Spurs, Whips and Bits



Our veterinarian, Dr. Alex, saw twelve-year-old Molly wearing spurs and asked, as if to herself, “I wonder who needs spurs around here?”.  I greatly appreciate Dr. Alex so I took the question to heart. I assumed she was asking about which horse needed spurs. I thought to myself, “Well, none of the trained horses need spurs. They are all responsive to leg cues. The other horses don’t need spurs because they are not ready for spurs. But I need spurs.  My heels are too short and blunt”.

Around our place we wear spurs so much that they almost become a part of our anatomy.  My wife reminds me to take them off when I’m tromping through the house or I remind myself before riding a beginner trainee.  Out west it must be the same because frequently on entering a bar or restaurant you will see a sign posted “NO SPURS ALLOWED”.  I don’t think they post the signs because they’re concerned about the treatment of horses, but rather their floors.  Around our place we are very concerned about the treatment of horses and spurs play a role.

Here is my personal method of using spurs for engaging the horse’s dynamic.  The following description proceeds like dominoes lined up and falling.  I make a kiss sound with a noise that is almost imperceptible. I squeeze my legs together starting at my thighs and moving down.  Almost always by the time my calves are in engaged in light pressure, the horse is moving from standing still or moving faster at whatever gait.  But if the horse is not moving faster, I tilt my toes out a little and touch the horse with the spurs.  Spurs are less intrusive and more effective, but especially more specific than my bare heals. The difference between kicking the horse to make him go and touching him with spurs is like the difference between screaming out “MOVE”, or whispering, “Move left half a step”.

As the spurs touch the horse, this may be described as a mild correction. I want the horse to move out immediately before I engage the spurs. But if there is a discipline problem, for instance the horse does not move even after I touch him with the spurs, I do not thump with the spurs. Thumping with spurs or bare heels will eventually desensitize the horse to leg cues, crippling a major portion of my communication with the horse.  If a heavier punishment is required, spurs, which certainly could be a heavy punishment, should not be used.  There are other tools more effective and better than squeezing or thumping with spurs. I save the spurs for more subtle matters.  The spur is too important a communication tool to squander by desensitizing the horse with harshness or over use.

Forward, backward, sideways and the movements of all four legs are communicated through my leg cues. The subtlety of touch required for the myriad of movements I ask for through my legs requires a subtle instrument.  The bare heel is too blunt an instrument. A fully trained horse can sometimes receive instruction effectively by their human without spurs because they are familiar with those cues and are able to discern the other subtle movements of their rider, but before a horse is brought to this level, the pin point accuracy of spurs communicates specifically to the movement asked for.

When a colt or filly is ridden the first time, it can’t take in all the new stimulus.  Spurs won’t help.  Rather they may possibly scare the colt, which is counterproductive.  Spurs are used with a horse that understands the basics and is ready to receive a higher level of instruction.

What is true for the colt is true for the beginning rider. There are so many basics to understand and then accomplish, that the addition of a potentially violent object like spurs are apt to do more harm than good.  Possibly they may even prove dangerous.

This brief introduction to spurs with my own ensuing contemplation on the topic brought me to a new conclusion regarding Molly’s spurs.  I asked her to stop wearing them. Molly asked me if this was forever.  “No”, I said, “But let’s make absolutely sure you know how to use your legs without spurs.  We have plenty of time”.

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One Response to Spurs, Whips and Bits

  1. Dr. Alex says:

    Did I say that !?
    I probably did. Inexperienced riders and spurs make me nervous. However, I’ve been around long enough not to judge someone’s skill based on their appearance, or youth. So I keep my thoughts to myself, well I try to!

    I like your description of the use of spurs. Even though I have
    only worn mine a time or two in the last ten years, I think they are a valuable tool. The skill is in deciding when they are the right tool.

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