It's a smell you never forget; the aroma of a well-kept tack room. It is unmistakable. The pleasant atmosphere softens the soul, relaxes the senses, stimulates pleasant memories and encourages a feeling of camaraderie, with your fellow riders and your equine friends.
I was reminded of this recently when I made a trip back into the past. I visited the outbuildings of the farm on which I was raised. The stables were no longer home to horses and were now used for storage. But the tack room seemed empty and when I pressed the old-style latch, the door swung open with ease. The moment my foot dropped down to an unusually deep step into the room, I was taken back a life-time of years. That abrupt step down had caused many a visitor to stumble. Not I, for my memory cells immediately beeped a warning from long ago. The little dark tack room came swimming up to the surface of my mind and I felt right back at home.
The same old wood stove was there and the empty saddle racks were still on the walls. Not the modern designs of today, but heavy old ones made of cast iron, now showing the verdigris of time. The bridle hooks remained in a row above the saddle racks with the names of some of the horses I had long forgotten written in fading chalk beneath them. A bleached-out rosette from a third place finish in some minor gymkhana hung by a thread from a nail on the wall. Insignificant now, it summoned up those moments of heart-stopping panic when the ring steward blew his whistle for the next competitor to enter the ring.
Despite the cobwebs and the stale air of a long closed-up room, there was still the hint of its original use. The smoke from the wood stove, which was always hard to light, unless you knew its cranky ways, had permeated the wooden walls. Could there still be a lingering odor of horse sweat from those saddle pads, long gone now, which should have been washed more frequently? A thin strip of leather lay on a shelf; it looked like a broken throat lash, now hard with age and green with mold.
But through it all a sweet smell lingered on. It was faint but despite the musty smell of the closed-off room the aroma of beeswax came through. It might have been just my mind overreacting to the wave of nostalgia which swept over me. Or perhaps there was a wild bees nest in the rafters. I remembered they had chosen this location in the past. Whatever it was, it conjured up happy memories.
The smell of a tack room is comprised of many things. Pause for a moment and let your mind recall the last time youprepared your tack or cleaned it after a great ride with your best friend. For sure, there is the odor of horse sweat but this is not an unpleasant smell. When combined with the smell of leather, well cared for, and the aroma of the multitude of cleaning and conditioning products, the effect is comfortable and reminiscent of good times. Perhaps too, there is the lingering hint of that pungent smell from the hot shoe fitting that the farrier performed on one of the horses in the barn. It all adds up to the distinctive never-to-be-forgotten atmosphere of the tack room.
There are the base notes of the tanned leather, but it is all the other ingredients which contribute to the complexities of that warm and pleasant smell. Tack cleaning is a necessary chore, best performed with a companion for company and a good natter. It can be satisfying to lather up that bar of saddle soap to first clean and then lubricate the leather. There's glycerin, lanolin and even a touch of olive oil in most brands of saddle soap; but it is the beeswax ingredient that imparts that soft hint of honey.
You may have used Neatsfoot Oil to soften the leather as part of your tack room ritual. That's a strange name for a product that has been used for hundreds of years to soften, condition, and extend the life of leather. At some point in history, someone with an enquiring mind discovered that the oil extracted from the fat in the lower leg and foot bones of cattle remains soft under cold conditions. Unlike the fat in other parts of the body, which hardens when cooled, the fat around the leg bones resists the hardening effect of cold temperatures. This is how nature protects the exposed legs of cattle and other animals as they stand in freezing weather.
Perhaps, like me, you thought Neatsfoot Oil was a brand name. Not so. The word 'Neat' is derived from the old English name for cattle and 'foot' simply describes the part of the animal from which the oil is derived.
Another oil you may have used is Mink Oil. This, too, is a natural product for conditioning leather which is obtained from the fat under the skin of a mink. It shares the same properties as Neatsfoot Oil by remaining soft in cold temperatures. Then there are the other proprietary names like Lexol that can be found on the tack room shelves; all contributing to that cacophony of smells.
But enough of the technical details. For whatever reason, the intriguing smell of the tack room conjures up pleasant memories for me, and perhaps for you too. The tack room can be a gathering place for a good chat while performing those leather-cleaning chores. In the horsey world, the tack room can be a gathering place like the biscuit barrel in the old general store. Or in a more modern environment, it can be likened to the water cooler in the office.
For me, just the whiff of a tack room conjures up nostalgic memories of a lifelong association with our equine friends that have provided so much pleasure and love over the years.