The manager of a summer resort told this story about a new client: “He showed me his spurs. We don’t usually get advanced riders, I thought at the time. And he was too new to know the horses, let alone which one he’d be riding.
“ 'Spurs'’ I asked. 'Tell me why.’
“ 'Why not'’ he answered. 'I always wear them.’
“Right then, I set the ground rules. 'There are two conditions,’ I said. 'One, your legs must stay in place regardless of horse, terrain or task, so that you don’t touch him with them accidentally. And two, always use your leg first.’ ”
These two rules totally summarize spur use, and we’ll explain why.
What are spurs' A tool. They are the enforcement behind the calf signal. Spurs allow us to fine-tune our leg cues and reach that specific spot to communicate a request. They allow us to cue the horse with otherwise quiet legs so our legs can also be there to support and shape the horse’s movements.
Why use spurs' Reinforcement. Trainers need to be able to back up any signal. That’s one reason why an advanced rider can get on a horse that’s been misbehaving for a beginner and the horse responds. The horse learns that slow responses bring on less-comfortable pressure.
This is why many trainers wear spurs all the time — you never know when you’re going to need them. This is not to be confused with using spurs all the time. Many training sessions go by with the spurs never contacting the horse.
When riding, most disciplines expect your calves to lie lightly on the horse’s barrel. In this situation, the ankles, not the spurs, should touch the horse. This will be because the spurs hang below the horse’s belly, or because the calf touching the horse keeps the ankle off the horse.
In fact, your goal with spurs is to not need them. You want a smooth, bright and immediate response to your leg signal.
If the horse doesn’t respond, concentrated pressure can reinforce the cue. Pain is not a goal. A horse in pain is unlikely to willingly respond, and as the pain increases, the horse will quit listening and try to escape. While you may get him to move, you have not furthered his training, but instead have shown him that you are a source of pain.
Are spurs cruel' It’s all in how you use them. A vaquero showed that he had attained the highest levels of riding and training when his horse wore a spade bit and he wore sharp spurs — the fact that neither inflicted pain was due to the horse being so highly trained that rider weight changes produced results and neither the bit nor spurs were needed. Tact is a virtue with spurs. Using spurs in a fit of temper falls under our definition of cruel.
When is the horse ready' When the horse knows enough. Used before a horse has learned that legs mean go forward, spurs can result in pinned ears and tail swishing that will be difficult to eradicate later. In this case, the spurs are merely an irritant that the horse cannot understand. Once the horse has learned to go forward from leg pressure, the spurs may be added as a reserve.
When can the rider begin to use spurs' When the rider is balanced and sensitive enough. Rider balance keeps the legs relatively still. This is not to say that the legs are motionless — they should move in a relaxed following motion as the horse strides forward. However, the rider must be well-enough balanced to ride all gaits and transitions without holding on with his/her legs.
What heightened sensitivity can the rider expect from spur use' The horse will progress to being as sensitive as the rider is. Rider sensitivity includes the ability to use as much or as little spur pressure as needed, and as with legs, the horse will be as light to the aids as he is allowed to be.
When do we apply spurs' Immediately after a leg cue that wasn’t effective in getting a response.
Why are spurs not used alone' The idea behind spurs is to make the horse lighter and more responsive. If the rider raises his or her heels and uses the spurs without a leg-pressure warning, it doesn’t give the horse the opportunity to respond to the lighter pressure. If the horse is not attentive, and the rider uses the spurs, the association between leg and spur begins to break down.
The sound of the spur. Besides sounding cool as you walk, the spur’s jingle can be an attention-getter for your horse. Sometimes the jingle alone is enough to remind him what’s expected. Since your goal is for the horse to respond to your legs used lightly, if you can use your legs lightly and jingle your rowels and get a response, next time you may get the same response without the jingle.
Different metals and craftsmanship produce different sounds; which you choose is personal preference. The vaqueros decorated their spurs with ornamental metal pieces called “jingle bobs,” which are still seen today. They are attached to the outside of the rowel pin and give the spurs an additional pleasant sound.
Where do we use spurs' Spurs are used wherever your leg would be used, whether it’s at the cinch or behind the cinch. Reiners and working cow horse riders may use leg cues on the horse’s shoulder.
How to apply the spurs. One advantage of spurs is that you can reinforce your leg aids without having to resort to kicking the horse. Not only is kicking a tacky sign that your horse is not listening, it takes your lower legs away from the horse. When your calves are away from the horse, he can stall out from under them (also called getting behind your driving aids), he loses your support and direction, and you will likely be too late in reapplying your legs for the next signal. Spurs also allow you to reinforce your leg aids without raising your knees and getting your legs out of position.
The longer your legs hang along side the horse’s barrel, the better your balance and communication. So, instead of raising your heels, pointing your toes downward, shortening your legs, and raising your knees to bump your horse with your heels, you can use your spurs. The easiest way to use your spurs is to start closing your upper calf against the horse’s sides, and if he has not responded by the time you close your lower calf, you turn your toes slightly outward and apply the spur. This nearly imperceptible movement is one clear advantage of spurs.
Spurs On The Market
Position. A spur can be worn in four positions. The highest is at the back of the ankle; the spur is usually kept up by a spur rest on the boot, and this is seen in English-style and with Western-style packer-type boots. Next, the spur can be worn just above the channel or heel counter (at the top of the boot heel); this is generally seen in Western boots. Slip-on spurs, English-style (see photo 8) or Western (photo 11), fit in the groove between the heel and the upper of the boot. The lowest position is around the heel of the boot, which is also a Western position.
The choice of position is dictated by custom or style of spur, but there are also functional differences. Lower placement gives more flexibility because the foot is more mobile than the ankle. A long-legged rider will be able to reach the horse’s sides better if the spurs are worn higher.
Western spurs are generally heavier than English spurs, and this weight helps them stay down without the instep strap, though there are heel chains, leather straps, rubber holders, and various individual methods used to tie down the spurs. Generally, spurs are supposed to move around somewhat on the boot; their weight keeps them down while walking and their use upward and inward helps keep them down when riding.
Our Western spurs varied in weight from four (photo 7) to 12 (photo 13) ounces; for the most part the heavier-looking bands and thicker shanks are heavier spurs. Bands vary from 1/2&rdqu o; (photo 7) to 1 1/4” (photos 2, 3, 13). In general, narrower heel bands are intended for women, while the wider ones look more appropriate on a larger man’s boot.
Men’s, ladies and youth spurs differ also in boot width; there are many options in fit. If you are shopping for off-the-shelf spurs, wear your boots and choose a pair that fits. With custom spurs, or mail ordering, shape a lightweight piece of wire around your boot where the spur will fit, trace the curve onto a piece of paper, and send it with your order.
Spur and boot fit. The spur must fit the boot. Western spurs, particularly the wider and heavier they are, are best chosen for the boot you plan to wear. Any spur that is too narrow will pinch the foot uncomfortably; a spur that is too wide will slide around, make use inaccurate and, in the case of a Western spur, may drift out of position.
Western spurs like Balding’s (photos 1, 2, 3), are made to fit above the heel of the boot and should easily slip on and off. Other spurs like Darnall’s, not pictured, are meant to fit onto the thick white crepe boot heel itself, and so must fit tightly. The Darnall heel band is wider at the back for this reason. Crepe soles are currently popular in reining, Western pleasure, and AQHA circles.
Spur materials. As with any metal horse gear, there is a wide variety of metals (and accompanying prices). The Partrade spurs are made of a shiny metal-alloy called Metalab. Sliester makes both stainless steel (photo 10) and a darker alloy. Balding customers have the choice of gun black or antique brown. Both the black and brown will wear and rust with time, and this is what their customers want. Darnall spurs are made in black steel, also designed to rust; customers want the used look even on the custom silver work on the spurs.
Decoration. All riders choose their spur design based on personal preference and show their individuality in a number of decorative ways. Stainless-steel or rusting-black steel, silver work, initials, the ranch brand, and the shape and type of spur tell a great deal about the wearer to those savvy enough to see it. Silver work varies from stenciled or stamped to push engraving (hand engraving) on Balding’s.
Right and left spurs. Offset shanks. Western spurs with decoration will be obviously right or left boot spurs (decoration goes on the outside). If the shanks angle inward, called an offset shank and available in customs like Baldings in five, 10 and 15-degree angles, this is a clear sign.
While the right-angle shanks are the most common (they contact when the rider’s toes are out slightly, which is comfortable cueing for most riders), offset shanks can be used without turning the toes out at all. If the spurs are identical, then they may be interchanged up until the straps are attached to them.
Spur straps. Once the straps are attached, the buckles are worn on the outside of the foot with the strap end pointing toward the outside of the foot. Extra strap length should be tucked in or trimmed off. It is common for spurs to be sold separately from the straps, allowing the customer to match his/her gear with the strap. Not all straps fit all spurs; take your spurs along when buying straps. A good set of spurs may outlast several straps.
Spur balance. The strap should help keep the heel band of the spur horizontal on the boot. We found that the more highly crafted spurs tend to have better weight and balance, and in general, we would expect these to fit and stay in place more easily.
Buttons and swing arms. The buttons are the points of attachment for the spur strap. Decorative buttons are an option (photo 7), and are common on custom spurs (photos 1, 2, 3). A close look at the way the button and swing arm is attached to the spur band will reveal the quality of workmanship — and often the price — of the spur. Look for a smooth and well-crafted attachment that looks like it will last over years of wear. We found the Balding swing arms (photos 1, 3), with their smooth attachment, particularly well crafted; we expect them to fit, balance the spur, and wear well.
Length of shank. The shanks on these spurs vary from 3/4” (photo 8) to about 3 1/2” (photo 13). The longer the shank, the less movement is required of the rider to use the spur. This allows the rider to use nearly imperceptible movements to communicate with the horse. A longer shank will increase the area of the horse’s barrel that can be influenced; for example, it will act as a leg extension when the rider reaches back to influence the hind quarters to move laterally. A longer shank will be useful for a tall rider with more distance to cover from leg to horse.
A shorter shank is safer for a less-experienced rider, and may be chosen by an experienced rider on a quick-and-sensitive horse, because more conscious effort on the rider’s part is required to use the spur.
Shank shape. The shape of the shank is largely a matter of personal preference. Most point up toward the horse (useful for long-legged riders), but some point downward. If the shank curves, the curve points the rowel downward An additional upward branch on the shank in front of the rowel is called a chap guard (photo 10). It keeps the rider’s chaps out of the spur’s rowels.
Rowel or blunt shank. Blunt shank ends are familiar to English riders. The Partrade spur (photo 8) is an example of a typical English head on a slip-on spur. Partrade’s (photo 4) spur has a ball on the end of the shank. This ball is milder and somewhat less specific in the point on the horse that it touches, but can still be a highly effective leg reinforcer. A sensitive horse, or one who resents roweled spurs, might do well with this spur.
Most Western spurs have rowels. The rowels allow the spur to be drawn smoothly across the horse’s barrel, while blunt shanks can be placed or rubbed but move less freely. Rowels come in a wide range of sizes; we have 3/4” (photos 6, 7) to 1 1/2” (photo 13) in diameter.
Rowel options. Rowels can be smooth or pointed. As in other pressure situations, the larger the pressure surface the milder the effect. This makes pointed, sharp rowels potentially more severe than rounded, blunt ones — compare most of the pointed rowels with the nearly smooth “rosebud” (photo 6) or cloverleaf rowel (photo 1). While a greater number of points may look more severe, the more points in contact at any one time, the milder the effect (all else similar). The diameter of the rowel doesn’t affect severity as much as it affects the reach of the leg.
The rowels will wear with use and, particularly if they touch the ground when walking, with time. Balding and Darnall sell additional rowels that can be installed by crafts people or by the customer if he or she has the tools. Not all rowel pins and rowels are the same; Darnall’s pins are thicker than most so you must have rowels that fit.
While loose rowels may not be a concern with the less expensive off-the-shelf spurs, customs like Darnall’s are guaranteed for life unless you fail to get the rowels replaced (approximately every six months under hard use) because the loose rowel will rub against and wear out the steel of the neck. Balding spurs can be ordered with additional sets of rowels and a cotter pin arrangement to make it possible for you to change the spur rowel when you change horses.
Custom spurs. If you can’t find what you want on the shelf, consider custom spurs. While the price will be significantly higher, you will get to customize the design and will likely have a high-quality product.
Word-of-mouth is a good way to locate an experienced spur maker — some do not print catalogs or advertise. If you see a pair you like, ask the wearer about them. Another possibility is to request literature from a custom-spur craftsman, like Balding or Darnall.
As you’ve seen, your choice in spurs depends upon a number of factors. The spurs we used for this article all offer good workmanship, relative to price. Our advice for beginner riders or riders who only occasionally use spurs or change boots frequently is to choose an over-the-counter spur, such as Whitman’s or Partrade’s.
When you’re ready to invest, and you’ve settled on the engravings that reflect your personality and your specific needs, custom spurs are incredible works of art that will add sparkle to your presence, as well as ensure the fit you need on your boot.You can order a beautiful pair of spurs and, if needed, practice to “earn” them.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or:
Tom Balding Bits and Spurs
380 Meade Creek Road
Sheridan, WY 82801
Greg Darnall Bits and Spurs
PO Box 389
McKinney, TX 75070
13105 E. 38th Ave., Suite 29
Denver, CO 80216
PO Box 159
Auberry, CA 93602
Whitman Saddle Manufacturing
5272 W. Michigan Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49006-5731