Most people associate the jingle jangle of spurs with old-timey Western cowboys, but did you know they’re actually an ancient equestrian tool? Riders have used some sort of spur-like device for thousands of years.
But what exactly are spurs, and what are they for? Keep reading to learn all about this tiny but mighty piece of equine equipment.
What Are Spurs?
Spurs are small pieces of riding equipment worn on the back of a rider’s boot heels, and they provide direct communication from a rider to his horse. They come in many shapes, sizes, and varieties. They’re predominantly made of metal, and are attached to a rider’s boot with leather or synthetic straps.
Spurs may be simple and elegant or elaborately decorated with ornate designs.
Modern spurs are comprised of a few parts – the heel band (also known as a yoke or shank), the neck/shank, and the rowels. The band fits around the back of the rider’s boot, the neck attaches the rowels to the band, and the rowels provide the contact point to the horse.
Most simple English spur designs have a single blunted tip, whereas Western riders are more likely to use something more ornate with spinning rowels.
What Are Spurs Used For?
Spurs provide subtle communication to the horse, and are used in conjunction with other aids to encourage a horse to move forward, laterally, or with urgency.
Because a spur has a more precise point of contact with a horse’s side than a heel or leg aid, they can offer more precise control of a horse’s movements. A well-trained horse will learn to move off the subtle pressure of a spur, which can save time and effort for the rider.
Spurs are employed in a variety of riding activities that span across both English and Western disciplines, although they are strictly regulated in competition by some equestrian organizations.
Spurs are also part of the uniform for cavalry units of the military, and are often a component of ceremonial dress. (source)
History of the Spur
The word “spur” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon “spura, spora, spurnan” which loosely means “to kick or urge on”. The earliest examples were likely made of bone or wood, but later consisted of various metals.
Before cowboys were using their spurs to herd cattle in the American West, the ancient Greek equestrian Xenophon mentioned the use of spurs in his writing On Horsemanship.
The Celts used them in the 5th century, the Romans used them throughout the age of the Roman Empire. They also appeared in the Ancient Arab world as well.
Medieval spurs became a mark of rank during the age of chivalry. Knights and members of royalty wore gilded spurs, squires wore silver, and pages’ were made of basic tin.
In 1302, an untrained underdog militia of Flemish craftsmen defeated the professional French cavalry in the “Battle of the Golden Spurs.”
The victors took the spurs of the defeated French calvary and hung them up in the church as trophies for their historic victory. (source)
Today, spurs are used for working cattle or encouraging a horse to take a large jump. They’re found in most equestrian disciplines all over the world.
Common Types of Spurs
Spurs are generally classified by their shape, but there are many unique spur designs that may blend traditional spur components together. Spurs are also categorized by what they’re used for, especially in Western events.
Here are some of the most common types of spurs:
These basic spurs have a blunt, round tip. They are a good choice for someone who is new to using spurs, as they are simple, mild on a horse’s side, and easy to use. A round end spur with no shank is sometimes referred to as a “dummy” spur.
These spurs are used in both English and Western riding. The tip of the spur is rounded, but fashioned in a slightly irregular “knob” shape.
Prince of Wales
This popular style is common in English riding. The end is flat, but blunt. They are commonly found in equestrian competitions or schooling.
The neck of these spurs is curved upwards. It’s a popular choice for dressage. The longer the neck, the harsher the spur, and the length may be limited in competition.
Waterford spurs have large blunt balls on the ends. They are typically used in English riding, and the neck may be various lengths.
Barrel Racing Spur
These unique spurs don’t have rowels at all. One side of the heel band has ridges or “teeth”. Riders don’t have to turn their heels inwards to use them, and they are popular for barrel racing.
Mostly used in Western riding, these spinning spurs have pronged wheels that move independently from the neck. Some have many prongs, some have only a few. They should not be sharp, and the movement of the rowels allows the spur to roll along a horse’s side as he moves. This reduces the surface area of the prongs, which therefore can decrease the severity.
English Rowelled Spurs
Some rowelled spurs don’t have prongs at all, particularly those found in English disciplines like jumping and dressage.
- Disc – Used in dressage, this spur has a rowel made from a rolling disc instead of prongs.
- Roller – A mild spur that features a small plastic roller on the end, rather than prongs.
- Rollerball – These spurs have small rolling balls on the end that move, and they are made of either rubber or metal.
Western Rowelled Spurs
Depending on what kind of work a rider is doing with their horse, they may use a spur with a specific shape.
Western spurs often have longer shanks and larger rowels, and this is because a Western rider’s leg can be relatively far away from his horse’s side.
A long shank reduces the amount of space a long-legged rider has to move to reach his horse and give him a cue.
Here are some popular styles of Western rowelled spurs, as explained by AQHA Champion, Bob Avila (source):
- Cloverleaf – The prongs are blunt and shaped like a cloverleaf, and the shank is relatively short. A very mild spur, these are good for sensitive horses or less experienced riders.
- Roper-Style. These spurs have rowels with ten blunt points and a short shank. Having a spur with a short shank prevents a rider from inadvertently jabbing his horse when he stands up, which is a maneuver that ropers use often.
- Reiner-Style – For reining horses that may require more subtle communication from a long-legged rider, a reiner-style spur could be a good choice. They also have ten pointed rowels, but the shank is longer and curved upward. This makes the horse’s side easier to reach for a rider with long legs and good leg control.
- Nine-Point Star – These spurs are for experienced users, as the points are longer and sharper than on a ten-pointed spur. This sort of spurs should not be used by beginners with poor leg control.
Are Spurs Cruel?
Any equine tool can be cruel if used improperly, and spurs are no exception. In general, spurs should only be used by experienced handlers who know how to employ them properly.
They should not be used by beginners who don’t have good control over their legs, especially if they’re likely to kick or jab a horse accidentally.
Excessive or improper spur use can cause pain, lasting injury, and unnecessary trauma to a horse. Improper spur use can also teach a horse to ignore leg aids and become “dead-sided,” which can be a difficult training problem to fix.
Some equestrians believe that the margin for error is too great when using spurs, and that all spurs are inherently cruel because they have the potential to cause injury. (source)
Regardless, if your spurs cause physical or psychological damage to your horse in the form of puncture wounds, lesions, or behavior problems, discontinue their use and consult a professional trainer for advice.
Spurs in Competitions
Each equestrian show organization has different rules for spurs regarding their size and type in competition. Here are some examples of types of spurs that are allowed – and those that aren’t.
|Show Organization/Event||Spurs Allowed||Spurs Not Allowed|
|USEF Dressage||Metal, English Style, Blunt “Dummy” style or smooth rowels, no longer than 3.5 cm||Sharp rowels, toothed spurs, spurs with necks exceeding 3.5cm.|
|USEF Eventing||Must be made of smooth metal, Maximum 4 cm shank.||Rowel spurs with sharp points, curved spurs that point up.|
|AQHA Western Events||Most designs||English toothed spurs without smooth sides.|
How to Choose the Right Spur for You
With so many options out there, it can be difficult to choose the right spurs for your needs. Western riders will generally have more variety, especially when it comes to appearance and the decorative elements a set of nice spurs can provide.
English riders should make sure that their spurs are allowed in competition, and that they’re not too harsh for their horse’s side.
When choosing a set if spurs, consider the following:
- Temperament. Is your horse responsive to your aids? Is he a good listener? Maybe he understands what you’re asking, but you want to add some more refinement to his movements. If you don’t know whether your horse has been ridden with spurs, try some mild dummy spurs at first, and make sure to spend the time training him properly.
- Ability. Do you have good leg control, and you’re looking to improve your skills even further? If you find yourself accidentally kicking your horse or holding on to his belly for balance, work on your riding skills before adding spurs.
- Discipline. What sort of spurs are traditionally used in your chosen discipline? Are they allowed in competition?
- Fit. The spurs you choose should be a good fit for your body and for your horse. Riders with long legs may need a spur with a longer shank than those with short legs who have close contact with their horse’s sides.
- Ask a professional. When in doubt, consult a professional to find the right match for you and your horse.
While spurs can be an effective tool for an advanced equestrian, they can be harmful in the wrong hands. Always pay attention to your horse’s behavior, and never use spurs improperly!
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