The use of spurs is a time-honored tradition in the horse world. They have evolved into works of art complete with beautiful metalwork for the eye to behold and sporting jingle-bobs and long heels chains that create a rhythmic sound for the horse to hook onto. Something of a culture has developed around them and they surely mark you as a horseman when you’ve got a pair strapped to your boots so some folks aren’t going to like to read this one. Traditions are hard to shed, coming equipped as they are with knee-jerk emotional attachments and reasons why learned by rote from a young age. Spurs can be a touchy subject, but most especially if you’re the horse in the equation.
I used to defend their use for lateral work but no longer. The last time I did that was some years ago at a clinic on the East Coast, “The only time I use them is for lateral work on a really advanced horse, as an aid for refining my signals, never for forward.” It was intended to be an enlightened message but coming from a guy who aspires to a level of horse-human communication where thoughts become actions, the words sounded lame in my ears. Adding an aid to refine a signal? Was I not adding a distraction? Did a horse who was supposedly so far along really need such a “pointed” reminder?
When I have big questions such as these I have learned to ask those who know best—the horses. I have yet to see one who looks like he would prefer cold steel to the soft touch of a rider’s calf against his rib cage. Neither have I seen one who would rather be goaded into movement rather than to follow an opening presented by his rider.
I have seen switching tails and laid back ears. I’ve seen girths and flanks drum tight. Even in its mildest incarnation, a horse’s opinion of being spurred commonly comes in the form of held-in breath and irritation. I’ve witnessed spurs on the heels of those whose skills are not adequate and whose tempers are unfiltered–it hurts to watch. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a horse’s attention on his rider’s spurs draw his focus from out where he is going to back to his ribcage which has just received a message in metal. Put yourself in your horse’s shoes if you don’t believe me; have someone stand behind you and administer random pokes to your ribs. See where your focus goes…
What, you may ask, about a horse that doesn’t flow into the opening you provide, one who seems to need a little goading? Go back and take a hard look at your foundation. Moving forward at your suggestion and flowing along where your legs ride him are two of the most basic building blocks in a horse’s relationship with his rider. I’m working on, and getting, these two things from the very first ride on a colt. Let me refine that particular verbal aid; these ARE THE TWO MOST BASIC building blocks of your riding relationship with your horse. If you are working on more advanced procedures while still struggling there, you are getting way ahead of yourself. You are not done thinking about it yet and your approach is what needs to be refined.
Ask yourself these questions:
1) From a standstill, can I bring my energy up, look forward and have my horse move off with an energy level equal to mine?
2) Can I roll my inside calf back and my outside calf off my horse’s rib cage and have him move his hind quarters to stay centered between my legs?
3) If I roll my knee off in the direction of a turn does his shoulder flow into the space I’ve created?
If you’ve answered no to any of these questions, your foundation is not sitting on bedrock.
You may have a long road ahead of you, especially if you are working with an older horse. You may have to offer softness many, many times in many different ways before your horse will take you up on it. But if you circumvent the process with spurs you will never get the lightness that is waiting inside every horse. What you get through goading will always be less than what you could have achieved by earning his cooperation. And you won’t learn how for the next horse.
If you can give an honest yes to all three, what do you need spurs for? To look good? When I was a young ranch hand I wore my spurs everywhere. They were a badge of honor. I could keep a horse’s tail switching all day long. Over the years I still wore them but used them less and less and the horses I rode looked better and better. I haven’t put them on in years now and my horses are accomplishing even more and are happier doing it. I wonder where I could be if I had thought about it from the horse’s point of view back when I was starting out.
My spurs are on display on a shelf in my living room. They look good there. In this way I am honoring the tradition. More importantly, by keeping them there I am honoring the horse.