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Spurs - love ‘em or hate ‘em?

19th  November 2012

If a horse can feel a fly sitting anywhere on his body, why should he need spurs to cue him? Well, of course, the short answer is that for most purposes, he doesn’t need them at all. Unless, that is, he is of a cussed disposition or, more likely, he’s been abused by a bungling rider to the extent that he’s stopped paying any attention to his rider’s heels.

I guess that there are riders out there right now who may be reading this and thinking: “The man’s a fool. Everyone knows that, to get the ultimate in precision, you need the fine touch of a spur to add finesse to a precise cue.” But, like so many aids that are designed for subtlety (see blog on the spade bit ), in the wrong hands (or, in the present case, on the wrong feet!) they turn out to be instruments of torture; abusing a hard working horse whose only problem is an incompetent rider.

It would be naïve to moan about spurs without accepting that they have been around more or less since a horse was first mounted. And they would not have survived this long, in such a huge variety of shapes and sizes, if they had not proved over the years that they are an invaluable riding aid.

But I’ve always understood that the essence of western riding, whether it is versatile horsemanship or any of the specialist western competition classes, is all about harmony with the horse and if we are not achieving that without spurs then we perhaps should not be doing it. Take up show jumping or something instead….

At one end of the scale it comes down to the “wanna-be” who puts on spurs because he’s wearing a wrangler shirt, stack jeans, a curled up straw hat and a rag hanging out his back pocket (but neither he nor his horse have ever come face to face with a cow) and some nice jingly spurs complete the getup. Pity his horse because he almost certainly hasn’t got a clue how to handle it much less how to keep the spurs out of the way of the poor thing. I saw someone like that once actually trip over his spurs ending up with the hot coffee he had been carrying right where he least wanted it to be. Somehow, you felt that you’d just witnessed poetic justice…

At the other end of the scale, you have the western horseman (emphasis on “horseman” not “rider” – the distinction is real) for whom proper use of spurs is probably one of the factors that makes him a horseman rather than just a rider. He knows that horses are essentially biddable creatures that are only waiting for us to give them an accurate cue for what we want them to do next. That mounting up is never something to be done without forethought, with a specific goal in mind and the knowledge/skill (that’s the really tricky bit!) to get there without abusing the horse.

The horseman will tell you that he only uses his spurs for about 2% of the time, only to get a specific result and as a part of the full range of cues through his voice, hands, seat and legs. Watch him at work and you’ll wonder why he’s got spurs on in the first place - because you will not see it happening.

The problem is there is no law that says you cannot put spurs on until you have shown you have all the other skills that need to go with them and too many riders stick them on either because they think they look neat or they are too lazy/impatient/incompetent to get results without them.

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