As a horse person interested in horsemanship, I struggle with the prevalent use of spurs I see in the horse world.
When I was a kid learning about dressage and jumping, it was drummed into me that spurs were only to be used when a horse and rider reached a fairly high degree of togetherness. As I have gotten older and more experienced that principle is even more firmly embedded in my thinking.
I only learned to use dummy or blunt spurs after many years of training and only for the purpose of refining the communication between my legs and my horse’s mind. One rule that my teachers hammered into me was that spurs were never to be used for anything that you couldn’t get done without them. In other words, if a horse responded poorly to my legs, I was not to use spurs to make up for the dullness I had trained into the horse. They were never to be used to make a horse respond. Spurs were only to be used to make the intent of the leg subtler – to allow the rider to do less without losing clarity.
I haven’t ridden with spurs since my competition days when Moses was still a boy in shorts. Despite years and years of training horses for people who sent me some really troubled and dull horses, I have never found spurs to be necessary or the right tool.
Yet, I see spurs used widely on all types of horses, in all sorts of situations. I have even seen trainers starting horses and wearing spurs on the first ride. Admittedly, some of them don’t actually apply the spurs on the early rides, but I have to admit that I wonder about the thinking behind somebody who feels they should wear their spurs ‘just in case.’ It makes me think they misunderstand the purpose of using spurs.
I was watching a clinic a couple of months ago where the clinician told a rider to go and get their spurs to make her horse go. I was quite surprised because the clinician was a well-known and regarded teacher of horsemanship and I couldn’t understand why they would think spurs were necessary. Surely the clinician’s job was to teach both horse and rider an understanding about leg aids and not simply resort to a quick fix solution.
A few months ago I watched a campdrafting competition in a nearby town. Every rider wore spurs and used them vigorously. But if you have ever seen a campdraft you already know that 99% of the horses are already stirred up on a soup of adrenalin and giving all they have without a rider banging away at their sides. Spurs would neither add anything to the horse’s effort or give the rider great control. It’s ridiculous in my opinion. I’ve seen the same thing at jumping competitions, barrel racing, polo etc, where riders spur their horses constantly for no gain.
So the question obviously needs to be asked and answered as to why should a rider not use spurs for making a horse respond to the leg? Why should they only be used for refining what is already a good response to a rider’s leg aids?
To me, using spurs to make a rider’s legs have meaning is like shouting at somebody because they are plugged into their iPod or watching television instead of listening to you. A horse listens to the rider’s spurs because they effectively out compete the rest of the world for attention. If a horse ignores the rider’s leg, but responds to the spurs there is a problem with attentiveness and clarity. The communication between horse and rider has partly broken down. When that happens it is not the time for using spurs on a horse. It’s the time for training focus in a horse in order to obtain a better response to the legs. It’s not that the horse doesn’t understand the leg (otherwise he wouldn’t listen to the spur). The dullness is a result of not hearing the rider’s leg. If we teach a horse how to focus and be attentive then driving with the spurs is unnecessary.
Another side effect of using spurs on unresponsive horses is that it can put a brace and even a fear of the leg in a horse. I have worked with enough horses that have been afraid of a rider’s legs because of the heavy-handed use of spurs to know the damage they can do. You’ll often see horses that have been trained with spurs hold themselves tightly around the shoulders and barrel just as the rider’s legs come into play – they almost shudder like a person does when they are poked in the ribs. This brace comes from a worry about the use of spurs and it can be really difficult to eradicate.
I have never comes across a horse where I needed to ride with spurs in order to evoke a change. However, I have ridden horses that were ready for spurs and where the use of spurs made it look like there was a secret conversation between the horse and me – that’s when you know you’ve got it right.
Spurs have their use, but I rarely see them being used by the right rider on the right horse. If you need spurs for a horse, it is not okay to use them. But if you don’t need spurs, it’s perfectly fine to use them.