Spurs are an accessory/tool that is commonly associated with cowboys, and are used as a means to communicate their commands to a horse that they were riding.
With just a slight touch of your spurs, you can signal to a horse that they need to increase their speed, move to the side, turn around, or settle down.
They are thought to help a horse focus on their rider and the command that is being asked of them.
Spurs are still used quite frequently today, even in competitive equestrian sports like dressage, however, there is a lot of contention around the use of spurs as many believe that they are inhumane.
In this guide we’re going to look at what spurs are, how they work, and why they are used by horse riders.
What Are Spurs?
Spurs are a metal tool that can be attached to the heel of a riding boot. There are three main parts of a spur. These are known as the yoke, neck, and rowel.
The yoke is the part of the spur that goes around the heel of your boot. Some people also refer to the yoke as the heel band.
The neck, which is often referred to as the shank, is the part that extends out of the yoke at the center of the heel which the rowell is attached to.
The rowell is the pointy spinning disk which is the part of the spur that is used on the horse. The spurs are attached to riding boots with the help of a crescent-shaped leather strap.
Cowboys would often fix pendants or charms onto the shaft of their spurs near the rowell. They would call these “jingle bobs”, as they produced a jingle sound as they moved. For those who want to hear their spurs as they walk, you can actually buy Jingle Bob Spurs.
Although spurs can have some ceremonial or decorative uses, when it comes to riding spurs are used exclusively as a riding aid. They are used to help guide the movements of a horse if the horse misses a leg cue.
How Do Spurs Work?
As noted, spurs are used as a way to communicate commands to a horse, and can be used to enhance voice, leg, hand, and seat commands.
So, their primary function is to effectively communicate these commands, but how does a rider use spurs to do this?
Well, spurs are used to apply slight pressure to a horse’s flank where the muscles and nerves cross. This is an extremely sensitive area of a horse, and even the slightest amount of pressure there can cause involuntary movement – which is pretty similar to being poked in the ribs.
Through subtle movements, a rider can use spurs to encourage a horse to move forwards, move faster, move left or right, and turn around.
However, riders (especially those trained well enough to use spurs) will use the lightest pressure they can, as you should barely touch the horse to get them to follow your command.
Through practice and training, a horse will learn to understand what messages or commands you are trying to give them with the spurs. A horse will learn what to do and when to do it through training.
One you have released the pressure from a spur, your horse knows that they have done the correct command. Unlike most other training methods, spurs training uses a pressure and release method.
However, it is not only horses that need spurs training, but riders as well, as riders often have to “earn their spurs”. This is because you need to learn how to use the right amount of pressure.
If a horse kicks, pins it’s ears back, or bucks, it means that the horse feels frightened, agitated, or tense – so, you’re doing something wrong.
Also, if you accidentally touch the horse with your spurs when you didn’t mean to, you’re giving the horse mixed signals. This can confuse your horse, so, the better trained you are the easier it is to communicate commands to your horse using spurs.
Does Using Spurs On A Horse Hurt?
This is not a simple question to ask as spurs are not intended to hurt or harm a horse. However, a spur is only painless when used correctly. A horse is supposed to feel pressure when poked with a spur, not pain.
However, there are spurs that are capable of wounding a horse, and these are obviously considered cruel and inhumane. It is illegal to use spurs as a way to injure a horse.
Spurs are considered as an extension of your feet, and in being so they should not be pointy. When buying spurs make sure that they are rounded, not pointed.
However, it is possible for the tips of spurs to become pointed over time – make sure you keep an eye on that. It’s also worth noting that spurs shouldn’t be too long. If you are unsure don’t hesitate to consult a professional.
It’s important to note that not all horses need spurs, and not all horse riders need to use them. However, they are considered effective in getting quicker and more precise reactions and movements from a horse.
This can be useful for riders who participate in sports like dressage, or cattle herding.
If you would like to use spurs but don’t want to risk hurting your horse in any way, there are some spurs which have been designed in a way that won’t injure your horse.
These kinds of spurs use a roller ball instead of a pointy rowel, and are recommended for horses who are more sensitive.
Top Tips For Riding With Spurs
- Do not use spurs unless both you and your horse have been trained in their use. This is particularly important as any improper use of spurs can injure a horse.
- Make sure you adjust your spurs so that you are able to ride carefully without accidentally hitting your horse with the rowels.
- Only use spurs on a horse that has been trained with leg cues
- If riding with spurs, always cue your horse with your legs. Only use spurs when your horse misses a cue or makes a mistake.
- Gently touch the horse with your spurs.
- Only ride with spurs when absolutely necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did Cowboys Actually Wear Spurs?
Yes! Cowboys really did wear spurs, and many still do now. However, it is not very well known that spurs have actually existed since the Iron Age, as they are most commonly associated with cowboys.
Interestingly, Western movies often don’t use real spurs as the actors are not trained to use them properly. It’s important that you only use spurs if you are trained to do so.
If you use them wrong not only will you confuse your horse, you can also injure them.
Can Spurs Be Worn With Cowboy Boots?
You can certainly wear spurs with most cowboy boots, just as long as the boots have a spur ledge.
The spur ledge refers to the part of the boot which extends past the heel. The reason as to why it extends out is so the yoke part of the spur doesn’t slip off.
Are Spurs Considered Cruel?
As long as you’re using spurs correctly you shouldn’t have to worry about your spurs causing your horse any pain. However, if spurs are used in the wrong way – mainly by inexperienced or ignorant riders – then they can very easily pierce, stab, or gouge the skin and sides of a horse.
Common problems that occur from using riding spurs include
Broken Skin: Usually occurs as scratches and scrapes on the flank of a horse.
Punctures Or Wounds: these aren’t as common, but medical treatment is required.
Lesions Found On The Flank Of A Horse: These normally occur after wounds haven’t been allowed to heal properly.
Defensive Behavior: Horses can give you mixed signals if you are not using spurs properly, and will also let you know if you are hurting them. This can cause a range of different behavioral problems including being disobedient or aggressive.
Spurs can be used to aid the communication between a rider and their horse, however, you should never use spurs instead of natural cues.
A spur should only be used if a horse has missed or not carried out the right command after a natural cue.
Not every rider uses spurs, and not every horse needs spurs to ride effectively. So, using spurs is totally up to your individual preference, but if you want to use them you have to be prepared to train properly.
This is because any form of improper use of spurs – including inexperience, ignorance, or malice – can injure a horse. If you want to start using spurs, it’s important that you contact a professional.