Horse Training Tools - Spurs

Brown horse tied to a fence.
Brown horse tied to a fence. | Source

Why Are Spurs Used?

Spurs are used for two purposes. The first is to back up the use of the leg. This means that if a lazy or desensitized horse does not respond to the leg, then the spur is employed. Many English riders prefer to use a crop instead of spurs for this purpose.

The other reason spurs are used is to give extremely precise leg aids, particularly in high level reining or dressage.

A good rider, however, almost never uses spurs and many English riders never even wear them.

A Spur-Trained Horse

One of the annoying things you might come across, especially in the western world, is a horse that has been 'spur trained.' Fixing this is possible, but takes time.

A spur-trained horse has been ridden by somebody who always uses the spur to cue the horse, rather than correctly making use of the leg. This is most often seen in barrel racing and rodeo, but it's possible to run across it in the hunter-jumper world too.

Even worse is the spur stop, where the horse is trained to stop when both spurs are applied. My answer to this is always 'if leg means stop, what means go?'

Abuse of the Spur

Spurs can easily be abused, and the following should always be kept in mind:

  1. Inexperienced riders should not be allowed to wear spurs. Only when the rider has an independent seat and good control of their leg should spurs be introduced, and then only if needed. Any rider who starts overly relying on spurs should have them confiscated.
  2. The spur should never, ever, under any circumstances break the horse's skin. Injuries right behind the girth area, or white spots in this area that aren't part of a pattern, indicate current or past spur abuse and may indicate spur training.
  3. The spur should never be the aid of first resort. A truly good rider should almost never need spurs.

Rowelled Spurs

Rowelled spurs are seen exclusively in western riding. The spur has a flat, movable disk with points on it.

To the layman, rowelled spurs look like a torture device and there has been some backlash against them. Some horsemen believe they are inherently cruel and should never be used.

Correctly, a rowelled spur is 'rolled' along the horse's side and never jabbed into it. It's a light 'prick prick prick' or an annoying tickling that motivates the horse to move.

However, when abused, rowelled spurs tend to cause more spectacular injuries than other kinds. Also, they come in varying levels of harshness. I have never seen a good cowboy use a particularly harsh set of spurs. Look at the length and number of the rowels. A long, sharp rowel is harsher than a short, flat one. There are certainly rowelled spur designs out there I consider too harsh for anyone other than an abuser to use.

Hunting Spurs

The standard English spur is generally called a hunting spur. English spurs have just a short 'prod' that comes off the heel.

Spurs vary in length and sharpness. Hunting spurs are used to motivate a lazy horse, with a very light tap or jab...never hard enough to cause damage. They are used primarily in hunting primarily because most hunters carry a hooked cane or a hunting whip that is not designed to be used on the horse. Some show jumpers also prefer to jump with hunting spurs either instead of or in addition to a whip. Personally, I think you should never use both, but that's me.

Dressage Spurs

Dressage spurs tend to be longer than hunting spurs, so that the leg is not turned in as much. In England, the most common design is called a 'Prince of Wales' spur. In continental Europe, small rowels are commonly seen on dressage spurs. These are sometimes called 'German dressage spurs.'

Dressage spurs are used to increase the precision of the leg aid at higher levels where, for example, the aid for a canter half pass and that for a flying change can be extremely similar. They are not intended to motivate the horse, but rather to make the instructions clear.

Dummy Spurs

Spurs are required for Grand Prix dressage. They are also expected in the show ring. However, some people don't believe in using spurs at all.

As a result, it is possible to buy 'dummy' spurs. Dummy spurs may have no actual 'spur' attachment at all, being just a metal loop that runs around the heel of the boot. Or they may have a very short spur attachment, which often points outward. That is to say, they are called 'dummy' spurs because they are completely useless as a training aid. Dummy spurs are used solely for appearance—to complete the look of the turnout or to satisfy competition rules without wearing real spurs.

However, 'dummy spur' is also, confusingly, used by some people to refer to any spur without a rowel on it and some western 'dummy spurs' are ones with fake rowels that are too short to have any effect. The true meaning, though, is a useless spur worn only for the sake of looking like you're wearing spurs.

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