Sunday, January 17, 2016

To Spur or Not to Spur.

Folks that know enough about me to know I’m a big proponent for light riding and softness are often surprised to learn that I wear spurs when I ride.  Some have even gone so far as to jokingly say, “I’m wearing spurs, don’t tell Jenni!”  Like many of your tack choices, the decision of whether or not to wear spurs is a personal one.  We know that any piece of tack can be mis-used and abused, but let me explain a little about why you’ll generally find a pair of spurs residing on my boots.

When deciding whether or not to use an item of tack it is important to understand the purpose and historical uses of that piece of tack.  Using an item just because, say, Trevor Brazil, for example,  does it that way isn't the way to make choices for your horse.  No matter how badly Cactus and Cinch are hoping that's all that drives your purchases!

early roman prick spurs

One of the earliest evidence of spurs used in riding were found in graves unearthed in England and were worn by the romans under Julius Caesar.  The spur was originally devised as a way to aid in directing the horse other than by rein or whip so that the hands would remain free during battle.  The original spur was a sharp pointy projection called a prick that would look somewhat brutal by today’s standards.  We can see variations on this theme all through the early centuries following the death of Christ.  There are examples from the 11th and 12th centuries in the British museum.  The Mongolians wore prick style spurs  as early as the 13th century.
prick spurs used by the knights

The rowel spur as we know it today originated in France in the early 13th century and gained in popularity and distribution for the next 100 years.  During the reign of the knights, the spur became a mark of status and rank.  “Earning your spurs” meant that you had proved yourself chivalrous and worthy of the precious metals and adornment.  

As plaited armor for horses began to be used in combat, a longer spur was necessary to reach the horse’s side for communication.  The long shank, sometimes up to a foot long was common in the 16th century until the armor requiring that length began to fall from fashion.
Long shanked spurs meant to reach around the horse's armor
Because the spur was not only a practical tool but also something to which adornment could be tastefully added, the spurs began to be more and more elaborate in design.  The Spaniards probably took that adornment to the next level. 

Spanish spurs, 18th century
The ornate and largely roweled spurs that we see in our western heritage came to the new country with the Spanish conquistadors.  Worn as status symbols by the brave men chosen for these expeditions they were soon copied by the Mexicans and are still seen in Mexico and South America today.

The US Calvary initially favored a more English style spur with a short shank and small rowel.  By 1882 those spurs were solid brass and were used in that style until World War II.
  Spurs were a part of the officers uniform and there was even an official "dance spur" that officers could wear to formal social engagements.
US Calvary spur, Civil War era


Modern Spur

Today’s spurs are generally more understated than the large ornate spurs that we saw with the early Californians.  Ranging from blunt tipped to rowels of all shapes and sizes the spur is as individual as it’s rider.   My favorite pair of spurs is small with a clover leaf rowel.  It is blunt and is used not only as an extension of my leg but as a tool for refinement.
Some modern variation in spur design

I like to compare the use of the spur to typing.  My horses, once they get advanced enough have many buttons on their sides, just like a key board.  One button by my the cinch may move the rib cage over, while a button just a few inches back from that may move the whole horse sideways.  Then an inch behind that, the hip only will move.  When I am trying to make correct movements with precise control I don’t want to push on the buttons with my whole calf, or with my heel.  I like to lightly touch the button I need just like I was typing.  Lightness with my legs and spur is just as important as lightness with my hands. 

“Thou Shalt Not Dwell with Either Rein or Spur” - Jack Brainard

You wouldn’t want to have to type a dissertation with your fists.  Being precise and understood would be quite difficult.  My horses are light and responsive enough that a muffled conversation interferes with the quality of the response that I get.  It's not that my horses can't respond to my cues unless I wear spurs but with spurs I can whisper in full sentences.  Without them it's more like shouting and grunting. 
That's probably oversimplifying the use of spurs a bit as a really well trained horse should be able to respond to the lightest shifts in just my body and seat.  But, like the well trained horse that is quite capable of riding bridle less, he is that much more amazing in the bridle. 
One of the other things I really enjoy about spurs is the noise.  Indeed this is a feature that has long been realized for its usefulness to the end that many horseman in history attempted to make the noise of their spurs even more rhythmic through the addition of heel chains or jingle bobs.
Heel chains
Heel chains are worn on the bottom of the boot and if they were tighter might look like their purpose was to help hold the spur in place, but in reality the bouncing rhythm of the chain on the riders heel helps the horse to find and stay in a steady cadence, especially when on a long free jog covering ground.
Jingle bobs
The jingle bobs are small little bits of metal resembling charms on a bracelet that hang from the rowel and have the same purpose as the heel chains.  They make a rhythmic noise as the horse and rider move together. 
So, do I broadly recommend spurs for every rider?  Definitely not. There are a few reasons why you may not choose to wear spurs with your horse.  If you are a green or inexperienced rider still finding good balance and learning how to have an independent seat, spurs may just get you into trouble.  While we generally use the spur to whisper, when used with force or in the wrong place they sure can yell to the horse.  I typically don't even wear spurs on my really green or nervous horses until I can be sure (or as sure as one can be) that they aren't going to pull a move that may have me gripping a little tighter than anticipated with my spurs.  I typically wait until after the first 15 rides or so. 
I also don't like to see spurs used on a horse that is reluctant to move forward.  Spurs used in such a fashion to get forward on a horse will dull the horse in my opinion.  If you need spurs to make your horse move forward you need to find another tool to communicate because your seat isn't working and I would suggest a crop or dressage whip.  The spur used in the rib cage is for movement of the body laterally.  This is why you don't see jockeys riding with their legs in a spurring position.  Forward is established through the hindquarters and the spurs are not terribly efficacious for moving those hindquarters anywhere but laterally.  Sure, a pair of spurs applied liberally to a stubborn horse can and will get them moving forward but in time you will always have to use those spurs to move them forward and eventually you will have to use those spurs for every stride.  Then you may as well be riding a bicycle for all the peddling you'll have to do.  This is why the spur stop used by Western Pleasure horses works.  If spurs were good at moving a horse forward, training it to stop by driving a spur into it would never work.
So, if you are ready to attempt to refine the cues you are using with your horse, or would like to improve the quality of the response you are getting from your horse I highly recommend the competent and judicial use of spurs.  You'll have to experiment a bit to find the spur that's right for you and your horse, but, don't be afraid to use the spur because it's "mean" or "brutal".  It's no more mean or brutal than the rider. 


  1. Love this article :)Thanks for sharing your point of view

  2. Thanks for the history, I guess my spurs are the Mexican style with large blunt rowels. I don't wear them on colts either.

  3. Thank you for a wonderfully written and educational piece!

  4. The prick spurs are Islamic spurs, probably Moroccan, and late 18th-early 19th century. Roman prick spurs were tiny, cast bronze or iron, maybe 2 to 2 1/2 inches across the arch, with the spur only about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long.
    The spurs you call Spanish are Chilean huaso (i.e. gaucho) and 20th century, if the bodies are cast in one piece...or could be late 19th century if they are forged iron, made in two pieces, with silver overlay (which they don't look like). Just sayin', David in Denver