I’ve long marveled at the instructions on saddle soap containers. It doesn’t seem to matter what brand or type of saddle soap, they all seem to say pretty much the same thing. If you follow these instructions, there is no way that your dirty saddle will get clean. There usually is some sort of product promise like “Cleans and Conditions”. What appears to be happening is that the manufacturers would like to broaden their customer base by saying that their product will do more than you might have imagined.
Recently, the saddlemakers in the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association have been in discussions with Shep Hermann of Hermann Oak Leather Company. Shep tells us that saddle soap should be used as a cleaner only and not a conditioner. He says that in order for the soap to be an effective cleaning agent, it must have a high, or alkaline pH. Tanners are always concerned about the pH (potential hydrogen) of the solutions used to finish their leather. A balanced pH will ensure that the leather will retain its properties for many years to come under a variety of uses. Shep says that theoretically, an over dose of saddle soap that is applied and rubbed into the pores, over time could actually ‘untan’ the leather.
Furthermore, simply by working up a lather and then rubbing it into the leather will do nothing to float out the dirt particles that will do harm over time. Perhaps we need to adopt different language when it comes to cleaning our saddles and tack. “Washing” our saddles instead of “saddle soaping” them would place the emphasis where it needs to be.
Thanks to Chuck Stormes for taking the lead on these productive discussions with Shep Hermann.