How do I “break in” my new western saddle?
And what do I do about the stirrups? They are pointing out instead of to the front! Getting a new saddle is like getting a new car - it’s great! That new saddle smell…. But what do you do about the super stiff leather? And the fenders with the wonky stirrups that are pointing the wrong way!
Breaking in saddles is part throwing out the rules about leather care, part care and conditioning,and part putting your butt in the saddle and riding. There’s an old cowboy method to breaking in a new western saddle involving your water trough, your new saddle, and fishing it out of said water trough after a thorough soaking. Then you get in it, soaking wet, and ride.
You come back to the barn with a wet butt, but your saddle is now molded to you personally. If you go this route, you will definitely need to add oils and conditioners back into your new saddle. Leather was once living fibers, complete with oils and proteins and bonds that held it all together and made is supple. Adding water dries all of that out, which creates brittle and unsafe leather. Neatsfoot oils and leather conditioners are a must after leather is wet.
Brand spankin' new and so stiff!
You can also skip the water part and go straight to the oils and conditioners. Most saddle manufacturers can tell you what products they recommend for your new saddle. Be sure to find out what type of leather is used, sometimes the care instruction are a bit different. Note that oils like neatsfoot and hydrophane may darken leather. You may also find there’s a bit of a residue from oils for a few days, so wear some old and icky pants when you ride.
As far as your fenders are concerned, they need to be turned a bit. Well, by 90 degrees exactly. You have the same options listed to soften up the fender leather, and then you can rig a broom handle between your stirrups to turn them. As the fenders dry, they will dry in the new shape and your stirrups will be more logically faced. You could also use bailing twine to tie them together, this method allows for more precision. Note that you will also need to condition the snot out of your fenders if you soak them before linking the stirrups together.
Be mindful about suede and other types of leathers on your saddle - they may have special cleaning instructions. For more on suede cleaning, read this article.
You can also stretch the fenders out a bit. Just as english stirrups have a bit of “give” to them, the fenders often stretch over time. As your new saddle is rigged up with it’s stirrups together, suspend a bucket full of rocks or other heavy stuff from each stirrup. Make sure you have two buckets that weigh the same. In a few days you stirrups will be “right”. Keep up with cleaning and conditioning your new leather saddle, and pretty soon it will fit you like a glove.
What are your tips for turning fenders and breaking in a western saddle?