THE LANGUAGE OF SPURS
By Richard E. “Rick” Dennis CPP
Freelance Writer and Author
Professional Reined Cow Horse Trainer
Monday, December 28, 2020
Copyright December 2020, All Rights Reserved
HISTORY OF SPURS
It is thought, the earliest spurs were probably made from bone or wood. The spur or (point); as it was referred to back then, was used by the Celts during the La Tene period (which began in the 5th century B.C.). Iron or bronze spurs were also used throughout the Roman Empire based on archaeological finds in England, left by the Roman Legions of Julius Caesar.
Prick or (point) spurs had straight necks in the 11th century and bent ones in the 12th. The earliest form of the spur armed the heel with a single prick or (point). In England, the rowel spur - is shown upon the first seal of Henry III and on monuments of the 13th century, but it did not come into general use until the 14th century.
History has taught us: The first recorded metal examples were simple bronze spurs found in Etruscan tombs from the 2nd Century B.C., others from that time period have been found at Roman sites in Britain. Gradually, they changed in shape, developing plates that stopped the spike; (point or prick), from penetrating the horses’ sides, or taking on a ball and spike form (as seen in the Bayeux tapestry) that had the same function. Eventually, a pyramid or conical shaped goad developed.
Again, history teaches us: Spur rowels originated in France or Spain in the 10th Century A.D., they are first recorded in Britain in Henry III’s reign – two seals from 1240 depict the King – on one he wears prick or (point) spurs, and on the other rowelled spurs.
In the following centuries spurs became associated with rank and chivalry. We speak of “earning ones spurs” – a disgraced knight would have his spurs and sword broken as part of his punishment. A Knight would wear gold or gilt spurs and a esquire silver. Through time and memorial, riding spurs have developed into the basic or plain spur, with some being embroidered with fine art; silver and gold, and in some cases custom made to a riders request and monetary ambitions. All-in-all, spurs are a tool to train equines, providing reinforcement when necessary to heighten the horses awareness to subtle leg cues, during training.
LEARNING TO RIDE WITH LEG CUES AND SPURS
A lot of adjustments, to an individuals riding style have to be made - before one takes on the responsibility of using spurs, during a training session. A rider has to have a steady leg and a proper seat in the saddle. The rider has to learn to cue the horse with the heel of the boot in the same manner the rider would, if he or she were using spurs. The rider should learn to relax and allow the leg to drape softly along side the horses side with the foot and boot parallel with the horse. At all times, the riders toes should be up and the heels down.
A proper seat in the saddle requires the adjustment of the riders stirrups, until there’s a slight bend in the knee which allows the rider to fill the stirrups with the ball of the riders foot in a comfortable position. Learning to ride on the ball of the foot is the proper riding style. If a riders leg adjustment is too long the rider will find his or herself bouncing uncomfortably in the saddle. When the stirrups are adjusted properly the rider can use the ball of their foot to provide the leg with stability while in the saddle which offers a more comfortable ride, and a virtually motionless leg, and less bouncing.
The goal of this riding style is: 1) To develop a proper riding style, and 2) the rider should become one with the horse, relaxed, and allow his or her lower body; from t he waste down, to move with the motion of the horse in a graceful rhythmic movement, while the riders back stays straight and erect.
With an improper riding style, English and Western Riders - alike, tend to squeeze in with their knees instead of their calves. This positions the riders toes down and heels up. When this happens, the unsteady leg positions the riders spurs up instead of slightly down - which can cause the spurs to inadvertently strike the horse. According to Ursula Morgan; a Scottish International Show Jumping Rider, Professional Show Jumping Trainer, and Judge - she uses this technique to determine the proper stirrup length for a rider in an English saddle.
Prior to mounting the horse, the rider stands on the ground next to the horse and places the stirrup to a length where the bottom of the stirrup can be placed under the riders arm pit and the riders fist; at the end of riders extended arm contacts the top of the stirrup leather where the buckle joins the saddle. In simple terms, the stirrup leather is the length of the riders arm. This technique can also be used to adjust Western stirrup lengths.
SPUR ROWEL’S FOR A SPECIFIC EQUINE DISCIPLINE
Primarily, Western spur development was heavily influenced by European, Spanish, Latin American, and Mexican spur designers – as were the types, designs, and diameters of rowels used. The Pampas Gauchos and the California Vaqueros’ as well as the old style Spanish training methods greatly influenced spur making, and training aids such as: The Snaffle Bit, Bosal, Two Rein, and Spade Bit. Today in North America, spurs and rowels are designed for a specific riding discipline, e.g.; Western and English.
In Wester disciplines, each trainer seems to have a specific type of spur rowell he or she likes to use during training. Reined Cow Horse trainers, use one rowel style, while Ropers, Team Sorters, Team Penners, Western Riders, Reiners, and Cutters use another rowel style. English trainers like-to use a simple push on spur with a metal ball attached to the shank. I use two types of spur rowel’s. A training rowell which has 8 to 12 flat points and a finishing rowel with sharp rowel points commonly referred to as a Star Burst or Rock Grinder. With the Star Burst, I use it to brighten up a finished horse before I show em, because it only takes a touch to let a horse know it’s out of position. I like a 3 to 4 inch shank on my spurs for training and a 2 inch shank for showing - which prevents me from accidentally flanking my horse while performing high speed maneuvers, required in the Reined Cow Horse discipline.
The spur body is made of metal and the spur rowel is also made of metal; preferably steel. The rowel is held in place on the spur shank by means of a metal pin which is pressed through the rowel and the spur shank. In Western Riding, the spur body is affixed to the heel of the boot, atop the boot heels spur ridge, and held in place by a pair of spur straps. Leather spur straps can be as fashionable as the embroidered spur itself. Since all Western Boot manufacturers have different size heel bulbs it’s imperative to use the correct size spur.
English spurs are also made of metal, and affixed to the heel of the boot and is made such, that the spur is held in place on the boot by a manufacturers design. This design is usually referred to as press-on spurs. As the spur is pressed in place, by the rider, the spur expands and grips the boot heel by squeezing the leather.
SPUR DESIGNS AND ROWELS FOR ENGLISH AND WESTERN DISCIPLINES
Spurs and spur rowel’s, for Wester disciplines, are manufactured in all sizes and shapes. The spurs with the more flat points are the less severe. The spurs with the smallest rowels and sharper points are the most severe. If you stay with a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inch rowel you should be fine. For example, rowel’s suitable for training include: 12 points, 10 points, 9 points, 8 points, etc. Again, the purpose of the rowel is to provide a stimulus to a horse in order to coax your horse to move off of leg cue pressure when you leg cue, by itself, simply isn’t enough to produce a response from the horse.
Always remember: A spur isn’t a training aid to punish a horse for its failure to respond to leg leg cues, during training. If a spur is used with enough force the rowel can cause severe injury to a horse’s ribs and muscle tissue. Punishing a horse with spurs will only produce an animal that becomes scared, rebellious, and shy away from the riders leg cues each time a rider mounts the horse for training with a pair of spurs on. The RULE OF THUMB: Never stick or kick a horse with a spur rowel. Always apply ample leg pressure with the spur rowel, sufficient to a receive a positive response from the horse.
A simple rule of explanation can be explained by the following demonstration. Take your index finger and put it on a persons rib cage and push in. With enough force the individual will move off of you finger cue. The same applies when training a horse to respond to leg cues. In the event leg pressure doesn’t produce a desired reaction, from the horse, one technique I use is to just roll the spur up and down the horses ribs to offer the horse a new feel.
Remember, buying a pair of spurs is a big choice–and a big responsibility. The number of available options can be overwhelming, especially when you are just getting started. While spurs can be a useful riding aid, they can also be harmful if you don’t use them properly. Spurs are designed to be used to back up your leg cues to remind the horse to react to a light leg aid - pressure . If your leg moves backwards and forwards, during riding, your uncontrolled leg will catch/press the spurs into your horses side every stride, which as I am sure you will agree is not the desired affect of spurs. This action can produce an adverse riding experience, and in some cases the rider is bucked off violently caused by - flanking the horse unexpectedly.
Spur designs are as individual as buying an automobile. Each person has their own special tastes. One rule to remember is: When picking a set of spurs and rowel’s, make sure the metal is strong enough to withstand years of use. With spurs, cheaper isn’t always better. Buy the best spurs you can afford. I’m still using the same Tom Balding Spurs, I bought in 1995. I wear out a lot of rowels, but I just send them back to the manufacturer and they replace them.
“UNTIL NEXT TIME, KEEP EM BETWEEN THE BRIDLE!”