Spurs aren’t a big purchase. You may not even need them right now. But chances are if you’re past beginner level, you’re riding with spurs. And the good news is, unless someone fashions a solid-gold version with rubies and diamonds, it’s an item that won’t break your bank and will be with you for years.
Spur length depends on the length of the rider’s legs and on the size and shape of the horse’s barrel. Length doesn’t necessarily increase severity. Spur use must allow the rider to feel the horse’s sides and encourage leverage between the rider’s ankle, stirrup iron and the horse’s belly. If the spurs are too short, the rider’s toes may turn out too far beyond a normal 15 degrees.
Correct use of spurs is tied to the rider’s ability to keep the knees and ankles relaxed and free of stiffness and tension. You may run through several types of spurs before you settle on the best model, and it can change from horse to horse and the effect you want. The wider the spur’s point of contact at the end of the neck, the more gentle it will be.
The spur goes above the seam, on the back of the boot, where the boot body meets the shoe, usually on a spur rest. It can also be adjusted lower, all the way to where the shoe joins the heel, but this will require wider spur arms and a tight tug on the strap while fastening.
If you wear chaps or half chaps, you may need a different technique for attaching your spurs or even a separate set from those used on your boots. Depending on the design of your chaps, you may wear them over or under the chaps. If worn under long chaps, you’ll need to fold the chaps up. Chaps with too much leather at the ankle will require larger spurs, but it’s often uncomfortable to wear spurs over folds of leather, so in this case the spurs will work better underneath. The only difficulty will be that if you change or remove your spurs you’ll have to remove your chaps first.
Spurs are usually made of stainless steel or nickel-plate. Go for the stainless steel unless you’re uncertain the other model is perfect. Stainless steel is easier to clean and looks better.
Spurs have few parts. The arms go around the sides of your boot, and the projection from the back is the neck. On some models for smaller feet, the inside arm may be shorter. The straps run through the eyelets. The neck usually aims straight back and can angle down slightly. One exception is the swan-necked spur with a 2” rounded neck that curves up, for riders whose legs are longer than their horses’ sides.
If there are rowels, they can be smooth (“dime” rowels), pointed (about 10 teeth, also nicknamed “pizza cutters”) or fine-toothed (small sharp teeth). The rowel should rotate freely — a fixed rowel is severe.
You can choose between several grades of leather in straps, plus decorated leather and braided nylon. This is one place where we favor the nylon over leather, because the braiding makes them much easier to adjust and tighten than with holes.
No matter what the material, always carry an extra set of straps since the thin metal buckles can break easily as can thin leather that gets damaged by too much time spent in mud and muck.
If you’re spatially challenged (like many of us), you’ll want to place your spurs on the floor in front of your feet when you thread the straps to get them headed in the right direction. We find straight eyelets easier to thread and cause less wear on the leather of the strap than rounded eyelets, while the angled eyelets found on Sprenger’s Balkenhol line are more comfortable and stable, especially when the spurs are a heavier metal. There are also a couple of slip-on designs available in blunt spurs that don’t use straps at all.
Spur arms are sized for ladies, men and children, although some may be unisex (men’s are usually heavier and have longer arms). Try the spurs on before purchasing, if possible, to make sure the arms aren’t too long and don’t irritate your ankle bone — again this can change between boots, paddock boots, rubber gum boots, etc., so you may need more than one set. Black rubber spur guards are also available to cushion the spur arms, prevent slippage and also protect boots from marks.
The neck will be measured in either inches, common on more generic brands and brands from an American source, or millimeters, echoing European origin. German Sprenger spurs, for example, offer necks running from a 5 mm nub all the way up to 50 mm (2 inches).
The names of different spur types don’t mean much until you actually see the spur in a photo or in person, but include:
• Tom Thumb (very short)
• Prince of Wales (plain end in varied lengths, pointing down)
• Warmblood (longer, thicker)
• Swan Neck (Long, curving up)
• Hammerhead (square, box-like)
• Humane (rounded)
• Side (no neck, teeth inside heel)
• Offset (neck inside heel).
The lowest end, price-wise, is around $9 while the absolute highest will be around $80. Most German spurs are made there, while other models are usually made in Asia.
Hand-tooled spurs are also now becoming popular, although they aren’t found in most catalogs. They’re usually sold at high-end horse shows, and straps are available to match. You can also buy a generic spur and have a silversmith do an overlay, as Western riders do on saddles and spurs. The same trend is now showing up on stirrups.
There are several well-known brands of spurs, and many outlets also carry their own lines as well. Dover Saddlery’s line runs from $14 to $25 with nine solid choices in stainless steel, while State Line carries a similar number in both stainless and nickel-plated “never-rust” ($9 to $25). Libertyville Saddle Shop has over 20 of their own models in stainless, chrome and brass ($6.50 to $21.50), and they also carry an ERGO spur ($50) with steel running under the heel. Schneiders Saddlery has a line with rubber coating totally covering the arms ($18 to $20).
The Sprenger brand carries over 100 models of spurs, including the heavier Balkenhol line ($68 to $78). Stubben spurs are a mid-range price ($33) and come boxed with leather straps. The Croft Equine Ltd. TUSS spur set includes the spur arms and straps in a leather case with five interchangeable necks that plug in, all for $100.
The US Equestrian Rule Book has specific rules for spurs in the eventing and dressage sections, and these can change yearly so be sure to check them. Other disciplines don’t address usage beyond general cruelty issues.
With spurs, as with bits, less is usually more. A simple Prince of Wales spur will work for most situations. Beyond that, the uses are more specialized and should be considered with the individual horse in mind. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter major problems with any spur or brand you choose beyond issues of fit.