Noble Life

Spurs: When You Need ‘Em, When You Don’t

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Spurs are used in almost every discipline of equitation, both English and Western. But are they right for you and your horse?

Here’s a commentary from German riding master Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885): “Without a spur a rider cannot change the position of his horse, the center of gravity, he can’t give direction or dictate rhythm.”

Nowhere does he mention propelling the horse forward, which many mistakenly think is the spurs’ sole function. If you think spurs will help you make a lazy horse livelier or a slow horse faster, the money you’d spend on spurs might better be spent on riding lessons.

Instead, understand that a spur is a means to improve communication between horse and rider. Your seat, legs, and body position are all natural aids that help the horse understand what you want it to do. These cues, however, lack precision. Because spurs provide very precise contact, they allow the rider to refine his or her aids and expand the “vocabulary” of communication. A horse can sense a fly on its skin – therefore, a skilled rider can use spurs with a light touch and precise placement to create subtle and specific cues. The key to achieving such mastery is education and consistent practice under the watchful eyes of an instructor.

Your trainer is a great resource and will know if spurs will help you and your horse. Before buying spurs, talk to your trainer and first ask yourself, “Am I ready for spurs?”

“If you can keep your legs quiet and your heels down, you probably are,” said Simone Windeler, a dressage instructor and United States Dressage Federation judge from Monument, CO. “Your seat needs to be independent, which means you do not need to squeeze with your calves to keep yourself stable. You need to be able to ride your horse in all gaits without spurs before considering buying and using them.”

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Rowels, which are the star-shaped wheels attached to the shanks, come in various sizes to help the rider fine-tune the fit and contact.

Correct fit is crucial to getting good results. Western spurs should fit loosely on the heels to avoid heel pain and prevent them from riding up on the boot. They are held in place by spur straps, which should not be so tight as to put pressure on delicate foot bones nor so loose that the spurs move freely.

Riders with long legs that hang down below the horse’s belly benefit from longer shanks, the arm that extends backward from the spur heel. Western rowels, which are generally the star-shaped or round-shaped wheels attached to the shanks, come in various sizes to help the rider fine-tune the fit and contact.

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In English riding, the spur needs to be chosen for close contact, meaning that a small movement of the leg brings the spur in contact with the horse’s side.

English spurs may have solid shanks or rowels. Generally speaking, rowels are gentler. They tickle the horse, rather than poke them. In English riding, the spur needs to be chosen for close contact, meaning that a small movement of the leg brings the spur in contact with the horse’s side. English spurs sit high on the boot (at the top of the heel or lower end of the Achille’s tendon). They should fit the boot snugly. The spur should stay in position when the spur straps are properly adjusted.

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Gavin Ehringer is an award-winning equestrian writer and author of six books. He has over 20 years of experience writing news, sports, and features for national magazines like Horse & Rider and Cowboys & Indians. He lives in Langley, Washington, where he is working on his seventh title, Coming to the Fire: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Horses & Cows.

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