It’s time to get your harness ready for a new season of driving. I’ve had my harness for a lot of years and have used it on a multitude of horses. I’ve won in it and wrecked in it and, except for the pieces I’ve replaced when they broke (the result of wrecks), it still looks virtually brand new! There are two reasons for this. The first is, the leather my harness is made from was properly hot stuffed. The second is the way I clean and condition it. So, in the spirit of putting things in order for a great spring of fun driving, here are my tips for cleaning and conditioning harness.
Before I get started, let me clue you in. I hate neatsfoot oil. It stinks, it molds and it dissolves the wax used to bind the fibers of the stitching together. (If you’ve ever replaced stitching because it frayed, broke or disappeared, you know what I mean.) And, if it disolves the wax in the stitching, what does it do to the wax in the hot stuffing? Ahhhh! If you prepare harness the way I do, your harness won’t mold (though the dirt and sweat on the surface may), no matter how or where you store it, and, if you like the smell of olive oil, it will smell great! Let me advise you to buy stock in a company that sells olive oil, because you’ll use a lot of it! (David Freeman, forgive me!)
Before we start with the how to’s of really cleaning harness, let’s review some history. Back in time, before everything got so automated, leather was tanned and prepared differently! No great surprise, right? One of the things they used to do was ‘hot stuffing’ to prepare the leather for a long and vibrant life as some piece of harness, saddlery or other necessary thing. Hot stuffing involved rolling the leather around in a drum of warm animal tallows and animal waxes (bees wax, among others) until the leather had absorbed all the conditioners it could (about 48 hours worth). Anything made from this leather didn’t arrive at the consumer’s looking and feeling like cardboard or, when oiled, morph into something resembling limp spaghetti! When you bent it, it didn’t crack! Unfortunately, nowadays some (most?) leather is not necessarily tanned to last as it was in the past, one of the prices we pay for a disposable society.
I’ve given you this abbreviated information on leather tanning so you are more able to evaluate the tanning method used on the leather your harness is made of. If you have hot stuffed leather, there’s little you can do to damage it if you care for it properly. If it’s not hot stuffed, you’ll have to care for it a little more carefully and be prepared to replace it a piece at a time before long. If you’re looking to buy new harness and you’re like me and want leather, check into how the leather was tanned and stuffed. Your harness, no matter how well made, is only as good as the tanning and stuffing.
You’ll need a five gallon bucket, three or four (disposable) old terry cloth face rags (or a dismembered towel), a box of Washing Soda (from the laundry aisle of your local grocery store), a big bottle of Murphy Oil Soap (same aisle), a small scrub brush (my personal favorite is a stiff nylon bristled fingernail brush or nylon suede brush), a big city Sunday paper’s worth of newspaper, an economy sized container of olive oil and a large pan. If you want to do a super duper job, you’ll need a bunch of pipe cleaners and a sharp(ish) knife, too.
I use this method of cleaning harness because it lifts the old dirty oil off the harness. It doesn’t remove the stuffing from the leather, just the old dirty oil permeating the surface. Oil is sticky and gets thick as it ages. Over time, it attracts a fair degree of dirt, pulling the dirt into the pores of the leather. To get the dirt and old oil out of the pores, I do the following.
This is where I warn you about the quality of your leather. If it is vegetable tanned and/or hot stuffed, this method will not hurt your leather. If your harness is made from leather that was processed differently, it will become gross and stiff as cardboard and you will have to look into the tedious task of hot stuffing your leather (or the equivalent) at home – this is a grosser job than getting your harness clean! To test the quality of the leather, pick a piece needing replaced. Clean and prepare it using the method given below and let it dry overnight. After it is completely dry, run it through luke warm oil (no hotter than 100 degrees). If it absorbs the oil (even after you’ve dunked it more than once or even let it soak, and it looks and feels good, you’ve got the good stuff. If it comes out gross, you know where you’re at and what you’ve got. Don’t panic! I’m giving you a cleaning method for that kind of leather, also!
Put 1/3rd of a cup of Washing Soda in the five-gallon bucket. Fill the bucket 2/3rds of the way full with barely warm water (just luke-warm is perfect – any warmer will remove wax from your harness, which you don’t want to do). Don’t wear rubber gloves. You cannot accurately gauge the temperature of your wash water or the temperature of the oil! Overheating even good leather is disastrous as it will literally cook the leather, which ruins it.
Spread some of your newspaper out on the floor. Two or three layers thick should be plenty. Take your harness apart. Unbuckle everything you can unbuckle and unscrew the terrets and the screws that hold the tug straps up and pull the tug straps out of the saddle. Your harness should be fairly well dismantled! If you need to, make measurements and take notes on how everything came apart so you can put it back together when you’re done. Once you’ve disassembled it and reassembled it a time or two, you’ll recognize all the pieces at a glance and won’t need the notes.
If you have hot stuffed/vegetable tanned leather, you can use this method. Drop one piece in the bucket. The water will almost instantly turn brown. Let it soak for about 30 seconds, then fish it out. (You won’t be able to see it because the water instantly turned dark brown!) Use one of your terry cloth rags and scrub the harness piece off, using the brush to scrub around buckles and in creases and crevices and the pipe cleaners and knife tip to clean where buckles are attached and in the holes the buckles fasten to. When the piece is scrubbed clean, wring the rag out as dry as you can and give the harness piece a final wipe to remove all the surface water. Drop it on the newspaper and start with the next piece.
You’ll need to change the water about every third piece of harness, or sooner if the pieces are big or especially dirty. You’ll be amazed to discover, the reins are the dirtiest piece of harness! I usually change the water twice just to do the reins! This may be because the reins are usually of bridle leather, not hot stuffed harness leather, so they absorb more dirt than good hot stuffed harness leather.
Don’t soak the crupper or the saddle. Both are stuffed with something; the saddle usually with horse hair and the crupper usually with flax seed. To clean them, dip your brush in the water, shake most of the water out and scrub. Dip, shake and scrub until you have a clean saddle and crupper. Make sure you’ve wiped all the excess water off all harness pieces. The more you leave on and the longer you leave it in the bucket, the less well it’s hot stuffed, the longer it will take to dry.
Use this method if your harness is not hot stuffed/vegetable-tanned leather. Dip one of the rags in your washing soda water and wring out as much water as you can. Pick a piece and scrub it, washing out your rag in the bucket when it gets too dirty. Use the brush, pipe cleaner and knife (a toothpick works good also) as noted above, making sure to scrub the rough side of all leather pieces with the brush. Change the water when it gets too dirty.
When all the pieces are clean, scrub out your bucket (the high water mark is almost pure oil and dirt) and put two or three tablespoons of Murphy Oil Soap in it. Fill it 2/3rds of the way full with warm water. Using a clean terry cloth rag, dip the rag and wring it out completely, as dry as you can. Wipe each piece of the harness down with the Murphy Oil Soap water, removing the last of the washing soda.
While you’re wiping, check carefully to ensure that you have removed all metal oxidization from the leather. If you leave it on, the oil won’t penetrate and the leather will crack when used. Once the leather cracks, you will have to replace it. Save yourself the trouble and get the oxidization off now!
Once the entire harness is wiped down, leave it laying on the newspaper overnight to dry. This is when you want to separate the pieces needing repair. As soon as they are dry, take them to your favorite saddle maker/repairer and have them fixed. Make sure your repairperson uses hot stuff/vegetable tanned leather when replacing failed harness leather. You don’t want to have to replace these pieces again because sufficient quality leather wasn’t used. If you wait until all your repairs are done before doing Day Two, you’ll save yourself having to do the oil bath cleanup twice.
Today we do the home version of hot stuffing followup on your leather. You will only proceed with this part if your harness is dry. If you wiped it off completely the day before, it should be dry now. If ANY dampness remains, put this off for another day. If you’re in any doubt as to the dryness of your harness, put this off for another day! You don’t want to trap water in the leather! Where there’s water, no oil can penetrate and your harness isn’t fully protected!
I do this job in the kitchen. If you have someplace clean outside where you have a burner to heat the oil, that’s even better. I live on a farm, with dogs and cats coming and going constantly. For me, the kitchen works just fine.
Cover the floor with newspaper. The more newspaper you use, the less oil you’ll be washing off the floor when you’re done! Don’t scrimp. Lay it around the base of the stove also. The pieces are going to drip between the pan and the set-down point.
The best pan to use is the bottom of a small roasting pan or the equivalent. Thanks to a friend, we now have a huge commercial soup pot to use. Whatever pan you use, it needs to be five to six inches deep and either big around or oblong. If you can’t find one in your cupboard that will do the job, visit your local second hand store and get what you need.
Fill the pan with oil to a depth of 3 inches. Put it on top the stove and turn the burner on warm. Stir the oil with your fingers until you feel the oil just begin to get warm. Turn the burner off. Be careful. Electric burners will continue to put off heat after they’re turned off. Don’t get the oil too warm. It should be just warm to your fingers. If you’ve gotten it more than just warm, it’s too warm. If it’s too warm to leave your fingers in, it’s too warm for the leather! If the oil is too warm, it will ruin the leather. If the oil isn’t warm enough, it won’t penetrate the leather sufficiently. DON’T USE GLOVES. There is no way you can accurately judge the temperature of the oil through gloves and the olive oil will actually improve the condition of your hands.
I start with the larger pieces, the breastcollar, girth and traces. It’s easier to do the big pieces while the oil is nice and deep! Don’t be afraid to add more oil if the level in the pan gets too low. Just warm the oil each time you add new and whenever the oil cools.
Run the pieces through the oil, scraping the excess off with your fingers as you lift them from the oil. Drop the pieces on the newspaper. As you go, if you see any pieces that look like they have soaked up the oil and are still dry, redip them. Some pieces may need dipping three or more times. Just make sure you keep the oil warm.
You won’t be dipping the saddle, but you should be able to dip everything else. Oil the saddle by soaking a rag in the olive oil and rub it over the saddle, held over the pan, until the leather is done soaking up the oil.
Let the harness sit over night.
Day Two Plus
There are two ways you can get the excess oil off the surface of your harness. I prefer method two because it leaves a little more oil on the leather. It may be a bit too oily the first time or two I use it, but, I know it has enough oil to be properly preserved and by the time I’ve wiped it down once or twice, it’s about perfect and stays perfect for a long time!
Method 1 – Use Washing Soda and warm water (as on day one) and wipe the harness down with a really well wrung out terry cloth rag. If you don’t wring the rag out enough, you risk pulling more oil out of the leather than you want. Then use Murphy Oil Soap and warm water (as on day two) and wipe the harness down with a well-wrung out terry cloth rag.
Method 2 – Mix a bucket of Murphy Oil Soap and warm water as on day two and wipe the harness down with a well wrung out terry cloth rag.
If you wipe your harness down with Murphy Oil Soap and water every time (or so) that you use it, you will not have to strip and reoil your harness for a nice long time! Mine seems to go for about a year and a half to two years before I have to redo it. If we come in muddy, sweaty or both, my harness is so well preserved, I can hose horse and harness off. A quick wipe down with Murphy Oil Soap and water and it’s good as new!
If you have brass, this is when you polish it. There are lots of brass polishing compounds on the market. I use Never Dull (cotton wadding, comes in a can) because it’s easy to use. Use what works for you, but clean your brass regularly. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to clean.
There are a lot of different harness preparations on the market. Some of them I’ve tried, most I haven’t. If you’ve got a favorite, use it! I use the above method because I’m short on time, rough on equipment and, usually, short on money. This method is cheap and it keeps my harness clean, lubricated, free from mold, the surface isn’t gunked up with so much stuff the leather can’t “breathe” and it stays looking like new. What more could I ask?
If you want your harness to shine like it did when it was new, Fiebings puts out a great product called Bag Kote. Wipe it on and your harness will shine! It’s water-soluble and will come off the next time you clean your harness (or get it wet).
I’m working diligently on how to hot stuff leather at home, so if I come up with something good, I’ll be sure and share.