Spring Saddle Cleaning

Some women clean their houses the first pretty day of spring.  Not me--I clean my saddles. It’s a ritual that my pragmatic husband thinks is kind of silly.  After all, he reasons, if he had a day free to spend at the barn, he would ride horses (dirty tack and all) instead of worrying about what their saddles look like.  I get his point.  Riding horses is way more fun than dragging six or more saddles, bridles, and assorted leather trappings out of a dusty tack room and washing, oiling, and polishing all the leather. It takes most of the day, and sometimes by the end, I’m about too tired to lug those fifty pound saddles back in and heave them up to their perches in the tack room, knowing that they will only get filmy with dust and moldy with horse sweat again.

Nevertheless, I do it every spring. It is a habit I learned from my father.  A horseman all his life, he was never was able to indulge in fancy tack, but he believed in buying the best tack one could afford and then taking care of it so that it would last. He always took extra good care of the things and people that he loved.  I remember that when I was a kid, my saddle was so well oiled that the seat of my blue jeans was always dark with it when I returned from a ride. My mother didn’t like having to try to wash that out of my jeans, but I didn’t mind. I loved the smell of saddle oil and horse sweat. 

My dad’s practices must have worked. I still have my first saddle.  He bought it for me when I was eight.  It was a shiny leather Big Horn with whorls and roses tooled into the leather. I was so proud of that saddle. It meant that my dad thought I was a real rider. It was too big for me at first so I had to wait until my legs grew long enough for the stirrups. I still use it today, almost fifty years later. Despite its age and use, it is in good shape although admittedly not as pretty as it once was.  We now have newer, fancier saddles on the farm, but my old one is the only one I like. People ask me why I haven’t switched saddles in so many years, and I tell them that a good saddle is like a good pair of shoes. Over time it conforms to your body.  It knows who you are. You don’t ever want to replace one unless you just have to.

Besides, some of my most important memories involve that saddle. That was the saddle that stayed in place--even though I didn’t--when my horse bucked me off and broke my arm in 5th grade; the one that held me over miles and miles of mountain trails and roads with my dad and little sister while my dad told stories the entire time; it’s the saddle that is in the photographs of a ride on Pierce Ridge on my sixteenth birthday just before I sold my horse and used the money to help buy my first car. I kept the saddle, though, and years later my own little girl held on to that big horn as I held her in front of me on trail rides with my father. The saddle continued to stay in place even later as my dad, daughters, and I rode horses together the day after each of his chemotherapy treatments.  Not too soon after, I had to move all of the saddles, along with their horses, to my own farm and learn to be a horsewoman without the benefit of my dad’s love and advice. 

So when I clean saddles, I always start with the old saddles: first my dad’s, next the one my sister gave me, and then my own. It takes a while because the old leather has nicks and scratches,  and some of the stitching has started to unravel with the years.  I don’t mind how long it takes.  The dogs lie in the shade and keep me company out in the sunshiny barnyard.  The horses wander up to the fence and watch with curiosity, no doubt relieved that they are not yet being called into service. I can hear the chickens clucking as they start to scratch the first insects of spring out of the dirt. As I wipe and polish, I think about all of the times that, as a little girl, I did the same thing.  But back then my saddle seemed a whole lot bigger than it does now.

It occurs to me that cleaning saddles in the spring is an eternally optimistic thing to do.  It suggests—even in the middle of a leafless mountain spring-- that soon there will be an abundance of warm green days, and that and you and your loved ones are going to be well enough to ride horses together on at least some of those days.  It implies that your sweet old horses are going to be able to make it through another summer of patiently carrying those saddles and their riders safely on your farm trails, and that your rambunctious filly will eventually outgrow her youthful obstinance and learn to do so as well. And perhaps, even more importantly, it is grounded in the hope that someday—if you take good enough care of those old saddles—your own daughters will use them to teach their daughters the ritual of spring saddle cleaning

By Betty Miller Conway