment such as shovels and muck tubs benefit from a once-or-twice-a-month cleaning. If they are quite caked with manure, soak for a while with soapy water (another use for dishwashing liquid!).
The well-dressed horse has quite a wardrobe of clothing for all types of weather. Indoor sheets and blankets should be brushed clean of manure, hay and shavings before being removed. Similarly, outdoor rugs need the mud and sand brushed off (use a brush with stiff plastic bristles that you reserve for this chore only). Wet rugs should be hung up or draped over saddle racks so that both sides can dry overnight.
Your own washer and dryer will be able to handle cotton indoor sheets and nylon turnout sheets. Just don't run the dryer at your bedtime-the buckles make a horrible noise! Heavier stable blankets and turnout rugs will have to be sent out for professional cleaning. A few “regular” dry cleaning stores will take horse blankets and there are also horse laundry services (check tack shop and feed store bulletin boards as well as local equine publications).
In the early fall, BEFORE you need to use them, spread your clean turnout blankets out on the driveway in the sun, spray them thoroughly with aerosol silicone spray (sold as a water-repellant treatment for work boots). Let dry for an hour. Then spray a second coat, adding a bit extra to seams where leaks occur first. This treatment won't make your horse's outdoor rug waterproof, but it will make light moisture (drizzle, snow) bead up and run off rather than soaking into the blanket.
How you care for coolers, anti-sweat sheets and quarter sheets depends on what they are made of, not on what your horse wears them for. Polarfleece items go in the washer and dryer. Cotton should be washed in cold water and hung to dry. (I don't know why Irish knit stuff seems to shrink more than stable sheets.) Wool must be washed in cold water and hung on the clothesline. Coolers may take a couple of days to dry in your basement. Putting a wool cooler in the dryer will turn it from thoroughbred size into pony size in an hour.
Horses are tough on their clothes. Take a look at your horse the next time he's rolling in the pasture! All this flailing about can get the surcingles to come unbuckled. Then your horse steps on the dangling strap, tearing the blanket and possibly injuring himself. I have found a handy, cheap way to prevent surcingles from coming undone during sleeping or playtime - farm animal castration bands. These are little (2/3 inch diameter) donuts of rubber used to slip over the testicles of kids, lambs and calves to passively castrate them as they grow. You can purchase them at farm supply stores (or catalogs), usually for a few dollars for a package of 100. Stretch one over the top of the T piece of your surcingle buckle and let it rest around the neck of the T. If the T has an extra long neck, put two bands around it. The castration bands enable you to still do/undo the surcingle buckles in the usual manner but prevent them from jiggling around so that they fall apart.
None of this equipment care takes much time if you build it all into your daily routine. “Little and often” is the best way to care for your horse's tack, equipment and clothing so that it stays safe and comfortable for a long time.