venture a guess that only one in 10 readers will be familiar with
the term "Neatsfoot Oil."
This oil has been a mainstay in saddle and harness maintenance for
centuries. No old-time, self-respecting rancher, farmer or cowboy
would be caught without a can sitting in his saddle or harness storage.
This distinctive smell of the oil in a saddle house seems to say,
"This man cares for his gear."
The "neat" comes from an old English word meaning oxen. The oil
part comes from an ancient recipe in which oxen shin bones were
cooked to create the concoction. Being of livestock organic origin,
the oil was thought to penetrate leather and retain flexibility
better than other lightweight oils and make it more waterproof.
Today, we have multiple soaps, lubricants, oils, waxes and cleaners
all designed to clean and protect leather products. The price of
today's saddles and leather gear encourages owners to take care
of their tack. In the old days, a saddle was often the only financial
asset many cowboys had.
Real ranch work almost always includes a lot of dirt and grime.
Trailing a dusty herd, working around a ranch branding or hauling
your stock down a dusty ranch road can attract a lot of Mother Earth's
bounty to clothes, saddles and hats.
One comment heard often was "Old Skeeter needs to change the oil
in his hat." Some hats are kept specially to wear around a branding
chute, bringing on the comment, "Say man, I think you hat needs
a blood transfusion." All teasing is done in fun but calls attention
to a dirty job.
The various oils and conditioners used on saddles protect the leather
but also attract dust like a magnet.
A friend who collects and deals in saddles and Old West tack says
he cleans his dirty acquisitions by taking them to a car wash, where
hot, soapy water under pressure does the job. When the leather is
dry, he replaces the oils with new. He likes Neatsfoot Oil underneath
and the new leather conditions out on top, giving a shiny look.
Somehow this cleaning process conjures up the image of a cowboy
leading his saddled horse into a car wash and inserting his coins.
Maybe Baxter Black will use this as a subject someday.
My personal saddle history is short and sweet. As a boy, I rode
a man's saddle with a 12-inch tree made by Claude Jones at Canadian,
an early-day saddle maker. I outgrew this saddle and bought a used
Bud Dolcater saddle No. 158 from old friend Bob Marrs in Amarillo.
It has been restrung twice and relined once and has had stirrup
leathers changed and new stirrups added once. Several latigos and
cinches were replaced; one cinch was devoured by pack rats in New
Mexico. The last episode found me on my hands and knees below the
smoke, dragging the saddle from my burning shop and gallery during
the range fires in 2006.
This old friend is rough-side-out leather, worn smooth and slick
and is so ugly it has never been stolen. I wouldn't sell it for
any price, and, oh yeah, I have faithfully changed oil at least
once a year for more than 50 years.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
7, 2007 Column
Texas Ranching and Cowboys